Have you ever given a presentation or delivered a proposal on a technical issue and you just felt like the audience completely missed your point? What's wrong with these people? Why can't they get this stuff? It's important but, come on, it's not rocket science.
Ah, you've run up against the dreaded BSI (aka the Blank Stare(s) of Indifference). You have been doing this stuff for 30 years and you absolutely know what the heck you're talking about, so it's got to be THEIR fault, right?
Well, you might have to look no further than the nearest mirror to see the culprit on this one. Sometimes when we have real and valuable technical expertise, we allow ourselves to forget that the best communicators always, always, always know and genuinely focus on their audience. While it's you up on the stage or at the podium, it's their minds you're after. You can't bang down the door; they have to want you and your ideas to come in. Here are four things you can do to help win their hearts and reach the wonderful minds hiding behind those glazed over eyes:
1. Be passionate about your work and don't hide it.
If you're the right speaker for this gathering, your topic will be something you are very interested and invested in. You don't have to be giddy or showy in your expression and I'm certainly not talking about breaking down into tears (unless, of course, the tears are genuine). No Academy Award-winning performances are required. But please don't expect the audience to fully engage with you if you aren't both immersed in your topic and truly interested in them. Talk not only about the What, but also spend time on the Why. Let people know why you personally think this information is important. Why is it important to you? to them? to the community? You are the writer of your presentation or proposal, so please, don't let it turn into just a lecture and for goodness sakes, please don't read your slides to the audience as that is a sure-fire recipe for a good snooze or time spent catching up on email.
2. Try to strike a nerve.
I was blessed to have some outstanding teachers in grade school, in college, and in the military. The best of those folks could quickly size up an audience and did not shy away from touching on exposed nerves, albeit in a professional and non-threatening way. If you can move a group of people to objectively thinking about and talking about an important topic, you have hit a home run. Unmask and include a call to action in your presentation. If there isn't really a call to action, then are you really the right speaker or have you chosen the wrong topic?
3. Invite questions.
If you've given your presentation or proposal with passion and got the audience thinking, then you're over halfway there. Always leave time for and ask (beg if necessary) for questions. For it's only through questions that you can really start to gauge your own success. I've sat through many presentations where a Q&A opportunity wasn't provided or it was provided and nobody asked a question. Be ready and welcome those questions. In situations where nobody has asked a question, I have even posed my own by saying, "Well, after hearing this presentation, I sure would have thought someone would ask ______?". Sometimes, asking yourself a question and answering it can give those less confident audience members a little more time to think and lower their guard so they can ask the second question.
4. Show your gratitude.
You know, we all have a limited amount of time on this earth and how we choose to spend it is on us. Who knows what tomorrow brings for each of us. But whether you were asked by the group to speak or you asked them for time on their agenda, be thankful for their time investment and tell them so. It's all part of showing each other a basic level of respect. You would be surprised how far a little spoken gratitude can go toward building trust and cracking the door to their hearts and minds.
These thoughts are all about making an effective connection with your audience. I'm of the older school and feel much more effective in a face-to-face communication than in our post-pandemic virtual world of "talking" to a computer screen. But the techniques I've shared also are effective in virtual presentations; you just miss out on many of the other cues (e.g., body language) to help you know on the fly that you're getting through.
Jeff Lineberger, PE has been with Duke Energy for 32 years and is currently Director of Water Strategy & Hydro Licensing, providing leadership for licensing and compliance at 28 hydropower stations in the Carolinas and Midwest, and drought response coordination & long range water supply planning for 39 reservoirs in the Carolinas. Jeff's team also leads public recreation area planning and management of 132 public recreation areas around the Carolinas' reservoirs.
Jeff has led negotiations settling several hydropower relicensing efforts including a 70-party agreement for the Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project which fostered the settlement of a US Supreme Court case (SC v. NC, No. 138, Original), a 17-party relicensing agreement for the Keowee-Toxaway Hydro Project and a new operating agreement coordinating the operation of the Keowee-Toxaway and Bad Creek hydro projects with three hydro projects located downstream in the Savannah River Basin which are operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Jeff is a two-time winner of the James B. Duke Award for these hydro relicensing efforts, including being one of the inaugural winners in 2007.
Since its incorporation in 2007, Jeff has been a director of the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group, a 501c (3) non-profit composed of Duke Energy and 18 public water utilities sharing a common water supply. He is also on the South Carolina Water Planning Process Advisory Committee and is Duke Energy's primary representative to the National Hydropower Association.