Tag Archives: communication

Passion versus Purpose

We are often encouraged, particularly when we are young, to find our passion and follow it to greatness. The traditionally held logic is that if we do what we love success and money will follow. However, commonly as we grow older we come a conclusion that our passion isn’t realistic, or simply not an endeavor worth pursuing.  Having a passion is no doubt a driver to do more, be better you and make a mark on the world. However following raw passion without clear direction isn’t any better than being apathetic and having no passion at all. How does all of this translate into public speaking? In this post we explore how to add passion to your presentations, while maintaining a clear focused purpose.

“Do what you love, and feel as if you never work a day in your life!”

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation

Start from the beginning.

Many of us have several different things we are passionate about, the trouble is finding the time to focus on any one thing. When I began writing this blog I wanted to focus on something that I am passionate about, science communication. The posts I write are aimed at helping people (particularly scientists) communicate, present their work, and speak more clearly to an audience. However, with all the different aspects of science communication, how could I stay focused to get my message across? The answer is a clear purpose. Although I had passion about the message, creating a focused blog aimed at specific group with specific problems was, I found, the best way to go about disseminating my message. Yet, when you devote yourself a single endeavor, it can be difficult to pinpoint where passion should end and where purpose should begin.

Passion vs. Purpose

passion – noun 1. A strong and barely controllable emotion.
purpose – noun 1. The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

In the old days it wasn’t uncommon for someone to have complete and utter devotion to a single body of work. Workers trained for years as apprentices with more experienced craftsmen. These understudies would work diligently, until they were able to prove themselves in their field by becoming a journeyman.  Some people were born into this type of work, and embraced it whether it was their passion or not. Particularly before the advent of computers, some works of science and art would literally take a lifetime to complete. This level of devotion is not commonly seen these days, as most of us have many different responsibilities, tasks, and hobbies that play significant role in our lives. Our daily work, may not reflect our true passions in life, but it is possible to have a purpose in life driven by passion. We usually consider the definition of greatness  simply talent or inherent intelligence. The fact is that being driven by a passion will cause you to exert so much more effort you would normally put into a task. The outcome is, that when driven by passion and focused by purpose, we can achieve much more than we ever though possible.

It is entirely possible that your purpose is to let your passions spread through the world. However it is important to consider why we are doing what we do in the first place. In the case of public speaking and science communication you might ask yourself, am I trying to get feedback from the audience? am I trying to present new information that others can then use and benefit from? or perhaps you want to simply update a group of people on the progress that has been made on a project. Whatever your reason, if you allow some passion behind your words you can naturally captivate and inspire the audience. Although this can be difficult focusing on a positive reason for speaking in public can help tremendously. Whether it be, trying to impress your boss, or to help others, giving yourself a clear reason to communicate with improve your message.

“We have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to … to be of service to the world.” 1

An example of pure passion.

The video below is a compilation of several clips of Niel deGrasse Tyson speaking about how the US space program is underfunded. The emotion of Tyson and the force with which he speaks is raw, yet he is able to put these feelings into a coherent and clear message. His way of speaking is convincing because it has tremendous passion, but with great skill he is still maintaining a clear message. There is no doubt that with the deepest part of his soul he believes what he is saying to be true, you can not only hear it in his words you begin to feel it as you watch the video. When giving a presentation there often times when this  type of moving reaction is needed when you want to convince your audience about a certain point, or to rally them in agreeance. These types of speeches or presentations are particularly useful when you are trying to garner action by your audience members.

Let your passion drive you, let your purpose refine you.

The difficult thing about passion is that for the most part we don’t consciously choose what we are passionate about, rather we find our passion in our lives along the way as we grow and mature. Therefore, purpose has to drive our actions while we use passion to keep us motivated despite setbacks and difficulties in life. In the case of speaking in public, our purpose can feel much more mundane than passion, but without having a clear purpose we would simply end up ranting about a topic rather than speaking clearly. Combining these two ideas is key to becoming a great speaker. There are times, even when giving a boring quarterly report to the board room, that we must remind ourselves of the purpose of doing our job while keeping passion alive.

Perfect practice makes perfect

It is highly unlikely that going out on our first time speaking in public we will be able to make a convincing argument such as Dr. Tyson has done in the above video. That level of skill when speaking in public takes years of practice. Research has shown that those who are willing to stick it out with many hours of practice, end up becoming better at their task and are more successful. 2 Although we may feel that we are born with a set amount of skill, talent, or ability through dedicated practice and effort we can master any skill. 3 Keep in mind however, becoming excellent at a task requires lots of practice, discipline, failure, and often years to perfect. 2 With some effort however we can improve our communication skills and begin to have moving speeches just like the above video.


  1. Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. Random House.
  2. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087
  3. Robinson, K. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. Penguin.

