How to simplify, clarify your content and engage your audiences

ladderIt is a challenge isn’t it?  When you know your subject inside out but you are speaking to people who may not know as much as you, or may even know more than you: people who are interested in what you say or people who are there because they have been told to be there.  This is what I call a ‘Mixed Audience’ – a variety of ‘entry level’ knowledge, interest and intelligence.  How do you weave a path that is simple without being simplistic, clear without being patronising and engaging enough to capture people’s attention and then keep them listening throughout and beyond?

Here are some thoughts about where to pitch your presentation for your Mixed Audiences based on The Ladder of Abstraction, a concept created by the American linguist SI Hayakawa.  This concept describes the way humans think and communicate in varying degrees of abstraction.  My thoughts are also drawn from an excellent article by Andrew Dlugan, author of Six Minute Blog (well worth a read by the way)

Imagine a ladder.  The feet of the ladder are based on firmly on the ground.  This represents things that are concrete – a glass of milk, my dog Sally, a telephone ringing, fresh flowers picked from your garden, a hug  from your child.  The top of the ladder reaches up to the sky. This represents things that are abstract concepts – truth, making a difference, wealth, confidence, democracy, freedom.  And the middle of the ladder is…well, the middle – things that are neither concrete or abstract – transport, employee engagement, educational institutions, environment.

If you want to be clear, persuasive and understood in an audiences, then you need to climb up and down the ladder.  If you only stay at one end of the ladder (top or bottom) you risk presenting an unbalanced presentation that either overwhelms the listeners or bores them senseless.  We have all heard the manager who shares data, statistics and detail but forgets to explain what it all means and the implications (stays only at the bottom). Or the trainer who explains the theories behind a skill but doesn’t support them with practical examples (stays only at the top)

So to climb down the ladder you can :

  • use examples
  • use the senses
  • be specific
  • use stories
  • use data and statistics
  • use photos
  • and ask the ‘how’ questions

And to climb up the ladder you can :

  • answer the ‘why’ question
  • give a big picture
  • reveal patterns and relationships
  • use charts
  • draw diagrams and models
  • draw inferences
  • reveal the lesson/moral
  • explain the principle
  • appeal to shared ideas.

Where do you usually speak from  – the top or the bottom of the ladder? How can you move up and down to make it simpler and more understandable for your listeners at different levels. Let me know your thoughts on this one and how you can apply this to your own presentations.  And make sure you sign up for Speech Bubbles, weekly inspiration for your presentations.

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