Patience, they say, is a virtue.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, the people in the audience (or at least some of them) just don’t get it. They do not understand the point that the speaker is trying to make. They ask questions that the speaker thought had been answered in the presentation.

For a speaker, this can be frustrating. He has — I would hope — put some effort into making the presentation as clear, compelling and relevant as possible. How can the audience possibly not understand?!

Often, it has to do with the “curse of knowledge”. A while back, I wrote a seven-part series based on the book, Made to Stick. In an interview with Guy Kawasaki, the authors of the book, Chip and Dan Heath, explain the curse of knowledge:

People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.”

And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.

It’s a critical point to remember when preparing a speech or presentation. But this post is not about making your message understood. For that, I encourage you to read the series that I wrote or to pick up a copy of the Heath’s book. What if the message does not stick?

At such times, a speaker must, above all, have patience with his audience.

If the audience does not understand a concept, the speaker must try to find another way to explain it. Perhaps the audience needs a simpler example; the speaker must endeavour to come up with one. If the audience asks the same question 10 times, the speaker must answer that question — sincerely and with a smile — 10 times. If all else fails, the speaker should make himself available for further discussion after the talk and/or follow up by providing material or references that might help the audience.

A speech or presentation is always about the audience, never about the speaker. If the audience doesn’t understand, it is the speaker’s responsibility to remedy the situation. With patience and good humour.

To conclude this post, I would like you to watch this wonderful five-minute Greek movie entitled, “What is that?” (“τι είναι αυτό” in Greek). I first saw it a couple of years ago.

It’s a simple story, expressed elegantly and with emotion, that conveys a powerful lesson for everyone. For me, there is more meaning packed into this film than there is in many of the two-hour movies currently playing in our cinemas.

And the theme fits well with the theme of this post. I hope you enjoy it.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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4 Responses to Patience

  1. Pingback: Lessons in Simplicity from Apple’s Former Ad Agency Creative Director | Manner of Speaking

  2. Pingback: 8 Tips from Kurt Vonnegut to Make You a Better Speaker | Manner of Speaking

  3. Harry W Arp says:

    Once again a great post, John. Thank you.

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