Remember that meeting last week when your coworker had to present an update on the project she’s leading–and you watched her go on and on, sharing detail after detail, until you wondered what the point was in the first place? You’ve probably made the same mistake at one time or another, too. When you’re really close to the material you’re trying to communicate, it can be tricky not to fall down the rabbit hole or share every last detail with others. Here are five ways to avoid that so you can stay concise, engaging, and to-the-point.
1. DON’T SHOW OFF EVERYTHING YOU KNOW
Think about the purpose of your talk or presentation in the first place: Chances are, it isn’t to demonstrate how much you know. After all, if your listeners really want to know all the details, they can ask you to fill in the gaps later, or they can just Google it. Instead, think about what your knowledge means to your audience: How can you help them achieve their goals? You call a plumber to fix a leaky pipe, not to find out every single thing they know about plumbing. Like a plumber, though, you’re also in a service role as a speaker–which means the question you need to ask yourself is, “What is their problem, and how do I help them fix it?
2. GO ONE LEVEL UP
When you go from working on a problem to talking about it to others, you need to switch programs. Whether you’re an exec or an intern, your job is to manage the day-to-day workload in front of you. But the moment you lift your head up and start talking about your work to somebody else–even to a colleague who’s deeply familiar with it–you can’t just give them the blow-by-blow. That’s the route to endless digressions.
As a presenter, think of your job like being a pilot: You want to get into the airplane, take off, and find a cruising altitude that’s smooth and one-directional. You want to know where you’re heading. If you don’t position your ideas at the right level (and keep them there all the while), it’ll be a turbulent ride.
3. RESIST THE LURE OF THE FAMILIAR
Like anyone, you want to feel comfortable when you speak. What’s more comfortable than the familiar stuff you’ve talked about before? When you present a new idea or speak to an unfamiliar audience, though, there’s a risk of being drawn back into what’s comfortable–which is often a ton of extraneous detail. Catching yourself sometimes means tolerating the discomfort of framing things in a way you aren’t totally used to. Think strategically, so you don’t react emotionally.
4. AVOID TRAP QUESTIONS
“Trap questions” are the ones that seem impossible to answer withoutgoing into lots of detail. The key is to recognize these questions so you can stop yourself before getting lost in the weeds. If someone asks, “Could you give me an update on that project?” that’s not an invitation to go through your work step by step. They just want to know if you’re on track or off track, and if the latter, what you’re doing to get back on–that’s it.
5. SWAP DATA POINTS FOR IMAGES
Years ago, I worked with a marketing exec who successfully shifted his company’s strategy from trying to sell a product it made toward partnering with other businesses. In making the case for this pivot, he didn’t take his leadership team through a deep, data-driven analysis. He just said, “Our business is like a fork. And we build the best fork. But customers don’t buy forks. They buy place settings.” With that powerful image, he was able to introduce a change that grew the company. Imagery is usually more powerful than a data dump.
Sometimes you really do need to go into detail. Just make sure you know why you’re doing it–and that you can quickly get back out again.