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The risk of “I understand”

One of the worst bits of feedback you can get after a presentation is “I understand.”

Whenever I hear somebody saying this I know I’m in deep trouble.

This is how I read “I understand”: “I can make logical sense of what you’re trying to tell me but I still don’t care.”

“I understand” is a civilised statement that reflects a lack of engagement by somebody who wants to be polite.

Every time I work with a client on their story we spend time rearranging the sequence of events produced with perfect logic to find the essence of the story and the reason to care.

If you ask me “Natalia, you studied law, how did you end up working in communication and storytelling?”

I could tell you “Well,… I was born in Bilbao, Basque Country, I studied law, then did a Masters in humanitarian assistance, volunteered for many years in organisations working with illegal migrants and prisoners, got a scholarship to do my doctorate, got an internship at the United Nations, did my PhD, launched a leadership programme for indigenous peoples, worked on advocacy and legal projects as a human rights consultant for international organisations, got a post-doc at the University of Aberdeen and then a permanent position at the University of East Anglia, and I had a baby and I left my permanent position, and started thinking about how to use my experience in international advocacy to help businesses make a positive impact.”

If you stayed with me through that whole paragraph you have really the power of concentration and attention. I’m sure you understood what I said, but I doubt you were engaged by it.

Instead of this long, logical chronological introduction I could tell you a short story about the day I failed because I stopped believing in what I was saying.

That would be probably more effective to help you “understand” what I do what I do and why.

When we care, we understand better.

Coach Carter is a film about Richmond High School’s basketball team and their coach, Ken Carter, who suspended the team’s training and games due to the players’ poor academic results.

That’s the story, but there’s something more. Why did Coach Carter decided to suspend the games?

He did it because he wanted a better life for the students, and knew that if they didn’t get good academic results they wouldn’t go to college, and that if they didn’t go to college they would very likely end up in prison. This is the core of the story and the reason why Coach Carter and you and I care about this story. The mere fact that the basketball team was suspended is not enough to make me want to know what happened next.

When Coach Carter talks to the players about how they need to improve their academic performance, he doesn’t just say “You need to get good marks to get to college, otherwise you’ll end up in prison.”

He does more than that.

He makes them feel that this is important for him too, that he’s there for them and believes in them. That’s why the students eventually listen: because they know he cares.

Before you can be fully understood, you need to connect with the people you’re talking to and help them care about your story.

Next time you’re working on your presentation or story, ask yourself “What’s at the core of what I’m trying to say, and why does it matter?” And when you find the answer to this question, tell your story around that, and only that.



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