“Everybody will know what I mean.” Five of the most dangerous words a presenter can use. Whenever you find yourself saying this sentence to yourself or to another, chances are very good that you are wrong.
Webinar presentations are even more susceptible to the problem of communication assumptions because of their limitless global reach. Anybody, anywhere may watch your content. You can’t look out at a roomful of faces and make a snap decision that most are from a cultural, professional, and generational background that matches your own (not that you’d be right about that anyway).
This is a pity, because finding a common reference can be enormously effective in establishing empathy and a sense of connection with your audience. We love shared experiences, and they build community and trust. But it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the things that are most relevant and familiar to you are equally well known by your audience.
Imagine me starting a presentation by clenching my teeth, overemphasizing my words, and saying “Submitted for your approval… One Ken Molay… A webinar presenter about to embark on a curious journey. His next stop… The Twilight Zone.”
Some members of the audience would get a chuckle out of the implied reference to Rod Serling introducing episodes of the 1960’s-era “Twilight Zone” American TV show. Younger members of my audience, however, would wonder why I was talking so strangely. I would have started my presentation by alienating half my audience and letting them know that they weren’t in on the joke. They weren’t members of the club.
So let’s get around that by making a reference to something much more recent. Something that is so widespread that everybody must know it. How about the first Harry Potter book and movie? You know… That worldwide mega-hit that started the franchise. What was the title again? In the US and India it was “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” But in the rest of the world it was “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Failed again.
Presenters working with audiences in a particular specialty often assume that everybody is familiar with jargon and common abbreviations used in their field. I can’t tell you the number of webinars I have supported where a speaker keeps using an abbreviation or shorthand terminology and I see typed-in chat from attendees asking what those letters mean.
English speakers should watch out for contractions on slide text as well. A well-educated audience that understands English as a second (or third) language may not be used to seeing English contractions. I remember writing out the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” for a Peruvian friend of mine who wanted to study them. He stopped on the second line and said, “I’ve come to talk with you? What is I’ve? That is not a real word!”
Does this mean you can never use a cultural reference or an abbreviation? It does not. It means you should be aware of when you are incorporating one and give a very brief bit of context so that the people unfamiliar with your reference at least know what it is related to. If you are presenting to an international audience, look for references that come from your own cultural background and may not be familiar to them. You can talk like yourself, but strive to make your slides extra clear for people who need a little extra help. Spell out an abbreviation on first use. Expand your contractions.
As a presenter, the burden of clear communications rests entirely on you. Never assume your audience will do the work for you.