Why your talks/documents/presentations/blogs must contain concrete examples

Communicating effectively is one of the most important skills today. And most people are not particularly good at it.

In this post, I am going to give one very simple and effective technique that will significantly improve your talks or documents or presentations or blog posts.

Whenever possible, give specific examples.

That's it. That is the technique. It is very easy, and yet most people ignore it. You were probably going to ignore it too, except that I am now going to convince you with an example.

What I am said above was a little theoretical and abstract. It sounds interesting, but it hasn't really had a significant or lasting impact on your brain.

So here's an example. Consider the following paragraph from a random blog post:

We would like to profile women who we consider an inspiration to others. These are women who are on the way to living their best life. What they have to say is of great value to the forum. We will be featuring these write-ups from time-to-time. It is also a great opportunity for them to highlight what they do/ what works for them.

Compare that with this:

Did you know that Asha Joglekar, owner of 'Bhakri' restaurant spends two hours a day in just dropping and picking up her kids from school? How does she do that and manage a restaurant? Reema Shourie is an accomplished painter and has held three exhibitions of her work inspite of having a full-time job in a software company, and having two kids. We would like to profile such women who are an inspiration to us. These are women who are on the way to living their best life. What they have to say is of great value to the forum.

The second one definitely has more impact, because when the reader is reading the second part of the paragraph ('women who are an inspiration' etc) she has specific examples in mind that makes the rest of the paragraph easy to relate to, remember, and understand at a deeper level.

Don't take my word for it; there's scientific research backing up this claim

This is not just my gut feeling. There is psychological research showing that people understand "thematic" and "concrete" stuff better and faster than abstract things. This was first proved in a famous experiment called 'Wason's Selection Task'. Instead of describing the experiment, I'm going to run it on you.

Here is a puzzle for you. I'm going to show you 4 cards. Each card has a number on one side, and a color on the other side. The rule for the cards is this, "If one side of the card has an even number, then the opposite side of the card MUST be RED." Your job is to figure out whether any of these cards violate the rule or not. I keep the 4 cards on the table in front of you. You can see one side of each card, and what you see is: '3', '8', 'BROWN' and 'RED'. Your job is to determine whether there is any violation of the rule or not by turning over the minimum number of cards. So, to be sure, how many cards do you need to turn over, and which?

Time yourself. How long did it take you to solve this?

And you probably got it wrong. 73% of the people do. The correct answer is: you need to turn over 2 cards. The one with '8' on it, and the one with 'BROWN' on it. If you got anything else, you're mistaken. 8 has to be turned over to check that it's back is RED. BROWN has to be turned over to ensure that it's back is not an even number. '3' and 'RED' do NOT need to be checked.

Now here's a different puzzle:

You are a policeman in a bar. You have to ensure that all the drinking happening there is legal. The rule is, "If a person is drinking beer, then he must be above 21 years of age." You can see 4 people at a table drinking. The first person is drinking a coke, but you can't guess his age. The second person is drinking a beer, and you can't guess his age. The third person is obviously a teenager (i.e. he's definitely under 21), but you're not sure what he's drinking. The fourth person is an old man, easily above 50, and you can't tell his age. Now, to be sure that the rule is not being violated, whom all do you need to check. (Here check is defined as asking for an age proof, and checking what drink he's drinking.)

Again, time yourself.

Within a few seconds you must have gotten the right answer: you need to check the age of person #2, who's drinking the beer, and you need to check whether person #3, the teenager,  is drinking beer or not.

Here is the amazing part: both puzzles are identical! Yet most people get the first one wrong and the second one correct. And, it takes them much less time to do the second one.

Now do you understand why your talks need examples?

Posted via email from Navin’s posterous

4 thoughts on “Why your talks/documents/presentations/blogs must contain concrete examples”

  1. Anecdotes help focus attention on an issue. But very dangerous to let anecdotes drive decision making. Empirical evidence ought to do that. But however nice the visualisations we can produce to show empirical data, they are not as captivating as one good anecdote.

    I too try to use anecdotes while trying to make a point.

    Malcolm Gladwell discusses conveying your thoughts and making them go viral in his book ‘The Tipping Point’. It is worth a read.

    1. @Anirudha, you’re right. Anecdotes are to emotionally connect with an audience. Your decisions should be driven by data, but you need to convey/communicate those decisions by using anecdotes (ensuring that the anecdotes are in line with the data). Because, most of the time, the data does not speak for itself.

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