Every Speaker Should Remember the “Cynthia Test” – Does Your Audience Understand the Words and Phrases You Use?

If no one understands what you are talking about, you simply will not have an effective presentation.

The words roll off the tongue so easily that we don’t even realize the problem. But sometimes, what we are saying is almost a foreign language to some in our audiences.

The Heath Brothers (Made to Stick) call this the curse of knowledge. We just assume that what we say is part of the common understanding of everyone in the audience.

We are wrong about that!

This probably is especially problematic with acronyms. But, even words and phrases that have become second nature to us fit the bill – “rebranding; strategic planning initiative” — the list could be long.

So, we need to all learn to rehearse our speech with “Cynthia” in mind. Our speech needs to pass the “Cynthia Test.”

A friend of mine has a major area of expertise. He knows his stuff!, and is a genuine thought leader in his field. But, he told me about his “Cynthia Test.” He knows Cynthia very well. She has a college degree, reads plenty of books, and is as sharp as they come. But, she does not know his field. Thus, she does not know the acronyms, the words, the jargon, the issues used in his arena. So, he pictures Cynthia in his audience, and he says to himself, “have I defined and explained my terms well enough that Cynthia can understand what I am saying?”  This is his Cynthia Test.

Recently, in one of my presentation skills training sessions, I thought of the Cynthia Test. One participant was using acronyms. And so, I stopped him, and said, “not everyone will know what this means.” Then I told him how to help people understand his acronym. The first time you say it, pause, use a “set-apart” gesture, define it, then for the rest of the presentation you can use the acronym all you want. Here’s how to do it (his acronym was a little less known than this one):

“The other day I read that the CIA – That’s the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, the chief intelligence gathering agency of our government – the other day, I read that the CIA released information about…”

The same thing happened with another participant. She used the word “rebranding.” This is one of those words that we all think everybody understands. But, many really don’t. So, I stopped her, and asked her to define “rebranding” for her audience. And, it made her presentation better.

And I recently worked with a leader in the nonprofit sector on one of her presentations. She knows the jargon, and it just rolls off her tongue. “Food insecurity; food desert.” I helped her do the same, telling her that when you say “food insecurity,” stop, and in a set-apart moment in the speech, define what it means.

Every time you do this, without condescension, holding your audience in the highest regard, but becoming an explainer, you become more effective.

Just because a word or phrase or acronym is commonly used, or is deeply engrained within your own thinking, does not mean that it is commonly understood by your audience.

So, remember the Cynthia Test. Go over your speech carefully. Define your words. Explain things well. And you will become a more effective, and understandable, speaker.


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