When details get in the way

Eve Ash

How often do we see a person on a mission trying to get their detailed points across and failing miserably? People tune out and may even get angry.

A principal analyst, a diligent man in his 50s, was trying to convey a series of important points to a meeting of bored subordinates. Watching him struggle with his elaborate PowerPoint was painful; he wanted everyone to understand the importance of the mandatory new requirements, but his uneasy eyes told a different story. His audience was clearly not interested. Eventually, he stopped and asked for questions. 

There was silence and then a younger rep exploded, “what the hell are we having to hear all this for? You can preach about the rules all you like, but it means nothing to the companies we have to deal with. All you’re doing is making more work for those companies at the end of the day, and for us, because we now have to explain the complexities without losing their business altogether!” His fellow attendees nodded in tired agreement. Relieved that the “training” was over, they got up to leave. 

Neither approach is constructive: a person on a mission wants to get the detail across, irrespective of the mood in the room, and the audience is failing to give the speaker their due.

When caring about process isn’t going to cut it

My sympathies lie somewhat with the embattled analyst; however he wasn’t the person to successfully carry out this exercise. He cared enormously about the process, so much so that he couldn’t understand the others’ relative lack of commitment and thereby alter his presentation approach. He failed to appreciate that reps who deal with companies generally want to cut to the chase; they are more concerned with outcomes.

Too much information?

More than ever, people like the rep above want to grasp minutiae in a microsecond. All the yabber about branding and elevator speeches — once the province of Hollywood moguls with attention deficits — is now widespread. Everyone wants the ‘takeaway’; they don’t really want to know about what lies beneath and the net result is a growing tide of ignorance, dismissiveness and inaccurate labelling.

Failure to recognise different communication modes

For all the increasing globalisation of our workplaces, people haven’t really caught up to different communication modes. The speaker I described above was from a non-English speaking country – English is his second language. The burly Aussie who gave him lip clearly had no time for the analyst’s laborious precision. Conversely, the analyst was aware of the boredom seeping through his audience, but persisted in explaining the intricacies, his way.

So what about ways to minimise these problems, which undoubtedly will crop up, especially as offices and workplaces become host to a greater diversity of backgrounds, ages and speech styles?

If you need to give details – keep it succinct and engaging

For those who love process (i.e. revelling in the ‘how’ of everything they do), challenge yourself to reduce the complications to the most salient points you wish to get across — don’t assume you’re the only one on top of all the information. Seek the advice of a trusted colleague who appreciates your intent but knows how to whittle things down.

Remember that a lively, warm, succinct style of presentation will wake the audience to your meaning. If necessary, find the most impatient person in your office, buy them a coffee and do a practice-run on them. A little self-deprecating humour never goes astray either.

Understand that if you attempt the above consistently and well, those pointer dogs in your audience will do their job much more effectively, which should make you very happy.

If you only want “the takeaway”

When you are in regular team presentations and you get bombarded with detail, think about what you need to know. Consider telling your leader/speaker beforehand how much you want to focus on outcomes. Make time to discuss your communication needs with the process person — do this respectfully, over a coffee with tactful, self-deprecating humour.

And what if the presenter is continually droning away, what do you gain by bluntness which verges on rude?  It doesn’t hurt to pay others the attention and courtesy you tend to demand for yourself. If you brush past the detail, your lack of knowledge will eventually catch you out. No matter how brilliant a rep (or whatever) you are, it’s vital to listen up.  The presenter may speak pearls you’d never previously considered, which might help you achieve a better outcome. Make it more interesting by asking questions.

That pedantic creature could well become your most valuable ally.

In summary, with a little mutual willingness to observe each other’s cues and adapt one’s own approach, vital details won’t get ‘lost in translation’.

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