Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of theworld’s most quoted scientists, is a brilliant communicator. He has to be… as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) he’s the go-to guy for just about every medical malady and contagion known to man. He consulted five different US presidents on emerging health threats as well as their potential danger to entire populations. Fauci played a pivotal role in driving government action during the AIDS crisis.
When I met America’s top doc he asked me abruptly: “What can I do for you?” Nervously I answered: “What makes a good communicator?”
“Know thy audience,” he replied with power and conviction sounding like God presenting the Ten Commandments to Charlton Heston.
Know Thy Audience
Fauci’s right – “know thy audience” – if there were a cardinal rule of communication, this would probably be it. Fauci won’t accept a speaking engagement unless he’s confident he has enough information on the audience. He always asks questions about the audience’s scientific/medical background, professional responsibilities, personal experience with issue, education level and other factors – before he starts to prepare any remarks. Finding out about your audience – and developing a clear idea about who they are and what they need – can make a crucial difference in your communication effort.
Too often, communicators either speak above or below their audience’s level. Giving too much information leaves non-specialists in a daze with nothing tangible to take away from a presentation. On the other hand, communicators who simplify content until its distilled pulp aren’t much better. “Avoid giving your audiences fluff,” Fauci warns. (He likes this word “fluff,” I noticed). The secret to effective communication he says is to know enough about your audience and customize your remarks to speak directly to them addressing their specific concerns and interests.
But that’s not all I learned from the master. Fauci has other tips from his decades of experience talking to everyone from average citizens to top scientists to world leaders.
Focus Your Audience’s Attention
Fauci doesn’t like when presenters flip flop from one topic to another without offering audiences reference points along the way. They need a cohesive story line, something to hold onto throughout a presentation so they don’t get lost. Once some orators get started and proceed at full speed, they don’t realize that some audience members aren’t keeping up with all the information coming their way. Fauci says effective communicators need to bring audiences back to base camp so they feel grounded.
For presentations of a linear nature, Fauci uses a timeline matrix as a device to keep bringing the audience back to the story’s chronology. Using this simple device he figured out a way to turn his presentation into a story… It became easier for his audience to comprehend all the information they were getting because of the easy-to-comprehend manner in which it was framed. For example, when Fauci spoke at a global conference on AIDS, he kept bringing his audience back to the timeline showing them the story chronologically so no one would get lost.
A photo of a young, brown-haired doctor doing his rounds at NIAID adds a nice human touch to a fact-filled slide deck at the conference. Note the above picture of Fauci visiting a patient in the HIV ward surrounded by about a dozen medical professionals. He lightens the somber tone of his remarks by joking that he is the doctor leading the rounds – you just can’t recognize him because his hair was brown – not the silver it is today. The audience lets out a laugh for this prominent person’s self-deprecating comment. The famous immunologist just endeared himself to his audience and made a 30-year retrospective of a disease more personal.
Crafting your own unique voice that shows your humanity yet retains a professional tone is essential to win over audiences. Don’t be a faceless entity devoid of emotion or character. Develop a personality with distinct viewpoints so your audience can engage with you on a personal level. Let them know that you’re human – communicate with a tone, style and pitch reflective of your own distinctive voice. Striking the right style will put your audiences at ease and help you develop a relationship with them.
Make Graphics Easy on the Eyes
Fauci uses quality graphics to explain some of the more complicated issues in his presentations. He prepared this slide for the same AIDS conference; it’s clear and easy on the eyes; audience members in the back row can see it without strain. The illustration is not junked up with too much text or other distractions. The visual makes a point that is easy for the audience to grasp.
Visuals can help you explain complicated topics easier, but you have to know what you’re doing. Too often presenters cram an abundance of content into a single slide presenting a jumbled mess. Graphics should be used purposefully and compelling. Don’t make them data dumps or novellas.