Many years ago, I was helping to raise money for our latest round of funding at a Silicon Valley hearing device start-up. I was visiting potential customers to get their opinion on our product idea and was joined by a venture capitalist (VC) who was considering investing several millions of dollars into the company and leading the investment round. Before his firm invested, however, he wanted to be sure that there was a market for this product and that people were excited about it—hence the visits to potential customers to get their opinions on the business idea.
In those meetings, I presented a slide deck that our exec team had put together to explain the company’s business plan and product concept, along with data that we had collected to support the product benefit for people with hearing loss. On one day, we visited a busy audiologist at her clinic, where she generously gave us an hour to talk about the technology, with the VC there to observe how the clinician responded to the idea. The next day, we visited a prominent research audiologist at a busy university clinic who also gave us an hour of his time for us to go through the same slides, the VC again listening to how the product idea was received.
At the end of that week, I met with the VC to discuss what his thoughts were on investing in our company. He was enthusiastic about the responses we had received–thankfully–but he pointed out something that I still remember today. He told me how he was surprised that I used very different language and emphasized different points when I talked to the clinical audiologist compared to when I talked to the research audiologist. He was used to seeing people give the same presentation, sometimes verbatim, over and over again regardless of who the audience was, and he was complimenting me on how I adjusted my talk track to the audience. When talking to the clinician, I emphasized patient benefit, practical integration of the device into clinical practice, and how the product would benefit clinical services overall. To the researcher, I used the same slides but emphasized the details of the patient data we had collected, how the results compared to those of other published studies, and the scientific basis behind the technology design. Why I was surprised by the VC’s comment was that, to me, I was simply having a natural conversation in each meeting and focused on who I was talking to, and I was not reciting a script each time. I realised then how important—and how unusual—it is to tailor presentations and conversations to each audience’s interests.
Soon after, I experienced an extreme example of not tailoring the narrative to the audience at all. I was with the executive team and we were pitching our business plan to VCs at probably the 50th VC office that we’d been to in two months. We typically have an hour for these meetings, but this time the VC began by apologising and saying that he only had 20 minutes, so could we please jump to the main points that he needed to know. My colleague, who led the first part of the presentation in these sessions, proceeded to start at the beginning of our deck with the exact same talk track that we had used in countless other hour-long pitches. He spent the first 10 minutes going over the executive team’s experience, then switched to explain the global statistics of hearing loss, until the VC apologised for having to leave, got up and left us alone in his firm’s conference room not even halfway through the deck and our pitch. We hadn’t even gotten to the description of the product we had developed.
I am reminded of these events because we are launching a communications development training program at the National Acoustic Laboratories for NAL researchers. With practice at conferences and meetings, most researchers are good at communicating their work to other researchers knowledgeable in their field, but many of those researchers are not trained to communicate well to people who don’t have domain knowledge in their field of expertise. Worse, most researchers are not trained at all on how to communicate to non-researchers, who are typically only interested in what problem is being solved and what the benefit is rather than the details of the protocols or data. Learning to tailor one’s “talk track” is important in non-academic environments where one must convey one’s work to people with varied backgrounds, expertise and interest.
Here are 3 tips for getting better at communicating your work to different audiences.
- Know your content deeply. Know what you want to say well enough that you don’t rely on a script or even on slides to talk about it. If you really understand your content, you should be able to adjust how you talk about it from very high-level to very deep in the details, depending on the audience. Memorize details so that you can use them when necessary, don’t memorize exactly what you will say.
- Know your audience’s interests. Know who your audience is well enough that you can guess what their interests are. If you are invited to give a talk, ask about the expertise of the people who will be in the audience. If you are talking to one person or a small group, find out what their background and expertise is. Someone with an IT background will be interested in very different details about technology than someone with a medical background. If you are talking to a reporter or media, ask who their audience is and what their story is for.
- Know when to adapt. Adjust your talk track as necessary in situ. Particularly with small audiences, you should be noticing what parts of what you are saying is interesting to them and what isn’t. Pay attention and don’t just march through your speech regardless of the response. If their questions are mainly on certain areas, spend more focus on that area. Which, of course, requires that you have conquered tip #1 and know your content well enough that you can pick and choose what information to share.