Shifting Gears

shifting gears in a car as an analogy to effective time management

A wise learner once said, “Sometimes you just have to shift gears.” 

This advice came from a leader participating in a presentation skills workshop with members of his team. The client was in the financial services industry. Their presentations to clients included a LOT of highly complex, technical information.  

They faced two challenges. First, many of their clients were not as technically proficient as they were. That resulted in presentations that were difficult to understand. Second, many of the presenters shied away from making specific recommendations because they felt the data they presented stood on its own.  

In their mind, it should be clear what the client should do once the data was presented.  

The Challenge 

The challenge this group faced is common. For example, it occurs in complex sales conversations, when speaking to leadership, and during training sessions. In each of these situations, the person doing the speaking is responsible for helping someone understand something well enough to act upon it. Success is not about simple knowledge transfer. It’s about shaping information to meet the listener’s needs and perspective.  

The shifting gears comparison is a good way to describe what needs to happen in these interactions because when you’re driving a car, you shift up or down to adapt to traffic and road conditions.  

During a presentation, shifting gears is about the ability to stop talking about something in one way—perhaps the most comfortable way for you—and start talking about it in another way, one more suitable for the listener.  

Here are a few recommendations to help you do that.  

In Preparation for Your Presentations 

  • Consider your audience. How does their knowledge of your topic differ from yours? What are their attitudes and preconceptions? Is there disagreement in the group about the recommendation you’re making? Think about what it will take to persuade individuals in the group. 
  • With your audience in mind, build your flexibility by considering alternative ways to deliver your message. For example, what would you say if someone asked you to make your point in one or two sentences? What would you say if you were asked to deliver this information to someone with no knowledge of your industry? How would you respond to a reluctant, defensive audience member? 
  • Get comfortable with the distinction between features and benefits. A feature describes what something is. A benefit describes what it does for your listener. Listeners are more interested in benefits than features, so get comfortable leading with it.  
  • Consider using storytelling techniques like analogies or hypothetical situations to make your point. For example, “This automatic feature functions a lot like the brakes in your car…” Or, “Imagine what would happen if both of these systems failed at the same time…”  

 During Your Presentations 

  • Remember that delivering a clear recommendation makes it easier to listen. You don’t have to be aggressive or ask for the moon. You just need to be clear. For example, “At the end of this presentation, I’d like your buy-in on the new plan” is much clearer than “Today I’ll describe the new plan.” Do your best to shift away from what feels safe to something that is direct.  
  • Try to judge your success—in the moment—not so much on whether you’re saying everything as planned but on whether listeners understand. This might involve leaving out material you’ve prepared or jumping ahead to your recommendation before you’ve built your case. That’s OK. When you let others’ understanding be the driving force of your presentation, it will be easier to adjust on the fly.  

 Why Shifting Gears is Hard 

  1. Just as learning to drive a stick shift takes practice, so does shifting gears to aid understanding during your presentations. Be patient with yourself as you flex your shifting skills.  
  2. Finally, and perhaps most difficult, learning to shift away from your way of presenting information requires giving up what feels natural to you. When the shift happens, it may feel like you aren’t being thorough enough or that you aren’t demonstrating your expertise. With practice, it will feel more comfortable.  

 The next time you’re delivering a presentation that doesn’t seem to be landing, try shifting out of your comfort zone to meet your audience where they are. 

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