Using Tension to Communicate Your Story

Have you ever wondered why some movies, books or television shows can be so enthralling while others are seemingly uninteresting? One reason why we get so hooked on a story is because of suspense. The stories that we most often enjoy have an moment where the final outcome can go either way, and we become emotionally invested in that outcome. During the build up of conflicts in the story we identify with the characters and think of ourselves in that situation. 3 Often for dramatic effect writers and directors make the audience wait as long as possible for the outcome, hoping to build up as much suspense as possible. This is really a build up of emotional frustration in ourselves, due to the not knowing of the outcome and having to wait. Suspense usually manifests itself in the form of tension, and in this post our topic is how to harness this powerful emotional feeling when communicating. By utilizing tension in your presentations you will be able to keep the audience engaged and interested in the outcome of your talk.

Wikimania 2014 opening ceremony audience 16

What is tension?

Tension is used in every aspect of communication from short stories to video games. 2 To begin we need to clearly define exactly what we are trying to achieve. Here, I am referring to tension as the slight emotional or mental strain we feel when we are hearing a story.  It is an effective tool that can help drive the narrative. 1 Using tension can create a more interesting story or increase audience attentiveness. The reason why it works so well is because people empathize with the story they are hearing and imagine themselves in the same situation. 3 This is a unique aspect of human nature that we try our best to identify with our colleagues and friends. Despite tension feeling unpleasant, humans want to be able to relate others and understand the problem at hand. People actually crave feelings that give them excitement and frustration, this helps create an interesting story and something that we enjoy. 2

So you may be asking yourself, but my boring subject matter has no tension, how can I create something that isn’t there in the first place? The fact is that every story can be told in a way that creates tension. There was probably a lot of tension throughout your project that you shrugged off because it didn’t seem to be that important at the time. Specifically in science, there is no work that is done without problems, difficulties, or hurdles to overcome. Yet, in our perception of our own work we tend to trivialize these difficulties so that it seems uninteresting. I can’t tell you how many times I have explained some seemingly boring aspect of my work to the general public only to hear the response of “that is so interesting!”. In our day to day it is easy for things to seem mundane. In fact, the problems you had to face and overcome to achieve your goals or finish your project add to the tension of the story.

Finding tension

There are some tricks you can use to help figure out what parts of your story will add tension when you tell it. Begin by thinking about any  actual consequences of your work, or your research. For example, anyone who does research in bio-medical fields where the lives of others depend on their work. Or perhaps people who take great risks to do work in dangerous areas, such as doctors without borders. If your work is something that is less dramatic, consider things that help people understand what you are solving and why. This is usually the main idea behind the “why should we care” slide that so many people include in their talks. The idea is that you want to explain how others can empathize with your work and expand on this emotion. Do this by brainstorming out some ideas on how your work effects the audience. Next make a list of all the problems big and small that you had to overcome. From your field vehicle breaking down, to someone getting attacked by a wild animal. People think that science is boring, but over the years I have seen deceit, sabotage, and literal fist fights. You don’t need to pretend to be writing a script for a soap opera, but identify conflict and use them to your advantage.  By coming up with a reason for the audience to care, and identifying problems that you faced, you can begin to weave a story that will be build empathy in the audience. Once the audience connects with your work it is easier to add the tension to the story.

Театр оперы и балета. Зал

A give and take interaction between you and the audience

Once you have identified the elements of the story that you will use in your presentation, it is time to add in the tension. Keep in mind that, you don’t want to use up all the tense moments in the first five minutes of your talk. Showing all your cards early will feel like a laundry list of complaints about how hard your project was, and it makes for an weak climax to the story.  Add suspenseful moments throughout your story, think about what happened first and how that led to the next problem you had to overcome. This can be as simple as “the first experiment failed so we went to plan B”. There likely has been been multiple problems to the research, and you can lead the audience through the narrative introducing the next conflict in a logical order as you go along. Remember to allow your audience question how you resolved the conflicts, but don’t just spoon feed all the answers right away give allow for space in your presentation before you resolve each problem.

Tension can also be built up by convincing the audience that they are “missing out” by not engaging in the presentation. 4  Marketers use this tactic all the time with adverts saying things like “By knowing these three secrets to finance you can be rich too, but only for a limited time!”. Using the correct language and visuals makes us think we will miss out and so the audience wants to know more. By being the speaker at a presentation you are in control of all the information and therefore can control who has access and by how much. 4 Use this power by dropping hints throughout the presentation, for example you can say something like this, “I’m going to share with you the secret to how this molecule works to chelate iron, but first let me tell you about X”. The point is that you are controlling the flow of information, and can dose it out slowly to the audience.  This power allows the speaker to create tension where and when they want since they can control these aspects which create tension.

By using tension in your presentation you will have another tool by which to get the audience to engage with your work. Being able to craft a good presentation takes practice so remember to try different points where you create tension, and where you reveal the outcome. With a little practice you will be well on your way to creating an interesting and exciting presentation.


