Four simple steps to determine a single message for your communication

Approximate reading time: 3 minutes 40 seconds

A friend of mine told me once that he was perfectly capable of multitasking if the tasks he had to perform simultaneously were drinking whiskey, reading a book and soaking his feet in a bowl of hot water. We had a good laugh then but in fact, he was very close to the truth.

People are not made for multitasking although we try very hard to prove otherwise. In fact, when we are multitasking, our brain is not focusing on many tasks at the same time as we tend to believe but jumping from one task to another, concentrating and de-concentrating again and again, losing precious resources such as energy and time. The same happens when we try to absorb too many details at once. People faced with too much information and too many messages at once are confused. Therefore, you can safely assume that the majority of your audience will not focus on more than one idea at a time. And, even if they focus, they will not remember more than one idea when the presentation is over. Wouldn’t you rather want your audience to remember the one idea that is most important to you and not a random detail from your presentation?

The problem of experts/scientists/researchers is that everything or almost everything about their topics seems important and relevant to them. However, what you need to accept is that there is no way to convey all the information you hold as an expert to a lay audience in one presentation. Otherwise, everybody could easily replace you. Is this what you want?

Most of the time experts are expected to present their research to other experts. They are supposed to explain their methodology and the structure of their papers and use scientific nomenclature to describe scientific concepts. Therefore, for an expert, it is often extremely difficult to determine the amount of information and level of complexity appropriate for a lay audience. How can you decide the one message you want to convey if everything seems relevant? Consider making the following 4-step exercise before you start preparing your presentation.

Four simple steps to determine your single message.

This simple 4-step method will help you channel all the knowledge you have about the subject of your presentation into one clear message your audience will take with them when your presentation is over. The steps are simple but they are not easy so you may want to take your time. Don’t leave it to the last moment as you may need to repeat the exercise before it’s over more than once.

  1. Explain in a few sentences what your research is about.

Take a piece of paper and write down 5 sentences about your research. Don’t try to explain everything you do but focus on the area you want to communicate about. Write by hand. Our brains seem to work differently when we write down ideas by hand. You only have 5 sentences at your disposal so try to be clear, specific and focus on the most important factors. Don’t cheat by writing extremely long sentences. Simple is the new black! Forget about explaining what your research is NOT about. Forget about providing details on the methodology you have used in your research or the structure of your research paper. It is important, of course, but it’s not relevant for the purpose of your presentation.

  1. Ask yourself a question „so what?”

Ask this question as many times as necessary to get a one-sentence answer that will make sense to your audience and will make your research relevant to them. Literally, ask „so what?” and answer it. Then take your answer and ask „so what?” again. Repeat as many times as necessary even if it brings you back to your childhood when you were driving your parents crazy by asking „why?” too many times. If your answer is longer than one sentence or it does not give a specific message that is relevant to your audience, try again.

  1. Decide if the message you came up with is the one you really want your audience to remember.

Your message needs to be relevant to your audience but it also must be relevant to you. If this is the case, you can continue to the next stage. If not, go back to the “so what?” question and start again. In extreme cases, you may need to go back to the beginning and rewrite a short 5-sentence story to explain what your research is about.

  1. Test your message on your family members and friends.

Before you start building your presentation around your key message check with somebody from outside your research area or even from outside the academia if your message and the language you use is clear and understandable. Remember that people like simple messages. However you decide to proceed and whatever tools you are going to use to do your presentation, you should never lose sight of your key message. You can be tempted to dazzle your audience with your intellect, details and facts but refrain from doing it if you want people to listen, understand and act.

If you want people to take an action you need to give them a simple and easy task they can perform after your presentation.  

If you don’t communicate clearly what you want your audience to do or if the action you expect is too vague or too complicated, people will not act. They may think about it while drinking whiskey and soaking their feet in a bowl of hot water but it won’t bring you any closer to reaching your goal.

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