Pitching your contributions at the
right level so everybody
by Christine M. Anderson-Cook
Whether it’s during a job interview, a presentation or collaborations with colleagues of differing technical backgrounds, effectively conveying your ideas and contributions is at least as important as the content. Daniel Goleman speaks to the importance of emotional intelligence being a key driver of success and advancement.1
Why does this matter so much? If you dive right into technical details without providing a broader context and motivation for the problem, the people with whom you are communicating won’t appreciate the contribution. If you talk only about your ideas at a high level with insufficient detail, the weight of your contributions might be undervalued or misinterpreted.
Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Different situations require different styles and technical levels. So what strategies can be used to find the appropriate level for each audience? Here are a few ideas that I have found helpful during my career:
1. To quote the second habit from Stephen R. Covey’s groundbreaking book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,2 "begin with the end in mind."
With each communication or meeting, it is important to think through what would make it a success. I was told early in my career to never go into a critical meeting without knowing what the best possible outcome from it would be. Having specific goals for the meeting—such as guiding the outcome or helping participants appreciate what your team can contribute—is beneficial. Thinking this through in advance has served me well because in many meetings, there are opportunities to shape the direction of discussions. Having a firm thought of what you want helps you be decisive and influential.
When I was interviewing for my first academic job (before I had received this helpful advice), my Ph.D. advisor C.F. Jeff Wu encouraged me to do a practice run of my "job talk" (the seminar describing my statistical dissertation research) for him. I had dedicated a great deal of time in the talk to providing the background to the specialized problem, and making the material clear and understandable to statisticians who were not familiar with it.
When I completed the practice run, I felt like I had given exactly the talk that I wanted. My advisor shook his head and said, "This won’t do at all." What had I done wrong? He replied, "You made it all too understandable. They won’t get a sense of the complex technical details that went into the method." With the benefit of experience, I have realized that he was exactly right. In a job interview, good communication is an important aspect, but a considerable portion of the evaluation of candidates hinges on their technical abilities.
So presenting your work as too obvious or intuitive can undermine the weight of your contributions. What my advisor knew more clearly than I did at the time was that there were multiple goals for the seminar: Convince the hiring committee that I could communicate new material to a classroom of students, provide enough context that they understood the seminar and highlight my technical abilities. After I understood what I was trying to accomplish, formulating the right presentation became more straightforward.
In a job interview, conveying that you have the skills to be successful in all aspects of the job is essential. In a presentation, provide a context and motivation for the material, as well as clearly articulate the solution and how it answers the question. When collaborating with colleagues with different backgrounds, offer enough detail to provide a framework for understanding the answer and judge how many technical details must be shared.
2. Plan to communicate at multiple levels, and preface your comments with descriptors of the level of different parts of your message.
For my first job talk, the solution was to add a few slides to the seminar that were rich in the technical details of the method that was the heart of the dissertation. The majority of the talk remained unchanged. When I gave the detailed introduction to the problem I was going discuss, I began with something like, "Because many of you may not be familiar with the particular problem that I studied, here is some context.
When I dove into the messy equations and details of the method, I prefaced it with, "The details of the method are probably beyond the scope of this talk, but here is a sense of the complicated aspects." This achieved the desired goal of conveying the depth and technical complexity of the research—without having to overwhelm anyone with too many gory details. The key to the seminar working well was to intentionally change the technical level and provide triggers for the audience to know what I was trying to accomplish at any given time.
3. Think carefully about the background and priorities of those who will hear your message.
The same material should be presented differently to different audiences. In projects that I work on in my current job at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, we often are required to present results of the project multiple times. When we present to colleagues with similar backgrounds, we may wish to invite feedback and peer review of our work. In this case, talking about choices made on the way to the solution, and technical details, can foster discussion and insights from the audience.
To present to collaborators from different technical backgrounds, emphasize the connection of the solution to the problem, and probe for confirmation that the details of the solution are a good match for what was required. The details of the technical methods are generally emphasized less.
Finally, when we present to managers and sponsors, it is essential to deliver a clear bottom line for what problem was solved and how the implementation of the solution will have the desired outcome. When talking to managers, the takeaway message should be presented in the language of what matters most to them: Often, this can be savings of time or money, or mitigating risk.
Audiences also can be heterogeneous, and shaping your message to have something for the different segments is helpful. This can help demonstrate your versatility, as well as give flexibility to focus on different aspects of the material. In several presentations, I have started by commenting that a particular portion of the talk would be aimed at one group (such as an extended introduction for those unfamiliar with the area), and other sections will be for a different segment.
Stating this in advance can help everyone feel like there will be something for them, and with a sense of when that piece will come. It also encourages the audience to be accepting of some discussion that does not directly connect to their priorities.
4. Be adaptable; anticipate questions and feedback.
By anticipating what is needed and preparing carefully, your communication should be close to on target for its intended goals. To make on-the-fly finely tuned adjustments, it is important to adapt as the audience responds. Although it should go without saying that actually answering the question is essential, it is remarkably common for presenters to answer the question that they were anticipating or are comfortable answering. Listen intently to not only the question, but also to subtle cues that are being provided about context and what a preferred answer would be.
We recently interviewed a job candidate who initially impressed us tremendously with his ability to describe the context of his research in understandable terms. However, when we tried multiple times to encourage him to provide details about the methods used to solve the problems, he was unable to make that switch and talk to us as colleagues about the nuts-and-bolts of the method. This left us with an unsettled feeling about his technical abilities.
In this case, our initial delight at his communication skills turned to skepticism because he was unable to fill in the necessary details to convince us of his fundamental technical knowledge. As a communicator, be tuned into the messages that different audience members are sending.
By focusing on the underlying aim of the question and background of the questioner, it is often possible to respond with a shift in technical level that validates the question asked, and showcases your adaptability and perceptiveness.
With careful forethought about the nature of the audience and preparation, communicating effectively is possible. By being adaptable and responsive, fine-tuning the delivery can turn a good presentation into a great one.
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bantam Books, 2005.
- Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Christine M. Anderson-Cook is a research scientist in the Statistical Sciences Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, NM. She earned a doctorate in statistics from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Anderson-Cook is a fellow of ASQ and the American Statistical Association.