1. Dollerup, C. (1970). The Concepts of “Tension”,“Intensity”, and “Suspense” in Short‐Story Theory. Orbis Litterarum, 25(4), 314-337.

2.  Lazzaro, N. (2004). Why we play games: Four keys to more emotion without story.

3. Stromberg, P. G., (Jun 18, 2010) The Mysteries of Suspense Why do we love suspense? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-drugs-and-boredom/201006/the-mysteries-suspense

4. Walsh, M., (May + June 2013). Harnessing the power of positive tension. http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/may-june-2013/harnessing-the-power-of-positive-tension

Communicating in a Classroom Setting

Until now I have only been addressing public speaking and communication as a means to disseminate information through a one way conversation. For example, when on stage communicating in a public setting, there is not much opportunity for audience participation. The expert is telling a story and conveying information, while the audience listens passively. In these cases generally the only feedback from the audience is nonverbal facial expressions and gestures. There might be time for a few questions at the end, but for the most part this it is a one way street.  There is however, another very important venue for communication, knowledge transfer, and public engagement, which is the classroom. Whether you are a teacher at a high school or a professor at a university the skills and techniques needed are different than an “on stage” presentation. In this post we will discuss some of the ways you can improve audience participation and increase the information retention of your audience.

Why is speaking in a classroom so much different than communicating on stage in a public setting? For the most part it has to do with the opportunity for the audience to ask questions and engage the speaker in a way that is possible in other formats. Sure there is time for Q&A  at the end of a presentation, but a few minutes of questions is no comparison to the the back and forth discussion that a classroom setting can have. In the classroom you are teaching to the audience, and allowing them to have an active role in learning. Whereas In the public setting you are relying on the audience to pay attention while you are keeping them engaged and interested. Here, when I refer to the classroom I an going to assume that the audience is composed of young adults. There are obviously many different methods for communicating and when it comes to kids, and some of the methods explained here won’t work as well due to different attention spans, maturity, discipline, etc. However, as a communicator knowing a few techniques to manage a back and forth discussion and increase audience participation can be useful for any classroom setting.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S77546, Schulunterricht

Getting your audience involved

The first step to communicating in the classroom is to get the audience involved. It is important to begin by literally telling your audience that it is okay to participate. Too often students are discouraged from sharing ideas or questions for fear of feeling stupid or being ridiculed. When you set the tone so that everyone is part of the discussion (as long as it is respectful) it will encourage everyone to take part. If you are working with a particularly young audience you will need to make sure you can guide the discussion and not let it go off topic. No matter, it is imperative that you involve the audience, for two reasons. The first is that if the students are not involved then they will quickly lose interest. These days most of us (including adults) have shorter and shorter attention spans, and are not often able to stay engaged for very long periods of time. When it comes to communicating on the stage, we are relying on the audience to stay attentive on their own. We help this by being interesting and polished, but the ultimate responsibility is on the audience to stay with us. By involving the audience, it will engage them in a different way because they will want to have their opinion or question heard. The second reason is that everyone learns in slightly different ways and most of us need to experience something first hand to learn about it. That being said, as the communicator you will need to provide a mixture of learning opportunities for the audience, be it from questions, discussion,  visual aids , or a hands on activity. Allowing the audience to ask questions, make comments and participate in both listening and speaking, make for a more diverse learning experience. Make sure, however, that you are also prepared with some different kinds of material (visual and hands on) in addition to your spoken word to engage your audience with.

Managing a back and forth discussion

Generally as a communicator you will likely get the most engagement from a discussion setting. Communicators use language as a primary tool and it is no surprise that this would be our first way to connect with the audience. But how do you manage the discussion? The first step is to make sure that you are staying more or less on topic. You can allow a lot of leeway for people to have their comment, but the point is you will need to be comfortable cutting someone off and saying “thanks but we need to stay on topic”.  Now you may be thinking that this will only applies to a younger audience, but you would be surprised at how many adults have little concept of how to remain on topic. Ideally you should allow for questions to be answered as they come up, or pause often and see if any questions arise. However questions are not the only thing that you need to allow for, comments should be welcomed as long as they are on topic. Literally saying this to the audience, is helpful since you are setting the rules for the discussion, rather than having the audience make them up on their own. Cite the fact that time is limited (as it always is) and so everything needs to be on topic and be relevant to the subject. The importance of questions and comments is that they can spur others into a new way of thinking they had not considered before. This is helpful to allow the audience to understand the material better or at least remember more of the presentation. Often it is good practice to repeat the question and answer more than once during the presentation. Humans have a better chance at remembering something if it is repeated with short breaks in between repetitions. In general you will want to allow the discussion to happen naturally, keeping it on track and on time, while making sure that repeat all important points.

