Speak about what you know – or your audience doesn’t

Everyone’s an expert on something. When working for a wildlife charity, my expertise was giving a broad general view of the local wildlife environment: what was happening and what was going to happen. It was the theme and expectation of all my talks to local groups. The same person rarely heard the talk twice and with this amount of regular practice, I became reasonably proficient in my subject, although I don’t recall ever being called an expert.

In order to keep the subject fresh for me, I would make the occasional minor change in the talk format. Nothing radical, until one day a colleague gave me a wildlife magazine article on the decline of the starling population. I was just leaving to give a talk, so I quickly scanned the article so I could use it as a mildly sensational introduction.

So in front of my 60 strong audience, I announced that, before I started, I had some disquieting news on the decline of the starling population. I was about to continue with the importance of supporting wildlife initiatives that address these problems, when a resounding “No they’re not!” interrupted my flow, and was followed by “I’ve got hundreds in my garden!” Two other people supported this view and there followed an extended three-way conversation between them across the hall.

The remaining 57 audience members looked at me to see how I was going deal with this and get back to the real purpose of their being there. I clumsily terminated their private debate with a promise to send a copy of the article to anyone who wanted it. No one did.

I wrote recently about being poorly prepared and over confident. Although I knew my subject, to introduce topics on which I was not an expert was a disaster. With public speaking, stick to what you know or, if you are going to wing it, make sure you know more than your audience.

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