When you step up to speak, you hope what you have to say makes an impact on your audience, right?
That goal can sometimes lure you into giving a presentation that has the opposite effect: leaving listeners shell-shocked, overwhelmed, and unable to recall anything you said. That happens when you ask them to “drink from the fire hose,” and drown your audience with too much information.
Watch this video featuring Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame to see what this feels like to listeners.
You want your listeners to be blown away by your presentation, but this is probably not what you had in mind!
A while back, I experienced a “fire hose” presentation from a surprising source: a well-known author and marketing icon. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk with him prior to his workshop, and found his style to be clear and succinct. So image my shock when he announced his intention to teach us “37 ways to market our business.” Yikes! I was gasping for air after the first 5 or 6, and by 8 I was a goner.
Why are we tempted to present a fire hose of information?
It’s with the best of intentions that speakers sometimes fall into the trap of inundating listeners with too much information:
- When you have deep expertise on the subject, you may feel compelled to share everything you know with your audience (sometimes called the “curse of knowledge”).
- You may be concerned that omitting something will lessen your credibility as an expert.
- You may not know your audience well enough to separate the “need to know” from the “nice to know.”
- You don’t have much time to prepare or you just want to get through it.
Are you wincing as you recognize some of your own motivations and behaviors? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Over the years I have worked with countless business leaders who were relentlessly holding on to that fire hose and bombarding audiences with too much information.
So how can you let go of that fire hose and deliver a message that sticks and achieves results?
The antidote to the fire hose: uncovering the “need to know”
When you want your audience to remember and even act on what you share with them, the key is focusing on what they truly need to know. Unnecessary background material or too much detail will only detract from your message and leave your listeners confused and overwhelmed.
Here’s an example of how to hone in on what’s important. Let’s say you’ve been asked to give a presentation about a business process. Instead of describing every step in minute detail, focus your content on the aspects of this process that matter to your audience. Ask yourself, why do they care about this? What do they absolutely need to know? What do they stand to gain or lose?
Dos and Don’ts for avoiding information overload
Here are some Dos and Don’ts that will help you identify that “need to know” information so you can deliver a presentation that makes a powerful impact and achieves results.
Understand your audience. Seek out the answers to these questions:
- Who are they?
- How much do they already know about the subject?
Find out why your listeners care about your topic.
- What’s important to them?
- Why do they care?
- When and how often will they use this information?
- Always take the advice of stakeholders. Have you ever noticed that when you ask a stakeholder or subject matter expert about what’s important, they tend to say, “everything!”? Stakeholders may be able to provide you with helpful information and you want to take advantage of their knowledge and experience. At the same time, be aware that because experts are typically immersed in the subject matter it can be difficult for them to discern the “need to know” from the “what I know.”
- Include the “nice to know” as a filler. Resist the temptation to fill out your presentation with “nice to know” information in order to reach a prescribed length. That will only dilute your message. It’s better to make your presentation shorter and allow more time for questions and discussion.
Here’s a useful resource for avoiding information overload: Christopher Frank and Paul Magnone’s book, “Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information.” The book describes the authors’ method of asking the right questions to extract the “truly essential nuggets of information” and using them with confidence. I’ll be reviewing this book in an upcoming blog.
More resources to help you put down the fire hose:
- “Information Overload: How to Fight the Urge to Say Too Much”
- “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: 6 PowerPoint Habits to Break (Part 1)”
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.
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