When should you become a moderator and allow the audience to interact with itself?

There may be a time that you get a good back and forth going between audience members and you should allow this given time constraints. A back and forth between the audience members can be something that is very productive or it can be a complete disaster, you will need to be the judge of  how it is going. As the communicator you will need to moderate the conversation, making sure no one is cut off and that the discussion stays relevant to the topic. Imagine that you are the referee that can stop the fight at any time if someone is about the get really hurt. Keep in mind that back and forth within the audience is usually not well organized, so you need to also be aware that some people might dominate the conversation. It is your job to make sure that the conversation stay balanced, even by verbally saying “okay what about what other people who have not commented think?”. Ideally this will not take too much effort because for the most part people are respectful of one another, but you are also there to make sure they follow the rules. Allowing the audience to discuss the topic can vastly enrich the experience of everyone in the room.

Lehre an der hhu 2011

Why is this important? and what are the advantages?

When you engage the audience in a classroom setting you are essentially giving them the ability to express thoughts and questions while learning something new. Things may not go as you had planned, but that is what is so unique about classrooms, the discussion is often organic and very interesting ideas can be born from it. As the speaker you are always in control to make sure the right material is covered, however the way in which that material is covered is really up to the audience.  This is relevant because of the way that Humans learn, is through trial and error. Allowing people the chance to formulate thoughts and opinions of the material, will drastically increase information retention over passive listening to a presentation. Overall the classroom setting is a very different place when communicating and if done in a respectful and controlled manner everyone will walk away having gained new insights and information.

Finding Your Voice as a Science Communicator

Whether you work in the private industry or in the academic world, being able to communicate well is important. However, many people feel anxious or develop fear about speaking in public, which causes a them to sound shaky or unsure of themselves. If you are just starting out in the realm of public speaking, you may be struggling to establish your style, overcome the fear, and find your voice while presenting. Establishing a clear style that you identify with which helps create a speaking routine which can alleviate the stress of being on stage. Furthermore, developing your own unique voice is an important skill that can help you connect with the audience in a powerful way. In this post we explore a few tips to help you find your own unique voice for that next presentation.

Tyson - Apollo 40th anniversary

“Just be yourself”

Often this advice is given to the beginner, “just be yourself” when you are presenting before the public eye. However, when you are new to communication there isn’t a reference point for the on stage “self”. In our lives we have many different “selfs” that we use throughout the day. For example, the person you are at work is generally, very different from the person you are at home with your significant other. The point is, that in the beginning when speaking in public, you will need to do some trial and error work to find the perfect style and voice that fits who you are. A good way to start exploring what that style and voice might be is through emulation. Emulation is a great way to learn a new task well, while still allowing yourself room to grow and adapt to your own style. Think about the people in your field who inspire you and can communicate well, dissect what they are doing and try to emulate it for you next presentation. Practice in front of a mirror (or record yourself on an iPhone), then try it with some friends who can give you constructive feedback. It is important to make sure you are not outright copying someone, but rather learning what they do successfully to help you develop your own style.

As much as we hate to admit it, the audience is not only judging what you say (information) and how you say it (presentation), but also your voice and style. When you are communicating you are not only presenting the information that you are trying to communicate, but who you are as a person as well. A monotone speaker with no enthusiasm will bore the audience and no one will remember the content. So it is important to take time exploring different leaders in your field and see what is working for them. By emulating a well established voice, you can take the worry and uncertainty out of your presentations and begin developing your own style.

An example of two popular science communicators

Almost unequivocally the two of the most popular science communicators around right now are Bill Nye “the science guy” and Neil deGrasse Tyson. What is interesting about each of them is that they are often communicating nearly the same information, but have very different styles and voices that allow them to get their message across. The idea is that if your personality is rich and unique to you, it is an effective tool to communicate and will be listened to.

Bateau et voie lactée (19863443706)

Bill Nye is full of childhood curiosity with fun and imagination about science. He communicates how amazing the world is, a style he developed on his TV show where he focused on teaching science to kids. He uses exciting language with lots of exclamatory sentences to grab the attention of the audience. Neil on the other hand, uses wonderment and amazement of the universe that is bigger than we can imagine to inspire others. He conjures up the image that we can simply gaze out to the stars and wonder what more unexplained parts of the universe are still out there. Neil is an authoritative speaker that uses carefully constructed language and dramatic pauses to draw in the listener. Both Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are very effective at science communication but the differences lie in their personalities that they have developed over the years. There is no right or wrong answer here, the idea is that whatever your voice and style is embrace it fully and it will be a great advantage when communicating.

Elements of communication style

Adding humor to your presentation may help lighten the mood, however you need to make sure that using humor fits your personality. If you are generally a serious person trying to be funny you may end up forcing it and not engage the audience like you expected. On the other hand being light and jovial may be exactly the hook that you need  to use with the audience.

