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April 22, 2016

Don't Be a Boring Speaker!

Keith Jackson


One of the ways my colleagues and I used to pass the time during interminable and dreary meetings was to amuse ourselves with a game of "Buzzword Bingo."

The rules were simple. We'd appear to be listening intently and taking notes as the speaker droned on, but we were just marking off the inevitable buzzwords and clichés that he or she would spout, most likely to cover for the fact that he actually had very little of real substance to say. As soon as we heard "paradigm shift," "game-changer" or "touching base," we knew we could tune out of the subject matter and concentrate on the game.

Sometimes, jargon and unnecessary wordiness is used not to disguise a lack of detail, but to obscure facts or deflect attention away from matters that the speaker doesn't really want to discuss.

This skill was most ably used by the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby, a senior civil servant in the hit BBC comedies, "Yes, Minister," and "Yes, Prime Minister." In one episode, Sir Humphrey realizes the Prime Minister has told a lie in public, albeit unwittingly, but doesn't want to accuse him outright. So he fudges the issue by telling the Prime Minister, "The precise correlation between the information you communicated and the facts insofar as they can be determined and demonstrated is such as to cause epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude as to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear." Pick the bones out of that!

When you talk to an audience, you need to know how to hold its attention and to make sure that the message you are trying to communicate is understood clearly. To do this, you need to balance the abstract and the details. For example, if you are a leader trying to inspire your people to buy into your vision, you shouldn't focus solely on the concepts and "big picture" ideas. You need to give people facts and details, and concrete plans for achieving that vision.

At the same time, you shouldn't get bogged down in detail and minutiae, or you risk losing your audience’s attention once again. People will want to know why the facts and details you are presenting are relevant and important - you need to give them context.

Effective communication requires moving regularly between the abstract and the "real," as the situation dictates. You can learn more about how to do this in our article, The Ladder of Abstraction. If you can master the skill of balancing "highbrow" concepts with the "nuts and bolts" of your big ideas, you'll never send your audience to sleep, or catch people playing Buzzword Bingo during your presentations, again!

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