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The Top 3 Ways Speakers Confuse Their Audiences


If you’ve ever been on a webinar you know that most webinar tools have a “chat” feature.  It’s a place where participants can go to ask questions of the presenter.

Earlier today I was on a webinar hosted by the Greater Atlanta Chapter of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD).  As you can see from the picture in this post, I asked of the presenter “can you give examples to help us understand.”  As I continued to listen, I saw Sarah Gilbert type in the reply you see below mine.

Sarah is the VP of Communications for the ASTD chapter and in my mind, I thought she was saying “one second Kelly” meaning they’d get to the question in a second.  But later in the webinar, I came to believe she was saying “I [Sarah] second [the comment that] Kelly [made]” as in she wanted to hear an example too.

Because the capital “I” looks a lot like the number “1” perhaps you can see how I got confused!  Which got me thinking…

How Easy It Is to Confuse an Audience

There are times as presenters where we say and do things that confuse our audiences.  And a confused audience isn’t focused on the message at hand.

If we want to help our audiences, we need to watch out for three most common ways that speakers confuse their audiences.

1.  Word Problems – Using Common Words with Multiple Meanings

Back in my Navy days, there was a joke about how the different branches of service use the same words to mean radically different things.  The example I heard had to do with the phrase, “secure the building.”  It became a running joke which you can read about here.   But the same thing happens will all professions.

I was working with a group of computer professionals whose target market was small businesses.  In their presentation material they talked about “users.”  I came from the technology industry so I know that when IT people talk about “users” they mean people who use a software product or system.

But I also know that their future audiences of small businesses leaders would not necessarily use the word “user” in the same way.  So I did a “man on the street” type interview with small business leaders and asked, “When I say the word ‘user’ what do you think of.”  Here were the responses I got:

Someone who takes advantage of other people

Someone who uses people or things, an abuser

A drug user

A user of computers

Same word, but vastly different images.

If you use a word that can be interpreted differently by people outside your industry, then consider using extra words or qualifiers to make sure that you don’t confuse your audience.

2-a.  Story Problems – Leaving Out Important Details

I constantly encourage my clients to use stories in their presentations to help connect with their audience and illustrate points.  But it’s important when preparing a story to consider how the story might prove confusing to a person who wasn’t there when the event happened.

For instance, I had decided to change the way I told one particular story.  At one point in the story I made the statement, “I knew the next thing I said was going to be really important.”  I decided not to tell the audience what the actual word were that I said. But leaving out those words proved to be a distraction to the audience.  When I asked for feedback on the story, the immediate response was, “What did you say?!”

By not filling in the blank of the words I used, my audience was left wondering for themselves what on earth did Kelly say.  And in that time of confusion, they may have missed other points of value to them.

The best way to help prevent leaving out the important details is to tell the story in a conversation with a friend, colleague or speech coach.  If they ask you questions about certain aspects of the story, you know you’ve left out important details.

2-b.  Story Problems – Adding Unnecessary Detail which Take Away from the Point of the Story

I was coaching an executive who was telling a story about one of the toughest periods in his life.  He started his story in a very serious tone describing himself sitting alone, in an empty one-room apartment in San Francisco, his family several states away.  He then says he’s drinking a glass of wonderfully delicious California wine and his face lights up as he remembered the wine.  In my mind, I remember thinking, “Wait, I thought he was going to talk about a bad time… but no, he’s smiling at the wonderful wine.  I’m confused.”  As he continued his story, it was clear that he was describing one of the worst times in his life.  But the delicious of the wine had been a distraction that took us off course.

As I told him, I lived in northern California.  I know the wine is great.  But by adding the detail about delicious wines, when he’s otherwise setting the scene for the most challenging time in his personal and professional life, he was adding confusion for his audience.  By taking out the positive references to the wine, he was able to tell his story, set the mood and not send his audience down a road of confusion.

Look at your stories.  Delete any details that do not support the reason for telling the story.

Then, again, share the stories with friends, trusted colleagues or a speech coach.  They will ask questions if you took out too much.  And if they get the point with the shorter version then you know you’ve got the right balance.

3.  Destination Problems – Not Giving Your Audience Clues as to Where You’re Going

Because there’s no rewind button in live presentations, it’s important to give your audience an idea of where the presentation is going and provide sign posts along the way.

If you don’t give your audience a preview of where you’re going, at some point, they’ll start to wonder things like…

Where is she going with this?

How many more points is she going to make?

How does that point relate to the point he made a minute ago?

Anytime that your audience spends trying to understand where you’re at relative to where your presentation is going is time not spent paying attention to your presentation.  Give the audience an idea of where you’re going and how you’ll get there.  For example:

“Today we’ll cover three ways that people often confuse their audiences.”  Now you know that I’ll be making three points.

“We’ll talk about how we got here, what’s been done and our recommendations for the future.”  Now you know that we’ll progress through this presentation chronologically with an eye to the future.

“There are five steps to improving your leadership skills.”  See, now you know that if you take these five steps, you leadership abilities will improve.

Communications Is Difficult, Don’t Add to the Confusion

Communications is difficult.  We all come from different backgrounds and life experiences that color our perspective of the world.  But by eliminating these most common areas for confusion, we’ll be making a huge skip forward to better connecting our messages and ourselves with our audiences.

Comments Welcome!

What other advice do you have to help reduce the confusion?!  Please add them to the comment section below!