Drama, and emotional postures and speech might be perfect if you are looking to inspire the audience to take action or move them emotionally. Make sure, however, that the content lends itself to a dramatic or emotional tone. Being  overly dramatic can cause the audience to see you as pretentious and disconnect. Consider the topic, setting and audience carefully before you use this strategy with your voice and style.

An unbiased neutral (not monotone!) voice can be used if you are dealing with controversy or difficult topics. If you have watched the news you may have noticed that news anchors try to be neutral in many aspects, such as tone, dress, and body language. The idea is that using clear unambiguous speech and will not bias the story or information being communicated. This style allows the audience to create their own opinions and ideas in an atmosphere that does not influence their thinking.

Finally, be you and be effective

There are many different ways to solve this puzzle of finding your voice while speaking, however the one that works is the one that is effective for your own unique situation. Remember to try different styles as you gain experience and practice in front of friends that will give you honest constructive feedback. Trying things that work and finding what doesn’t will help you develop a unique voice that will aid you for many years in the future.

Communicating When Conflict Arises and Using it to Your Advantage


Often when you present to an audience, you are communicating to a large diverse group, many of whom have different points view from you. The majority of your audience will likely have different thoughts and feelings due to factors such as; culture, education, beliefs, and life experience. When communicating to a diverse audience there is always a chance for conflict to arise, particularly during workshops or discussions where an agreement needs to me made. Whether it be in the form of a vocal minority making accusations during a Q and A session, or opposing groups arguing in a workshop conflict plays a major role in communication. As a communicator it is vitally important to not only be prepared for conflict and how to resolve it, but to also be ready to use conflict in a positive way to communicate more clearly and make your work better.

The majority of people in the world do not like conflict or confrontation and will generally will try to avoid it if possible. In many cases the word conjures up images of violence and ill will towards others. Although in reality there are many types of conflict most of which do not involve violence and can be used constructively. Conflict can be defined in different ways, such as; as a serious disagreement, an argument, an incompatibility between opinions and principles, or even a prolonged armed struggle. Despite the many definitions of conflict most of the time conflict centers around a simple disagreement of ideals. As a communicator being able to recognize and deal with conflict can help transfer knowledge to your audience and make for a smooth presentation. In this post we will see some examples of how to use conflict to improve a message as well as tips for resolving conflict. Here I am using the generic definition of conflict as a disagreement or incompatible point of view.

Using Conflict to Your Advantage When Communicating

The majority of us will attempt to avoid conflict, even if it blatantly obvious and unavoidable. This is the first misconception of conflict that needs to be changed. Conflict is not necessarily a negative experience, since it can be used in a constructive way to improve our work or character. Conflict can come in the form of a simple disagreement or it can explode into a storm of vitriol and hate. The key to using conflict as an advantage when communicating, is knowing when to speak your mind candidly without the fear of backlash. As with many aspects of communicating, preparing before you actually present is immensely important.

First, you must understand both sides of the topic or argument. Whether you think you are right or backed up by empirical facts is irrelevant in a conflict. Before you communicate it is more important to understand the entirety of the topic. Preparing with as much information as possible will help you learn where misconceptions arise and address before they turn into a conflict. Remember the old saying “there are three sides to every story, your side their side and the truth.” So keep in mind that most people, despite our best intentions, put a bias on the information we present. Try to keep the material as objective as possible to make your message clear and concise. Think about things like how the other side might perceive the information through a subjective lens, and prepare information to address those biases in your presentation.

Second, you will want to understand your audience, how they think, and how they might respond to your presentation. Remember that they may be more open minded than you give them credit for. For example in climate science there is actually a lot more people who believe climate change is happening than not. There is very vocal minority believe it to be a conspiracy theory.  And finally there is a large group which simply need more information to make a decision.  If someone were to disagree with what you present in a climate talk, it may simply be from being misinformed or lack of information. Knowing your audience can help inform people and resolve misconceptions within the audience with facts.

Third, consider how conflict might scrutinize your work and improve the quality of your message. If you present a controversial topic and create a large atmosphere of conflict in doing so, it may mean that your message is convoluted or difficult to understand. Knowing whether your audience is misinformed or that your message is not well constructed is key. Conflict can help you discover holes in your story, reveal unknown biases in your work, and address underlying issues or controversies. Instead of there simply being a misinformed audience, you may need to reevaluate your work and improve the way it is presented. Remember to not take anything too personally the idea is to use the conflict in a positive way to address issues.

Fourth, consider what the goal of your presentation is. Think about what your ideal outcome would be for the discussion session, workshop, presentation, Q and A etc. By taking time to think about the outcome you can make sure that what you are communicating is in line with the goals you mean to accomplish. Conflict will arise if your goals and what you are communicating do not align. If conflict does occur it may be a indicator that your message is unclear or that the audience has begun to mistrust you because your goals feel like a covert subterfuge. Make sure that your message and also the language you are using convey your goals clearly.

