Simplifying the Complex

How to speak to nontechnical audiences

Raymond E. DiDonna

A natural part of anyone’s business career, the further you advance, the broader your audience becomes. And that applies to both formal and informal settings.

As an actuarial student, your primary audience is your boss (an actuary), his or her peers (other actuaries) and your peers (actuarial students). For the most part, this group is homogenous and very similar to you. Thus, it’s not too difficult to prepare to present information to them. You just need to focus on how you want to present the information since, generally speaking, the way you want to present it is the way they want to receive it. Said differently, early in your career you already know your audience well. This is not true, however, as your career advances and your audience gets more diverse.

Once your career progresses from actuarial student to practicing actuary, you will have the opportunity to present information to audiences that include professionals outside of the actuarial realm—whether they are inside or outside of your company. These professionals may be from other insurance disciplines such as underwriting, sales, marketing, claims or operations. They also may be from support disciplines such as information technology, legal, finance or human resources. Whatever the case, you will find many (or most) of these professionals to be much less technically-oriented than what you are used to. In addition, unlike years and decades ago, today’s audiences have shorter attention spans due to all the technology available and all of the information at our disposal. Patience is an important quality in businesspeople that seems to be vanishing quickly—I don’t believe that’s a good thing, but it is our reality.

For actuaries to advance to high levels within insurance organizations, they must learn to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences, especially those that are nontechnical. To do this, actuaries need to focus on three key facets of good communication. Actuaries must:

  1. Know their audience.
  2. Simplify their message.
  3. Sell their point of view.

Know Your Audience

The first key to making sure your presentation to nontechnical audiences is impactful is to “know your audience.” You first must understand your audience and, in particular, how they like to receive information, before you can properly craft your presentation. In terms of receiving information, there are generally three types of people: those who like to see lots of details and data (such as actuaries), those who like to consider several different options and not just rely on the data to tell them what the answer is, and those who want to quickly get to the bottom line (they want to know the answer first, before understanding why that’s the answer).

So, first things first—know your audience. But, how do you do that? And, importantly, how can you be sure an audience fits a particular category?

Those are not easy questions, but a quick answer is to prepare. A lot of the time, preparation for a speaking engagement means figuring out what to say. However, before doing that, you must make sure you have a good grasp on the type of audience you will be facing and gauge how they might want to receive information. No matter how you want to deliver your message, focus on what the audience is looking for if you want to be effective. As a quick example, most actuarial audiences will appreciate seeing all the details you can provide, as well as the analysis you performed to draw your conclusions. This is not the case, however, with an audience of sales or marketing professionals. In general, they would likely be interested in your conclusions first, with a moderate level of detail to follow. If you bog them down with details at the beginning, you may lose their interest for the rest of the presentation. The end result is an ineffective presentation that will be forgotten almost immediately.

So, pay close attention to who will be in your audience (what types of professionals). In most settings, you should know well in advance to whom you will be presenting. If the presentation is within your company, you will likely know many of the participants personally, so you will be able to make some clear judgments on how to best craft your information so it will be received well. If you don’t know those in your audience, reach out to colleagues who do and get some feedback on the audience as part of your early preparation.

Another way to get to know your audience is to ask them questions, either prior to your presentation or even during it. If you know some of the people in your audience, don’t be afraid to reach out in advance and probe them on what they will be looking for in your presentation. A more challenging approach (that is not a substitute for upfront preparation) is to ask your audience on the fly, during the presentation, what they are looking for. The obvious challenge is you will need to quickly adapt to their responses and present your information exactly the way they want it. Experienced presenters are much more likely to use this technique. For example, they may start the presentation with this question: “Do you want to hear my whole story from the beginning or have me get right to my conclusions?” The presenter then needs to be ready to direct the presentation either way. Again, this is not an easy task, but one that certainly lets you get to know your audience.

Simplify Your Message

We’ve all heard of the KISS principle: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Well, for presenting to nontechnical audiences (or to technical audiences for that matter), I prefer a different phrase. In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, leadership guru John Maxwell makes this pronouncement: “Communicators make the complex simple.”1 If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this quote. These five “simple” words are the key to delivering the right information to the right audience. If you want to be a great communicator, focus on taking complex information and making it easy for everyone to understand. If you’ve done your job, everyone should walk away saying, “I get it.”

One more well-known phrase for you is: “Time is money.” Well, these days, with all the technology we have at our fingertips and all the information that floats by us in the form of emails, tweets, posts, blogs and so on, your audience is prone to distraction. People have gotten increasingly impatient, so they need you to get to your point quickly. In this case, quickly also means simply. You need to make absolutely sure the message you are trying to convey is clear—so everyone “gets it” clearly and immediately.

