When you're way over your audience's heads

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I witnessed a case of a talk going way over the audience's head recently at a local event. It was a technical talk, but I've seen this happen with other topics as well.

Often things like this can be avoided by checking who your audience is in advance (if in doubt, ask the organisers). In this case, the audience was foreseeably mixed and it was pretty much impossible to know in advance which way the audience would skew on that particular evening, i.e. whether there would be more technical or more non-technical people in attendance. Also, the talk was very much on-topic for the event.

A few slides in, it was clear - even to the presenter - that he'd already lost a good portion of the audience. To his credit, the speaker realised this and then did try and explain things in simpler terms after each step, i.e. he went through his prepared slides and after each section summarised and explained what this was all about and what the benefits are.

That's not a bad approach, actually, but it wasn't enough for this particular audience, as live comments on Twitter confirmed. It was clear that still too many people were at a loss.

The speaker was obviously very familiar with the topic and also interested in helping his audience understand what this was all about and why he was so passionate about it. So I think he wouldn't have had a problem with a more radical change in approach: To abandon the prepared slides.

I think what prevented him from doing this was a couple of "cool" features that he was eager to show. So the idea for the talk was probably to explain what this software does and why it's useful and then "wow" the audience with a few unusual or surprising things it can also do. But getting the audience up to speed, i.e. up to the level where they could appreciate these features didn't work. It didn't occur to the speaker that maybe it would have been a better idea to abandon these extras and concentrate on getting the audience to understand and appreciate the basic features instead.

Now, all this is easier said then done, especially as I'm playing the arm-chair critic here while he was up there in front of the audience, sweating.

First of all, kudos to the speaker for even recognising the problem; many speakers don't. I've seen this way too often: the speaker keeps going on and on with his or her prepared slides, even after they have long lost the audience. Such a talk is a complete waste of everybody's time.

Ask your audience

So what can you do if you end up in such a situation? First of all, ask your audience. "Am I going to fast?" may not be enough, though. Acknowledge that you recognised that the audience can't keep up and ask concrete questions about things you've just explained. Also notice who responds to those questions - there are usually a few people in the audience who will get it (maybe they're already familiar with the topic). Are those in the majority? What about the people who do not respond? Try asking one of those directly. Getting one of them to admit that they don't know what you're talking about will usually get others to admit the same thing; and then you'll get a better idea of the percentage of people who did and did not get it.

Change your approach

Okay, so now you know that you have a problem. How do you proceed? Go through your slides in your mind. What did you have planned? What could you abandon and replace with more basic information instead? If you happen to have a more basic talk about the same topic, you could switch slide decks now (if the setup allows it). You're in an emergency situation, so the usual tips on not showing your laptop's desktop etc. don't apply. But only do this if you can make the switch easily.

If you can't make the switch, see if you can explain things on a whiteboard or flip chart. It's a good idea to check for the availability of such before your talk anyway, in case you run into technical problems and can't use your slides. A few simple drawings can make all the difference, especially since you can explain what's happening as you draw them. Don't forget to switch off the projector in the meantime (do you know about the 'B' key in most slideware apps?), or at least switch to a generic slide.

Once your audience has a better understanding of your topic, you can consider switching back to your prepared presentation. Obviously, you would have to continue at a slower pace and skip the more advanced or "cool" topics. Alternatively, it may be a good idea to start with the questions earlier (and maybe one of them touches on a topic that you've prepared).

In Summary

Usually, this sort of situation can be avoided by learning about your audience before you begin preparing the talk. If you do end up in a situation where your audience can't keep up, it's more important to help them understand than trying to cram the prepared content down their throats. This won't help them and it won't help your cause or your reputation either.

Don't be afraid of improvising. It's more important now to help your audience understand than to give a smooth presentation. In fact, they will likely appreciate that you took the extra effort and showed that you cared about them.

(Photo Credit: Boeing 747 by lilivanili, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "When you're way over your audience's heads" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.