Finally, in Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk she explains how conflict can be used to solve problems, improve quality of work by a group or individual, and how taking a risk of dealing with conflict can actually save lives. Margaret gives a good overview (not to mention that she is a great communicator in general) of how we need to change our outlook towards conflict and use it in a positive way.

Resolving Conflict Through Communication Skills

In times when conflict is not beneficial to you or your message it is likely that resolution methods be used. Examine what the source of the conflict is and  try to see if it can be quickly resolved by meeting someone’s need. You can then try to negotiate to resolve the situation, but if that doesn’t work you will need to manage the conflict carefully to resolve it. the manner by which conflicts are resolved can have big impacts on the relationships between people and organizations. 3 Avoiding conflict or trying to superficially smooth over a problem between interested parties can help in the short term, but doesn’t solve the overall problem and therefore conflict will likely occur in the future. 1

Often conflict is not the caused by the literal problem or topic at hand, but rather caused by the response of the people who are invested in the problem. 2 As a communicator one way to dissolve conflict is to begin by understanding the problem thoroughly. Learn who is involved, what it is about, type of conflict (misunderstanding, dependent on circumstances, misdirected, etc.), and overarching personal beliefs.  Being able to trust and work together between parties that have opposing views is critical for success, with communication being the key to building trust. Knowing the cause of the conflict can then help you work towards a resolution that will diffuse it. 2 Work with the people involved to develop a better understanding of both sides of the situation. Consider how the conflict evolved over time or is expressed, and think about potential solutions that will be mutually agreeable. 2  Most people will recognize that investing time and resources to resolving a conflict is mutually beneficial to everyone involved. Be straightforward and name the conflict and point out that it is in everyone’s best interest to resolve it.

In the most extreme cases a third party may be needed to intervene as a non biased moderator. In these cases relationships and trust can be rebuilt through the mediator. It is important to remember that even with the help of a mediator and all the resolution techniques, sometimes you may not be able to resolve the conflict. In those cases it is probably best for everyone to walk away, allow emotions and tempers to calm down and try again another time.


1. Dant, R. P., & Schul, P. L. (1992). Conflict resolution processes in contractual channels of distribution. The Journal of Marketing, 38-54.

2. Girard, K., & Koch, S. J. (1996). Conflict Resolution in the Schools: A Manual for Educators. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94101..

3. Mohr, J., & Spekman, R. (1994). Characteristics of partnership success: partnership attributes, communication behavior, and conflict resolution techniques. Strategic management journal, 15(2), 135-152.

How to Communicate Like a Negotiator in 3 Steps

Although this blog has focused exclusively thus far on how to communicate in a presentation setting, there are times when having the skills to communicate in a back and forth discussion are extremely helpful. Being competent in skills such as negotiation, debate, and communication, is helpful when working large groups that have varied interests. Negotiation, however, usually gets a bad rap in most people’s view. The common sentiment is that people who negotiate are usually rude and confrontational. Imagine talking with some pushy salesperson trying to trick a customer into a purchase that they do not want, or some a rude business executive giving ultimatums if they do not get their way. The reality of negotiation as a communication tool could be nothing further from the truth. Negotiating is an important skill that the majority of people are not very good, due to fear of confrontation and conflict. 3 In this post we will explore how using negotiation tactics not only will help create a positive atmosphere for discussion, but also allow trust and goodwill to be fostered between opposing groups.

BP Oil Flood Protest in New Orleans 30

Step 1: Decide upon a goal or outcome before you begin to negotiate.

A self assessment is one of the most important things you can do as a communicator, asking “what do I want from this?” will go a long way to being clear and concise when it comes to negotiating. 3 Decide what the outcome should be before you begin communicating or writing down what you will say. For example, do you want a cooperative agreement or are you trying to convince the audience that your way of thinking is best. Considering the possible mutual gains for both you and the audience will make sure you are not perceived as an adversary whom needs to be opposed. 1 Evaluate who you are speaking to and take into consideration what they are wanting to accomplish and compare this with what your personal goals are for the discussion. Developing empathy for your audience can be one of the most powerful tools that you can use to improve communication. Keep in mind while you think of the goals, that you are trying to create a positive relationship with others and find common ground.

As with any communication you must know the topic and become well versed in both sides of the argument. Good negotiators strive to understand where the opposing views, thoughts and feelings are coming from. Knowing your audience as thoroughly as possible is key to your success, since you will need to tailor your information to meet their needs. You do not want to end up in a situation where you are using negotiation tactics with an audience that will not benefit from it. 1

Step 2: Stage presence, keep your composure while communicating.

