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3 ways to tell if you are unintelligibly intelligent

Being more knowledgeable about and familiar with your subject than your audience helps to make you confident as a speaker. But that expertise can come with a downside, as you run the risk of speaking over the heads of that audience. I refer to this as being “unintelligibly intelligent”; having a mastery of your subject may not translate to a mastery of communicating about it to others. In fact, knowing too much and being too close to one’s subject can have just the opposite effect.

Here are three danger signs that you are unintelligibly intelligent:

You speak very precisely. Potential offenders: attorneys, accountants. Case law, legislation, and contracts all call for precision in language, and attorneys are trained in that precision. However, effective verbal communication results from a more relaxed, informal, and conversational style. How to tell if you have this problem? If you find yourself uttering words such as whereas and heretofore when speaking – words that you would never say in conversation.

You overwhelm with technical language. Potential offenders: scientists, IT professionals, engineers. Those with a high level of technical education often forget that not everyone speaks their language. Much of their communication, in fact, is to non-technical people – those who control the purse strings or who may be customers. Resist the temptation to explain the circuitry; instead talk about what benefits those circuits bring. Here is a somewhat over-the-top parody of techno-speak gone haywire:

You speak many words while saying little if anything. Potential offenders: politicians, consultants. Politicians are smart enough to realize that when they voice specific opinions they may be held to them later. The answer – speak in generalities!  Or someone who knows a little about a lot of subjects can throw in enough buzzwords to sound intelligent. Here’s an example of a hiring manager talking in circles:

 

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Lose your cool and win your audience

A speaker whom I was coaching gave a preview of her speech in front of some of the organizers of our event. Her speech consisted of some very personal and heart-wrenching stories, and in the telling she momentarily lost control of her emotions and had to stop to collect herself. The small audience was riveted by her passion and her stories. When the day of her presentation arrived, to my surprise my client took the stage with a full sheaf of notes and proceeded to read her speech, speaking much more dryly and displaying very limited emotion. Although interested in her topic, the audience was considerably less moved than had been those at her run-through.

When I asked the speaker afterward why she had abandoned the limited notes that she had crafted and gone back to her written speech, she responded, “I was afraid that I might cry.” Yes, she might well have, but by denying herself a display of vulnerability she had greatly diminished the power of her presentation.

We all tend to respond in a visceral way to a show of emotion. Even a pedestrian subject gains emotional heft when the speaker lets his/her guard down. For example, watch Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, talk about his distress on draft day as he waited longer than he expected to be drafted by an NFL team (begin watching around the 1:10 mark):

 

Many of us, men particularly, are trained and encouraged to keep a lid on their emotions – control is the name of the game. But as we watch Tom Brady struggle with his emotions, he becomes more human in our eyes and we connect with him on a different level. The same will be true for you when you access the passion at the heart of your presentation, and permit yourself to let the audience hear and experience it.

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