120 Seconds: Don’t Assume Your Audience’s Knowledge

Sleeping in a coffee shop.

Right now I am sitting in a coffee shop by myself. It’s not one of my normal haunts. In the evening it’s a venue for mostly indie and acoustic-style artists, but it’s pretty dead during the day. I’m here alone because I stood myself up on a meeting that I was planning on being here for.

I do this a lot.

See, I have this problem with confirming appointments. Over the past couple of days we’ve been working out details for today. In the last message the guy I was supposed to meet with said this:

I get off at noon, so I could be there anytime after 1. How about 130? Give me the address if you know it.

So, what did I do? First, I didn’t reply right away. Second, over the course of the day in between I began to just assume that we were good for today.

We weren’t; I hadn’t responded. So it’s me and the guy in the picture here “getting work done.”

It has me thinking about how often we assume what people know when we’re talking with them. As I was pursuing my bachelors in Interpersonal Comm we spent a lot of time talking about ways to make sure your message is clear. A couple of summers ago I took some seminary classes on preaching and sermon preparation, and amazingly enough they talked about the exact same thing.

As I think about communicators who do this well, the example that stands out over and above all others is the pastor of a church that I went to in college. He had the same pattern of introduction every time he’d start into talking  about the Bible passage that he was covering:

We’re in Name of Book this week. Name is the Numberth book in the Old/New Testament, which is the First/Second part of the Bible. It’s believed that Author wrote it to Audience and we’re reading in the Numberth chapter.

Do you see what he does here? He states a ton of background information without making anyone feel stupid for not knowing it. If you had been there the week before, it would information you already knew but changing up where we were reading kept it relevant and new people started to engage already because he’s giving them information that they were wondering without knowing what questions to ask.

In any conversation or topic there are ways to do this, and the larger the audience you have the easier it is to do so. Look at your audience and figure out what things you know are true about all of them. If there are things you can’t assume, don’t. It’s far better to assume lack of knowledge. Restating something may take an extra minute or two, but you may have helped a handful of people to engage in the topic at hand that would have been left out without those 120 seconds.