Communication is difficult especially in public situations, Payam Pakmanesh offers some advice to help you out.
How to communicate clearly by becoming a Chameleon
"Can you explain this one more time so we can understand it?"
Shaking like a frightened poodle, she didn’t know how to respond to that. She just got through explaining. The
humid conference room was dead-silent and the seconds began feeling like minutes.
The breathing of those watching grew louder as they sat on their perfectly beige ergonomic chairs drinking their
lattes. The audience disconnected.
She tried to explain why there were errors in the application, but the audience wasn’t following. Nothing she said
resonated with the people listening.
Her hands were trembling and she froze as she made eye contact with one of the directors in the room.
Not sure how to do it and having a history of being anxious talking to people was nothing knew for her. She was
afraid the conversation will fall flat. At least, this is what always happened to her.
Communicating clearly is what separates the mediocre from the best. If you can’t communicate your thoughts or ideas
clearly, especially to those who are not technical, it’s nearly impossible to grow.
A common misconception is that excess words correlate to better clarity, but that just isn’t true.
It all starts with empathy and understanding who you are speaking to. Begin, by asking yourself the most important
Who is your audience?
- Are they technical?
- Are they under 18?
- Are they over 50?
- What’s their job title?
- What’s their background?
These things matter and your language needs to change for each of these different audiences. Maybe you know this, but
just can’t figure out how?
Here’s an example:
Let’s pretend you’re talking to a guy. Call this dude Frank. You want to explain to
Frank who George Washington is. What would you say?
Go ahead and give it a shot before continuing to read.
Done? Maybe you said...
...Something about him being the first president of the United States?
...Or how he’s one the
...Perhaps that he’s that old guy with the beard on the dollar bill?
Easy enough? Okay, this time, let’s pretend Frank (your audience) barely knows English and knows nothing about the
history of the United States. Now what would you say?
This is where things become truly fascinating to me.
How do you break down concepts that make it easier for others to understand when they only know half the meanings of
the words in the sentence?
Better yet, how do you communicate clearly to someone who knows nothing about what you are talking about?
Announcing, the Pretend They’re Ten technique (or PTT)
Does someone who knows very little English know what the word president means, How about what the United States
encompasses, or any of it’s history?
More than likely not, you would need to dig deeper and explain that George Washington was a great leader. Wait a
second, they don’t know what the word leader means either. Damn...
What do we do?
Entering, the PTT technique...
Step 1: Provide the simplest version of the idea
Think about what it is that you are trying to explain and begin at the simplest version of that.
Let’s take the
word leader since that might be the simplest idea of what a president is.
For example, you could say something like, “If there are many people, we need one of them to take charge and make
important decisions. This is a leader. For our country we have one leader. They are known as the president.”
Follow me so far? Find the most basic explanation/word for what you’re explaining and connect it to an idea.
Step 2: Put yourself in their shoes
Next, pretend that if you were the audience, would you understand what you just said?
Actually envision yourself as the audience. It’s a simple, yet a very strong mental shift to consistently put
yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Step 3: Relate to the audience
After you confirmed the audience understood the most basic explanation, you’ll want to provide an example or analogy,
but you want to relate it to something the other person does/likes. This is what really cements the logic.
Let’s take the previous example. Pretend that the person you are talking to is ten years old and that they enjoy
Mexican food because you guys always go to Chipotle.
Now let’s help them understand what the word leader means by giving an example using Mexican food. How about this:
“Ok let’s say there’s a group of us wanting to go to lunch and we agreed on getting Mexican food. Their food
makes me use the bathroom 3x as much, but I love guacamole!”
[PAYAM’S ANALYSIS: Boom. You got their attention, because now you are talking about something that relates to them.
If you can inject humor, that’s even better.]
“None of us can decide where to go, so Josh, another friend of ours steps up and says, ‘I know a fantastic place
around the corner with amazing salsa. You can taste the cilantro in your mouth till tomorrow morning. Sometimes
I don’t even floss so I can savor it.’”
[PAYAM’S ANALYSIS: Being a leader is about stepping up and making a decision. Here we connected that decision to
getting lunch, something that everyone understands. I don’t know if the cilantro thing is true, but whatever, let’s
just roll with it.]
“Follow me. I know where to go.”
[PAYAM’S ANALYSIS: This last part is actually 80% of the definition, but taking the time to connect to a story they
can relate to is what makes you an excellent communicator.]
Step 4: Always assume the person knows nothing
After a while, you may try to guess who needs to be PTT’d, but It only takes a few extra seconds and can help you
with your long-term arsenal of social skills.
There will be times when you may want to communicate something to someone who has some knowledge of the topic, but
not enough, and you kinda are stuck with where to dig deeper using a story.
An easy way to gauge their knowledge is just by asking them simple questions that help you to know where to begin.
Let’s go back to the original example in the start of this post when the girl wanted to explain why errors were
showing up in the browser. What if she said:
“Are any of you familiar with errors in the browser or what they look like?”
“No? Ok, do you use
Chrome? Great! In the browser, there’s an area where we can see the error.”
See how we started narrow by asking if they knew the errors and then worked backwards on a high level once we
detected they did not? You will want to continue this pattern until you get a reaction by them telling you they
Once you do, then you know where to start sharing more details.
Analyzing the PTT technique
Be aware of who you are talking to at all times and be ready to change your language on a consistent basis. Some
people may still not understand the examples you provide and that’s ok. You only get better with practice.
Sometimes if I can’t read the person, I just ask them flat out what they love, then pivot the example to match that.
This immediately heightens their alert system.
After completing PTT
The easiest way to know if what you just said worked is just to ask them.
The secret is — letting them know that it’s ok to ask.
Let’s say I just got done explaining something to you and you only partially understand.
You want to ask a follow up question, but don’t want to look like that moron from 4th grade that always asked dumb
questions and everyone made fun of at lunch by throwing leftover macaroni at their face.
Look at the difference between these two variations:
Option #1: “Do you understand now what I’m saying, Payam?”
Option #2: “Do you understand now what I’m saying, Payam? I would be happy to explain it again,
because I know that some of this stuff may be confusing.”
Doesn’t the second example make you feel a little more welcomed to admit you don’t understand? A little more safe to
ask for clarity?
This is empathy.
Most people don’t like raising their hand in class admitting they don’t understand something, but this cuts through
Remember, PTT isn’t just for speaking with people that don’t have the same background as you, it helps with clarity
in all sorts of communication. You’ll start to know when you are getting better when you get less questions and
people tell you how easy you explain things.
Breaking complex information into bite size chunks is an art, one that I have yet to master myself.
I’ve worked on this for so long that PTT is just how I speak. It’s part of who I am.
Adapt to the environment. Watch your audience carefully. Become a chameleon.
Do you use have other tactics you use for communicating clearly?
What other things would you suggest for someone wanting to improve this area of their life?