Select the right words. Say them well.

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When you are watching someone deliver a presentation, a political convention speech or appear in the media, can you tell what’s going on inside their head? I would submit you can, and you probably don’t even think about it in most situations. Instead your feelings or impressions come out in comments like, “That really worked,” or “I just couldn’t connect with them.” In this edition of The Monthly Memo we’ll look at one of the easiest ways you can get a positive reaction.

Everything we’ll be talking about here will center around one idea: What do you think of the audience you are speaking to? If, for example, you watch one of the keynote speakers at the national political conventions this week or next, what do these speakers really think of the people they are addressing? I often talk about the fact that the most successful communicators ALWAYS know their audience very well before they speak. But this goes beyond knowing your audience. You could know your audience very well and still miss your mark by a mile! I will begin the explanation by telling the story of an interaction I had recently with a well-respected New York PR Executive.

We were on a conference call with another person, a spokesperson I was training for some high profile media interaction. The PR person was trying to get our spokesperson to be more relatable in the comments they were making. (As is often the case, the spokesperson was very bright, but was having trouble presenting ideas in easily understood answers.)

My PR colleague decided to offer some advice to help our spokesperson. “Why don’t you think of the audience for this interview as a group of fourth graders? If you do, you’ll start to speak in a way everyone will be able to understand!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this counsel offered — and every single time it is dead wrong! (Unless of course you ARE talking to a group of fourth graders!)

When we start to think of a normal, adult audience as “a group of fourth graders” it starts to ooze out of every pore! Have you ever felt “talked down to” by a speaker? Have you ever seen the person at the front of the room lose the audience because they have put themselves in a higher place? How about the time the speaker makes simplistic jokes to “warm up” the audience? Bingo!

Coming from a better place: The much more appropriate advice, in my opinion, comes from a very different place. Your audience is actually very bright — certainly smart enough to get your message if you deliver it well — however, they have their own lives to worry about. They are intelligent but distracted. You, as the communicator, need to reach them in a way that makes this message clear without making them work too hard along the way.

Do you see the difference? Yes, you have to make your message clear — sometimes simplifying it or eliminating some of the details — but you should do it for the right reasons. If you start by thinking, “Oh, they’re just not smart enough to understand me,” you are headed down a very wrong road!

Next Month: What to say when you are “at a loss for words.”