Monday, March 01, 2010

What you look at can keep you from seeing


I took this picture of a baby squirrel hanging out outside the window of a hospital cafeteria. 

It wasn’t until later, after I downloaded the images off of my camera, that I noticed the reflection of my handbag super-imposed over the cute little ball of fur.

Although I had been so focused on the squirrel that he was all I noticed when I took the snapshot, it’s possible, if I were to hand this photo to someone without an explanation, they might focus on the red, white, and blue pattern.

What the handbag is to the squirrel, examples or presentation data can be to the concept you are trying to get across to an audience.

The first time I experienced this, I was interviewing scientific journal publishers to understand how well our existing on-line journal submission and review product met their needs.  Some kept insisting their process was completely different from the one we had outlined though there were only two differences I could see:

  • Some publishers combined the duties of an editor and
    deputy-editor into one role.
  • Some publishers had a different name for the deputy-editor.

I remember thinking how can you not see the parallels?  After a short time, I realized that the differences they were focusing on were keeping them from seeing what I was trying to explain – the underlying processes were exactly the same.   It was my job to fix this!

If it’s dark outside and you’re standing inside a lit room, looking out through a window can be a challenge.   Usually the reflection on the surface of the glass can make it hard to see through it.  As you know, there are ways to address this.  (For example, you can press your face up against the window.  Or dim the light in the room.)

Similarly, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure your audience is more likely to see what you want them to see.  Here are just a few:

When preparing:

  • Interview members of your core audience ahead of time to learn their terminology and tweak your presentation accordingly. 
  • Present to a friend or colleague and ask them to describe, in their own words, what you have just shared.  If there are big gaps between what you intended and what they understood, make modifications as needed.  Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
  • Update your examples to include something relevant to your core audience. 

When presenting:

  • Describe what it is you would like your audience to see past.  e.g. “Please be aware there is a red, white, and blue pattern reflected on the window surface.  However, what I would like you to focus on is the squirrel on the other side of the window.

What are some ways this phenomena has impacted you?  How do you work around it?  Do you have any tips and tricks to recommend? 

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