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Why the “Golden Rule” Isn’t Great for Effective Communication

My first effective communication in biotech was effective by accident.

I was presenting the team’s results to our pharmaceutical partners. I’d done this once or twice already, but was still unsure how to do it well. In contrast to the positive feedback I’d always received presenting data to large audiences, something about presenting in my biotech job wasn’t clicking yet.

This particular meeting was shorter than usual, and as the afternoon went on, there remained less and less time for me to present. When I finally started speaking, I remember feeling impatient, thinking, “OK, there’s only a few minutes, I’ll cover it.”  I ran through the topics quickly. It felt unsatisfying, but on the other hand. I was getting good vibes from the group, and afterwords one of our executives said it was the best talk I’d given so far.

Really?  How is that possible?

Due to the time constraint, I had switched from communicating everything I could say to just making the key points and avoiding unnecessary explanations, thereby leaving the audience with exactly what they wanted to know.

Here’s what I know now: When we’re an expert, our default mode may be to communicate as if we are talking to ourselves – or, to someone with the same knowledge, context, circumstances, and grasp of the subtleties plus all the same enthusiasm for the topic!  Academic training reinforces these tendencies since we’re surrounded by people with similar expertise with whom we can discuss our work at length.

So what’s the problem with communicating unto others as you wish to be communicated to?

Your audience may be listening for something different.

Instead, they might want to know: Is the project on track? What do we know now that we didn’t before? What is your new theory? Do I need to intervene?

What they might not need to know are the details (and I‘ve noticed that in a business setting the word “details” usually means facts that someone isn’t interested in knowing about.)

The challenge is, we experts love the details. One scientist I was coaching recently said to me, “But it’s so interesting, doesn’t everyone want to know everything that’s going on?”

So part of the transition for expert to leader (and effective cross-functional communicator) is to let go of what you would be interested in and what would like to know and focus on what your audience does.

The good news is, you’re still the expert.  So when it comes to choosing what subset of your vast field of knowledge to share in any situation, you can do it better than anyone.

Wow.  There’s a lot to say about communication, and I’m mindful to provide useful info for my readers without unnecessary…you know what.  This would be a great moment to drop me an email and let me know: 

-How do you read your audience and decide what to share?  

-What other communication challenges would you like to read about?

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