How to be an Excellent Communicator — You Only Need 3 Axioms
It is hard to imagine a career today where communication skills are not important. Whether a person is working in retail, transport, education, healthcare or a myriad of other sectors most position descriptions will name communication skills as a necessary attribute. Given how wide spread this requirement is, it’s startling that education systems across the world pay little or no attention to developing these skills.
Where there are courses or programs to ‘upskill’ people, they typically fail to teach communication in the same way we teach mathematics or English — that is the essential building blocks are not provided and the ‘architecture’ of communication remains opaque. Instead, people are taught ‘applications’. For example there are programs that teach ‘how to talk to the media’. Although these courses can be helpful, they don’t provide the core communication attributes that people need. You can teach a person all the rules required to talk to the media effectively but if a person is a bad communicator in general this media specific knowledge will be of little value. These programs teach people applications of skills before the core skills themselves are known.
I’ve been teaching communications skills to a variety of audiences now for almost three decades. In recent years, I have focussed more on promoting a set of communications axioms that, once understood, provide participants with the architecture for being good communicators. Developing these axioms I wanted something that was relevant regardless of whether somebody was giving a speech, writing an application, or engaging in any other form of communication. I have found these tools to be of particular use for people in fields where there are strong expectations for public engagement or where formal presentations are commonplace.
The three axioms I use in all my communication workshops are:
To help clarify the meaning of these axioms I want to talk about them in the context of how they would work for a person giving a PowerPoint presentation in front of an audience. I have yet to meet somebody who has not been to a bad example of this form of communication and most people struggle to name a good presentation they have experienced.
The first axiom — Purpose — is critical to determining both the motivation of the presenter but also to the structure of the presentation given. For any talk, the speaker should be able to tell you why they are actually giving the presentation. What is the goal of the presentation? By what measure will we actually determine if it was a success? The idea that the volume of the applause can measure this is limited at best. Good presentations connect to specific people. Good presentations shift the thinking of those in the audience. Good presentations enable an audience to leave with more knowledge (not just facts) than they arrived. The more specific we can be about our purpose the more we can tailor our messages and overall narrative to help us achieve our goals.
The purpose can be many things ranging from forming new collaborations to promoting a new innovative product or way of thinking. The more specific we can be about the purpose of our communication the better we can be at reaching our intended goals. Sometimes our purpose can be to impress a single individual, or it could be to educate an entire audience or perhaps even to impart a small amount of the speaker’s passion for a topic on those listening.
The process of sitting down and actually articulating the purpose of our presentations can be a valuable one. It’s rare that people do this but in my experience it always helps us to sharpen up our narrative and the way in which we will be delivering our knowledge. It can be hard to do — but writing down the purpose of any given form of communication in just 1–2 sentences is well worth the effort.
I suspect that every single communications-training program in the world will tell you that the audience is important — that you have to care about them, that you should pay attention to them. It’s hard to argue with this advice. However, what we really need here is some axiomatic advice that helps us understand the overall architecture of good communication. So let us get into the detail.
When I talk about ‘The Audience’ what I really want people to think about is the overall ‘dance’ that occurs between a good speaker and their audience. Good presentations are more conversations in reality and to have a good two-way interaction you need to consider a number of factors. Firstly, it’s very important that we know as much as possible about the people before us. Who is our audience? What background knowledge do they have? Why are they even in the room? What experiences do they have that we can utilise as part of our narrative to connect them to us more deliberately?
Ultimately, I want to get inside the head of my audience. I want to know how they will be thinking at any time during my presentation. I want to be the conductor of the direction their consciousness takes them when I am speaking. As a speaker, I want to choreograph the way the audience sees me. I know that there are many factors involved in this. For example, if I walk onto the stage unsure of myself the audience will view me in a very specific way. I affect the audience’s expectations of me if I don’t seem to have properly prepared or of I don’t seem to understand the technology I am using. At a recent workshop I ran for the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre I started by saying “I’m sorry if these slides are a little unfocussed but I had a late night last night and didn’t have time to finish them”. I then waited for the concerned looks on faces before I explained to them how we can set the tone very early on in our presentations.
