A few weeks ago we spoke at Amplify Festival in Australia and one of the most memorable events of the conference was called “BrightSparks”, produced by the indomitable conference organizer Annalie Killian. A few hundred people crowded into a bar to watch 18 PhD students pitch their ideas for 2.5 minutes each. Sachi was one of five judges who helped award $5,000 to the winner.
Leading up to this event, we led workshops and spoke about the need for explanation and the goal to increase understanding. Having just come out of these sessions, it was perfect timing to see these presentations through the lens of explanation. The students did not attend our workshops.
The rules were quite simple:
Present for 2.5 minutes using analog visual aids, if needed.
Presenters were judged on these criteria:
- Clarity of purpose
- Clarity of problem
- Clarity of audience
The presenters worked on their presentation with coaching. It was obvious that they had been well coached in stage presence, voice projection and clear communication. They adopted costumes and used fun visual aids along with personal stories. You could tell that the presenters, as a whole, had been coached using a consistent and effective system that ensured a certain standard of communication.
But it was obvious to us (and some people who came to our sessions) what differentiated the winners. They didn’t just make an idea clear, they made something complex understandable and relatable for the audience. The best pitches answered different kinds of questions, mostly focused on “why” and increased understanding:
- Why should I care about this?
- Why does it make sense?
- Why does this matter?
The presentations that didn’t perform as well were more focused on how and what questions:
- What is this?
- What are the parts or features?
- How does it work?
- How can it be used?
These are important questions that shouldn’t be dismissed - they do contribute to understanding. But what really made the difference between good and great was the ability to make it understandable and relatable to the audience.
Unfortunately, the goal of understanding is often forgotten. It’s an assumed part of effective communication and not something we coach independently. Unlike voice projection or diction, there isn’t often a specific goal or standard for understanding. But I think there should be, especially in business communication.
The next time you present or pitch an idea, remember to consider “why” questions. Take a step back and ask this important question: “Is this understandable?” Give your audience a way to think about and apply your idea in a way that makes them care about it. Explain it to them and give them a chance to understand. Without understanding, few other things matter.