In a novel I read over the holidays, a woman was on tenterhooks, wondering if the man she’d been seeing had decided to end the relationship. He embarked on a long monologue about how inadequate he felt not working and how he’d been offered a job in another city and, although it wasn’t exactly what he’d thought he wanted, it might be a great opportunity for him. She sat there tensely, waiting for the axe to fall but not wanting to hasten it by interrupting him. He was disappointed by her lack of support as he poured his heart out and began to doubt whether asking her to move away with him was a good idea after all.
Such are the dangers of poor communication. This couple came within a splinter of breaking up over a misunderstanding and, having experienced the woman’s anxiety with her, I reflected how situations like this are occurring all over the world every day – as much in business and other organisations as in our private lives.
Whenever you’re preparing a speech or presentation (a monologue by another name), it’s essential to consider what questions are at the forefront of your audience’s minds, then plan the most effective way to tackle those questions. If you’re nervous about speaking in public, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the people you’re going to be talking to are people, like you and me. They have expectations of what you’re going to say and, if they’re worried about any aspect of it, that will filter their experience of your talk.
I went through similar vicarious apprehension as I listened to a client’s 15-minute address to the workforce at his factory. He discussed the financial problems the company was facing and put those problems into national and international context, then he praised the employees for their hard work and thanked them for their loyalty and dedication. Only at the end of his speech did he get round to saying that, because they’d all made such an effort, productivity had risen and, in spite of the aforementioned economic problems, the factory was making a profit and might even expand.
Luckily, it was a rehearsal I was listening to. When I asked him why he’d chosen to withhold the good news until practically the last line, my client told me he wanted the workforce to listen to everything he had to say and if he answered their burning question straightaway they’d be likely to tune out the rest of the talk.
It doesn’t work like that. If people believe you’re about to announce redundancies, propose a major relocation, make radical changes to an established system or tell them anything else that will have a significant impact on their lives, the question mark looms too large for them, it takes up too much space in their minds; they are unable to put it to one side and calmly take in what you say as you paint an elaborate canvas before putting your audience in the picture.
Answer the big, barrier questions at the beginning. Bad news only gets worse the longer you put off making it official, while good news can be spoilt by being postponed, so that the audience assumes the worst and resigns itself.
I understand where my client was coming from. As every good storyteller knows, if properly used, suspense adds drama and draws the listeners in, so that they’re hanging on every word. This is a great way to get your message across, but it works only when your audience feels sufficiently secure to be able to enjoy the ride. If all they care about is the destination, you need to get straight to the bottom line.