One point I find very interesting is that all people judge movies, books and music very rapidly. If I play music for you the time required for you to like or dislike it will be about 10 seconds or less. For movies people will make up their mind within minutes and similarly books can be ditched after just a few pages. Yet when we prepare presentations, we pay little attention to our first impressions — instead we often have expectations that people will judge us on the entire performance. It would be nice if this were the way our audience actually worked, but in reality, people make determinations with high speed regardless of the setting. The best part is — this learned subconscious evaluation is typically very accurate. If a speaker makes you wish you could poke out your own eye in the first 2 minutes, the chances of them miraculously improving over the next hour are …well…..good luck with that! The audience axiom is as much about setting expectations as it is about knowing who is in the room. If you start weak, you will have an uphill climb from a dark place.
Going even further I want to be able to ‘conduct’ my audience — I want to control where they look, what they see, what they read and what they focus on. This is where the effective use of slides is crucial to giving good presentations. For some speakers, the slides support the speakers, but for the majority of speakers it is the speakers who are supporting the slides. In fact some speakers are little more than walking talking ‘clickers’.
The issue of text on slides for me is of deep concern. Let’s look at this for a moment from the perspective of a single audience member. When a slide with a lot of text goes up on the screen, the audience member will look away from the speaker and focus on the slide. They will begin reading the slide. Because humans are rather poor at multitasking, there will be an annoying and distracting noise in the background (ohh…that’s the speaker). The audience member will always read the slide text before the speaker gets through it and then the poor audience member must sit there and wait for the human clicker to turn the page. This is particularly problematic where dinner is served at presentations because people may be tempted to poke their own eyes out with the fork due to boredom. The mindset that an audience member will be happy to be red to is simply erroneous.
The way an audience interacts with slides can be readily demonstrated by the use of a ‘black’ or ‘blank’ slide. When such a slide is put up the audience’s gaze will almost immediately move to the speaker. I train people to use this technique to help them make specific points or to refocus the audience on the speaker rather than the slides. My recommendation is for at least 15–20% of any slide deck to made up of black slides and for these to be strategically placed in the narrative.
A good speaker will also be sure to both acknowledge and utilise knowledge in the audience. The real question is how to go about gathering this information. When I present I make a point of talking to audience members about why they have come to my presentation. This will often yield valuable motivational information about the audience that I can use. In addition, it can be helpful to ask questions of the audience during the presentation that engage the audience in some way. Audience members will often have experiences or knowledge that exceed the speaker in some way. I’m often quite amazed by how much I actually learn from my audience when I’m supposed to be doing the education. And guess what? The more I learn the more the audience feels engaged and valued.
A presentation always needs to be ‘for the audience’ not for the speaker. The audience will judge you on how you stand, where you stand, how you walk, what you wear, how clearly you speak, whether you stick to time, how well you utilise your slides, whether you are passionate, whether you engage them, your confidence, your level of respect for them, and how you utilise the space you are given.
And for those of you who have a tendency to ‘re-use’ presentations for different audiences — this is a double edged sword from which you will always get cut. Either you can do this because your talk is so broad it doesn’t really touch any audience or you are using a presentations specifically designed for one audience which will just piss every other audience off. It’s fine to re-use concepts and components — but we must re-examine the purpose and audience every time we speak.
The final communications axiom that I teach is memory. A question I like to ask, especially with research audiences, is whether they can name three of the presentations they saw at a conference just a few days, weeks or months ago. Typically, nobody responds to this. However, if I ask the same group to name three advertisements they saw on television 20–30 years ago then every hand in the room will go up. What on Earth is going on here? Why are we remembering this useless information from our past and yet we cannot recall important material from days or weeks ago.
Of course, it is the job of good marketing companies to make sure that we remember information about products that their clients are selling. In some cases, we can retain quite complex information like phone numbers and addresses as a result of advertisements we saw years ago. I find it fascinating how much of my memory can be taking up by such useless information that I really try to forget.
