There have always been two paths available to the average professional: become the specialist, or become the generalist.

These days, with a large number of companies seeking more efficiency out of their workers before creating new jobs, and with more and more intuitive and powerful technologies at our fingertips, it can seem as though the effective generalist has the best path forward. But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to presentations.

In the broad spectrum of communications, presentations are on the in-depth side. Many would say presentations should offer more expansion, clarity, and credibility than the whitepaper, even. Presentations are a time to air out a fully supported concept to a thoughtful, knowledgeable group of people. And if they’re not knowledgeable yet, they probably came to the presentation to get knowledgeable.

Great presentations educate as they persuade, and it’s really difficult to do either with only a generalist’s grasp of the subject matter. Even if you don’t go as deep as your knowledge in any given presentation, it’s vital that you hold those cards. The most obvious reason is the double-edged sword of Q&A time; a less obvious reason is that out of knowledge comes authority and confidence—two things every audience wants from the speaker.

Of course, the idea of “speaking from your strengths” goes deeper than, “Did you major in this subject in college?” Speaking from your strengths is all about setting up a presentation narrative and direction that really feeds into your style and approach. We consider it somewhat of a given that the generalist shouldn’t be giving a TED talk on IT infrastructure in government security. What we’re talking about is a step further, after you’re presumably speaking about a topic that you are, indeed, an expert on.

So how do you do this? For one, be careful with prompts or topics handed down to you from conferences, bosses, or whoever else is asking you to speak. Many times people will go ahead and choose the presentation topic without knowing the topic well enough to choose correctly. You need to get clearance to talk about the most important aspects of your subject, not the aspects that seem important to a non-specialist. This is so important for starting your presentation off with the right context for your audience.

Second, think about the way you personally learned about or became an expert in the topic area. Chances are the ways you learn feed your strengths. This approach—teaching the way you learn—often has the added benefit of creating a story out of your understanding, and this is something the audience can hang onto very easily.

When the next presentation opportunity comes around, be sure to take control early and often. You’re the expert—that’s why they asked you to speak. So make sure you have the appropriate context and approach to support the knowledge you want to share.

Question: Have you ever been asked to speak on a subject and felt like they already had it all wrong? How did you handle it?


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