Consider the relationship you already have with the audience; are you an unknown? an adversary? or a trusted source of information? Whatever category you fall into will impact how you communicate with your audience. 1 Take into account (but do not obsess over) the fact that you will be judged on your presentation and make sure that you are well rehearsed and relaxed. Focus the tone of the presentation on completing objectives and solving problems rather than trying to change opinions or beliefs. 1 Work slowly so you are coherent and fluid you do not want to concede anything you have not had time to think about. 1 Remember you are the communicator and therefore set the pace for discussion, make sure to use this ability to your advantage. A general rule of thumb is to stay focused on the positive when possible and maintain a relaxed composure. Do not take anything personally and try to take a break or recess if you lose your cool. If you have done your homework beforehand you will likely already be composed and things will go smoothly.

Step 3: There are no losers, everyone walks away with something.

Negotiating can be a difficult task, since often you will be working with an audience that is passionate and has many different opposing views. Keep in mind that negotiating is a two way transfer of knowledge with the ultimate goal of solving a problem. 2 This means that no one need feel as though they are conceding something in a sort of compromise, but rather that everyone is working in a positive manner to come to an agreeable resolution.  The overall success when negotiating your desired outcome, often is heavily based on the relationship and trust between the parties involved. 1 Separate the personalities from the problem so that no one takes something personally but instead is focused on working together to solve the problem. 1  Negotiate on the audience’s ultimate desires and goals and not their personal opinions. 1 For example, think about how most people support renewable energy whether they believe in climate change or not. Try to avoid using ultimatums when communicating since they can make people feel like they are cornered or trapped. 1

You will want to take into account how passionate the audience is about something and stay aware of conflict that might arise. If you think that conflict is likely, then prepare beforehand ways to calm down the audience so that you will be able to diffuse the situation before it gets to intense. 5 One way to avoid potential conflict is to keep people busy by task sharing. Breaking the problem up into smaller parts and then distributing them out to all interested parties is an effective way to come to an agreement. 2 Stay positive and remember that often when negotiating one side will make measurable gains while the other will simply strengthen their relationship and feelings towards the whole community. At the end of the day if every feels good about the agreement or resolution then the negotiation was successful.

TAA–University bargaining, 1970

A final note.

Using negotiation in a presentation does not mean you need to be “tough” by playing hardball or being confrontational. Nor does it mean you should be “soft” letting others manipulate or walk all over you. Using negotiation while communicating means that you will need to; evaluate each situation differently, make sure that you are working towards a goal, address the needs of everyone involved, and finally create a positive  agreeable outcome. 3 Focusing on the needs of the audience and solving their problems is more effective than trying to convince the audience to think the way you do. Remember the audience will respond to problem solving and constructive conversation, but they will quickly shut down if they feel that they are being manipulated or pressured. 4 Use the right tools for the topic, but be aware that there are some issues that cannot be negotiated on, and as a communicator it is important to recognize and steer away from these. 5


1. Anderson, T. (1992). Step into my parlor: A survey of strategies and techniques for effective negotiation. Business Horizons, 35(3), 71-76.

2. Davis, R., & Smith, R. G. (1983). Negotiation as a metaphor for distributed problem solving. Artificial intelligence, 20(1), 63-109.

3. Leigh, T. (2012). Mind and heart of the negotiator. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

4. Rackham, N., Kalomeer, R., & Rapkin, D. (1988). SPIN selling. New York: McGraw-Hill.j

5. Rubin, J. Z. (1983). Negotiation An Introduction to Some Issues and Themes. American Behavioral Scientist, 27(2), 135-147.

8 Tips to Help Communicate a Controversial Topic

Many people tend to shy away from speaking about controversial topics, fearing that the audience will not receive the message well, or that conflict and confrontation will arise.  Although sometimes communicating a controversial topic can cause the audience to respond in a negative way, it doesn’t mean that the only outcome is conflict. When you find yourself needing to communicate a controversial topic, using methods that promote open minded, positive discussion will go a long way to diffuse any conflicts. In this post I have compiled a list of tips that can help communicate the facts and create a positive environment for your next presentation.

Jeff Isom arguing with an umpire

1. Be prepared and make sure that you are well versed in the subject matter.

Speaking about any subject requires that you do your homework beforehand. This is even more important when you are speaking about a topic that the audience finds controversial. Before you reach the stage or podium you need to do your homework so that you understand what are the facts are and what is propaganda. Consider what information might be difficult for the audience understand and prepare yourself to be able to explain those parts. Think of analogies or anecdotes to help explain the topic while avoiding unnecessary jargon or technical terminology. Furthermore make sure that you are well versed and prepared with the subject manner not only in a rhetorical way. Chances are that the audience will want to discuss the topic afterwards, and research has shown well prepared discussions by those participating usually turn out successful. 2

2. Think about the overall outcome or desired result for your presentation.

Before you start speaking you will need to think about what the goals for your talk are. Do you want to change people’s mind about a topic? Are you just simply informing them of the other side? Are you trying to promote a willingness to work together despite differences? Taking time before you speak to the audience to think about outcomes will help you craft a logical and coherent story. Write down your specific goals or results and brainstorm how you can achieve those. For example you can present supporting facts, information, and visuals to help get factual information across. Or you can take time to debunk common myths held by the public. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that you are always working towards a logical outcome.

