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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