“I just can’t do it – I can’t explain eight years of research in three minutes!”

My heart went out to her, I could see she was struggling. It happened at a workshop I was facilitating for PhD students. I was helping them prepare for the Three Minute Thesis 3MT competition. I could see what the problem was, she was going too deep.

This happens a lot. When people are stressed, feeling vulnerable or intimidated they dive ’Under The Hood.’ Under The Hood (UTH) is where we store all our knowledge and experience, it’s also where we keep all our jargon, acronyms and complex detail. We understand it intimately, but no one else does!

Our audience is also intelligent and educated, but their knowledge and experience is different, and when we speak to them from UTH they will smile and nod politely. They won’t understand what we are saying and they won’t ask questions as they don’t want to appear stupid. We may as well be speaking in Swahili.
So what do you do?

You step back and step up. You need to get your head out from Under the Hood and start at the top.

If you are speaking to colleagues outside of your department, you may need to step up to Street View, a slightly bigger view of your project. If you’re speaking at a company gathering, step up again and give them a Helicopter View and if you’re speaking to people outside of your organisation, you will need to step up to the Satellite View.

At the higher levels, you eliminate your UTH jargon and use common language that everyone can understand. Include stories, analogies and metaphors so that people can pick up your ideas quickly.

If you start at the top you can always dip down into more detail. If you start at the bottom you will confuse and alienate people.

So what did I suggest for the PhD student? Start at the top and use a story to create context, explain and engage. Once you have your audience on the same wavelength, you can then dip down into the detail.

I love working with smart people and helping them to inspire, entice and move people to action. If you have a communication problem you need help with, give me a call.

Sharon Ferrier
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