One of the things actuaries need to pay close attention to with nontechnical audiences is avoiding going into excruciating detail, which is typically our comfort zone but, unfortunately, perpetuates the perception that actuaries are poor communicators. Thus, you must pay close attention to the level of detail you are providing and make sure you are simplifying the complex. Focus a lot of attention here, and your audience will benefit. It’s perfectly fine to provide more details if questions come up that require going a little deeper, but you need to let the audience ask you to go there. As part of your preparation, look at everything you are presenting (your words, your slides, your data, your charts and graphs) and ask yourself:

  • Is this simple?
  • Will my audience get it right away?
  • What may be confusing?

Be honest with yourself, and you will be on the path to creating a presentation that hits the mark for your audience.

As a final thought on keeping it simple, when presenting any topic, I focus on these three “Cs” of communicating: make sure you are clear, concise and candid. Make sure your information is clear—ask yourself the three questions I posed. Make sure you are being concise—in this case, more is not better. Brevity is another key to understanding. Finally, be candid with your audience, whose understanding of your information will be improved if you show your genuine self. Audiences can see through presenters who are not being candid, and they will quickly zone out. Be yourself, and be genuine, in a clear, concise way.

Sell Your Point of View

You need to keep in mind that anytime you are speaking to a group, whether they are technical or nontechnical, you are essentially “selling” a point of view. As you advance in your business career, less and less is black-and-white, and more of what you deal with is in a gray area—there is often no one, true, right answer. You must recognize that more than one point of view can be “right,” and everyone has a different lens through which he or she draws opinions. Thus, start with the premise that you must sell your point of view to any audience.

Before I provide a few suggestions on how to best sell your point of view, let me make a related point. While you want to make every presentation interesting, and to some degree entertaining, style should never trump substance. Style is not unimportant, but it can never take the place of actually making a strong case. You need to know your topic cold, and you need to be very confident that your point of view has merit. So, start there. Make sure you have a strong point, backed up by credible information. That should be the outline to making your case. Then utilize the suggestions about knowing your audience and keeping your information simple.

Now that we are clear on substance trumping style, let’s discuss some opportunities to add style to your presentation to improve the likelihood of making your case. First, I don’t believe you will have much luck convincing your audience of your point of view unless you display some passion—quite a bit of passion, in fact. How can you expect your audience to buy in if they don’t necessarily believe you, yourself, have bought in? You need to show them your passion to persuade them to be on your side—to really “move” them. I know a lot of actuaries are low-key introverts, and that’s fine. But, if you really want to persuade someone, he or she needs to see your passion come through.

Alongside passion, you need to bring high energy to your presentation. People want to hear from interesting, dynamic speakers. They want to be interested and energized while you convince them your point of view has merit. The more they see your energy, the more easily you will draw them to your side. So, make sure you are well prepared to present your information to your audience—if you are well prepared, then you can focus on bringing passion and having energy throughout your talk.

If I haven’t yet convinced you how important showing passion and energy are, consider this: How does it feel to be in the audience of a two-hour presentation in which the presenter shows no passion for his or her topic and has very little energy? Perhaps his or her voice is monotone as well. How quickly does your mind wander? When do you begin checking emails? How long before you regret sitting too close to the front of the room where there is no escape? We’ve all been there before, so I implore you to not be the speaker who elicits these mental questions from your audience.

Finally, while earlier I stressed keeping your points simple, I believe the judicious use of PowerPoint slides (or other graphics) can be helpful in making your case. Bear in mind, however, that your slides need to supplement what you are saying, not replace what you are saying. Slides should not be overcrowded with narrative. Rather, they should have plenty of white space, and they should be loaded with eye-catching, easy-to-read charts and graphs (not to be studied but to help your points resonate with the audience). Never overdo it, but always allow a tool like PowerPoint to help you drive home your key messages so your audience walks away remembering what you want them to remember. You know the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Well, it’s true.

Conclusion

To wrap it all up, I strongly believe actuaries, based on the vast knowledge they build through the exam process and company rotations, have a tremendous opportunity to ascend to very high levels within insurance companies and consulting organizations. However, a key to success on the professional ladder is being able to communicate effectively with all different audiences, especially nontechnical ones, which you encounter more and more as you rise within the ranks. Because this doesn’t come naturally to most actuaries, we must be well prepared when the opportunities arise. To have the maximum impact, make sure you know your audience, keep it simple and sell your point of view.

Raymond E. DiDonna, FSA, is CEO at LOGiQ3 in Toronto, Ontario.

References:

  1. 1. Maxwell, John C. 2007. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.