When we give a presentation, it is critical that we are deliberate about what we want our audience to remember. We need to determine what information we want retained and then we need mechanisms for making sure that the audience actually remembers these items. It is most unusual for people to think about this structurally when preparing presentations (or other forms of communication).
One of the common questions that I get when I am running workshops on communications is ‘how many things can I get people to remember”. Part of the way I answer this question to demonstrate to people that in a 3–4 hour workshop I am thrilled if they walk away with my three communications axioms burned into their brains. The reality here is that people will rarely remember more than 2–3 key items. Of course, this is highly dependent on the type of information we are trying to get people to remember. Humans are great at remembering narratives, but poor at remembering facts. We also need information to be ‘glued’ into our memory. To do this a speaker needs to use specific tools. For example, one way to be sure an item is remembered is to literally tell people on numerous occasions during a talk that you want them to focus on it and remember it. Deliberate acts like this can be very powerful. It’s also helpful to link information to the experience of the audience — make it relevant to them in a way that they benefit if they recall it.
Sometimes animations, videos, or amazing diagrams can help us remember. We tend to be also good at remembering emotionally potent stories. We remember things that surprise us. Some twenty years ago, I was at a plenary talk at a physics conference when the speaker mentioned that Napoleon’s coffin was draped with crude glass optical fibres to make it shimmer in the sunlight. I have no idea if this is true but two decades later I recall this — sadly it’s the only part of his presentation I recall. He had one memory aid — and it worked beautifully on me.
We need to stop and think about what we want people to remember and at what points in our presentation we will actively work to achieve that goal. This takes detailed thought and I normally recommend people just work on one item in the first instance and then build from there in subsequent presentations. It’s not enough to be a good presenter — you need to consider what you are presenting otherwise they will remember you but not your message. I have been to many presentations where I was thoroughly entertained but didn’t remember anything the next day. We see the same effect with action movies today where a cookie cutter approach has led to fun experiences that we forget before the credits have finished rolling. Films achieve ‘classic’ status because people remember them and they influence our culture. Presentations need to be the same.
The need for more axioms
On occasion when I have been teaching, participants will suggest additional axioms. I often spend days thinking about the validity of these but in almost 10 years I have not managed to be satisfied with more than three. Comically this reminds me of how companies sell disposable shavers — years ago somebody had the idea of adding a second razor blade to these. Today I think at last count they have five blades. I have this funny image in my head that by 2030 these shavers will have like 40 blades — 37 of which will be redundant nonsense. The same is true of communication axioms.
The main reason I have rejected additional axioms is that either they seem to sit with the speaker specifically or they are reductive from the first three. A good example of this is the issue of being nervous. Most people feel nervous before and/or during a presentation. When guests arrive at my radio station and tell me they are nervous I try to look excited and say, “great, that means you care”. However, dealing with nerves for me is not an axiom of good communication on its own — it’s part of the Audience axiom related to how we are judged by our audience and the required preparation to be a good speaker. Similarly, things like preparation and topic mastery are not separate axioms. In one way or another they are subsets of the purpose, audience and memory axioms.
The Road to Improvement
This article sets out what I consider to be the core axioms of good communication in all formats. But the road to improving our skills in this area is a long one. When I run workshops on communication skills, I’m always very clear to tell participants that they won’t be transformed by the end of the day. They will be given a set of tools that they will need to execute over the coming 6–18 months, one piece at a time, to gradually change the way they go about communication. A major component of becoming a good communicator is having an acute understanding of how to utilise feedback properly. The Architecture of Feedback https://t.co/cU7jZnzvwJ is the subject of another article, but suffice it to say most of us lack the tools to use feedback effectively — how to receive it, how to encourage it, and how to give it.
Other articles by the author:
Scientists: Use PowerPoint as a Tool, don’t be a Tool for PowerPoint
How to be an Excellent Communicator — You Only Need 3 Axioms
The Architecture of Feedback
The Audience Matters — This is how to connect with them