The Peril of Talking
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I anticipate 2016 with a mixture of optimism and anxiety. My optimism is based on the fact that many investors now realize that capturing the returns of the global marketplace, using low-cost index funds, trumps the daunting odds of trying to “beat the market.”
My anxiety is based on an already crowded schedule for webinars and presentations over the coming year. Why does this seemingly good news create anxiety? Because it involves talking and a group of people passively listening.
Before giving a presentation, I often think about the obstacles to making a meaningful connection with my audience. I don’t know who is attending. They don’t know me. If I am giving a talk on investing, there is likely to be a broad range of investing sophistication among my listeners. It’s also likely that attendees come from different backgrounds, have had different experiences and sharply divergent views about investing.
How am I supposed to know what is of interest to some, all or none of them? Like most speakers, I have a standard talk that I adjust when appropriate. But how do I tweak it when I am in the dark about my audience?
I have tried some innovative ways to overcome these barriers, with mixed success. For example, I have asked event sponsors to send me whatever information they have about the attendees. Often, the information I receive is too vague to be useful.
A more productive approach has been to ask the sponsor to contact attendees in advance and ask them to submit questions in writing. While typically only a small number respond, I gain valuable information from those who do.
Another tactic has been to make my talks as interactive as possible by asking questions of the audience. It’s not that hard to come up with good questions. Consider this one: “How many of you have experienced something similar to [whatever I have recounted]?” The problem is that it’s difficult to engage a large audience. Also, the best I can get is a show of hands. I have found that trying to involve listeners in this way is very challenging. I worry that it seems awkward and perhaps manipulative.
Another problem involves the long-term impact of my message. In the relatively brief time allotted to me (typically around 45 minutes), I’m tasked with conveying a lot of information about a complex subject. Am I really doing any good? Is anyone paying attention? Will they retain what I’m communicating long enough to act on it?
The data is not encouraging. According to studies referenced in an article published in the Harvard Business Review, we forget from one-third to one-half of what we hear within eight hours.