3. Know your audience.

In order to have a successful delivery, it is important to take into account the constraints of the presentation (e. g. timing, subject matter, etc). 3 Knowing the knowledge level and experience of the audience, and whether or not you will have a discussion will go a long ways to help the audience understand the subject matter. 3 Since you already know that your topic is controversial, think of how the audience will react to the content of the presentation. Consider how people will disagree with you. What sort of counter arguments might they bring up? How will you deal with a vocal minority? How will you resolve and diffuse conflict? When you think about the audience, the key is to anticipate what problems might arise for them and already have plan to put into action. Think about what points someone might make who disagrees with you, and work your answers to them into the presentation. Plan ahead on how the audience will perceive the content and what might lead to internal or external conflict. Taking time before the presentation will make it easier on you, so you don’t have to scramble for a solution on the spot.

 4. Establish Credibility.

One of the more important tasks as a speaker is to establish credibility with the audience. By establishing credibility you build trust and trustworthiness in your message. In order for the audience to respect what facts and information you are bringing to the talk you need to establish yourself as a credible source. Becoming a credible source will also help reduce the chances of conflict in the audience since they can trust what you say as factual. Make sure to establish your experience and skills early on in the presentation by sharing stories or facts about yourself as a topical expert. Think elevator pitch, you need to become a credible source quickly in a concise fashion so you can build trust early on.

5. Acknowledge that a topic is controversial.

The more direct and honest with the audience you can be, the more likely they will trust you and your sources of information. Acknowledging the “elephant in the room” will allow the audience to relax a bit by knowing that you are taking the issue seriously. This works similarly to the acknowledgment of an awkward situation and will help relieve tension. Saying literally that you know this material is controversial and that you respect people’s opinion will go a long way to building trust.

6. Ask what the audience already knows about the topic.

Take time either in a rhetorical sense or a discussion setting to ask what preconceived ideas and information the audience already has. This allows the audience to feel as if they have a voice in the conversation about the topic. It is important to remember that each person in the audience will likely hold a slightly different point of view, and that being respectful of each other’s viewpoint will go a long way to fostering positive discussion. This doesn’t mean that you need to give people the opportunity to voice incorrect or biased points of views, but rather that you are acknowledging in a respectful environment that everyone has a voice. Make sure that people are heard and addressed respectfully but make sure to keep things reasonable and on topic. For example, you can voice your opinion about the government because freedom of speech protects you, but you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater because in endangers others. Use common sense here to allow the audience to feel heard but not to derail the talk into a shouting match.

7. Present both sides of the argument.

It is important to take both sides of the argument into account even if one is blatantly wrong. The reason is that some of the audience may hold the wrong point of view, and by acknowledging it you are able to logically debunk it with factual data. Avoid saying things like “you are wrong” or “the wrong way to think is”. Use language that will be more persuasive to the other side like, “some may hold X opinion, but we are going to explore why the evidence is pointing to a different take”. It is important to remain as neutral as possible about a topic, not letting your own bias enter into the facts of the topic. 1 There is a tendency for people to unknowingly assert their own beliefs into a topic and this bias can influence the audience. If you want to encourage discussion and open minded knowledge transfer, then it is best to allow the audience to review the information and make their own decisions. Remember, you may not convince everyone in the audience, but even if a few people change their minds it is a positive outcome.


8. Encourage open minded discussion.

Depending on the kind of presentation you are giving, encourage thoughtful discussion at the end of your presentation. In some cases it may be appropriate to say “since this topic is controversial, I want to remind everyone to be respectful of others” making sure to lay the ground rules for the discussion and diffuse conflicts before they arise. Remember in most of these cases you are going to be the moderator and need to be able to cut people off if they begin to ramble. Often this can be done politely by mentioning time constraints. Finally if the end goal is to come to some common agreement or negotiation then remind everyone that there needs to be a resolution at the end of the day. Keeping your audience on task by commenting that they are working together to improve the situation through respectful discussion can also help in these situations.


1. Cotton, D. R. (2006). Teaching controversial environmental issues: Neutrality and balance in the reality of the classroom. Educational Research, 48(2), 223-241.

2. Hess, D. E. (2002). Discussing controversial public issues in secondary social studies classrooms: Learning from skilled teachers. Theory & Research in Social Education, 30(1), 10-41.

3. Stradling, R. (1984). The Teaching of Controversial Issues: an evaluation [1].Educational Review, 36(2), 121-129.