If you’re a microbiologist attending a think tank and you can’t remember the name of DNA, it doesn’t really matter how many species of bacteria you’ve discovered, its not going to make a great impression. We all forget things and we all overlook things from time to time, and this is forgivable in some situations and not in others. It’s not good enough knowing things – you have to be able to get what’s in your head to your mouth clearly and in a way people can understand.
To do this three things have to happen; you need to know your subject, you need to know your audience, and you need to know what sort of situation it is that you’re about to enter. You’re going to need to be prepared differently if you’re being grilled by a committee rather than if you’re giving a lecture to a hundred sixteen year olds. You need details and exact information for the first example, and for the second you might need to tailor your content for your audience and decide on where to lead your talk. Of course with these examples one is reactive and one is proactive- in an interview or when questioned you’re largely reacting, even though you want to make the process as much of a conversation as possible. When giving a talk or chairing a meeting, you’re usually largely in control.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to be prepared, but what do you do if you’re not? The accompanying video shows a now quite famous interview between Jeremy Paxman and UK Treasury minister Chloe Smith, and is a great example of how not to act. In an attempt to maintain a dignified exterior whilst ploughing on despite an obvious lack of briefing, Smith looks nothing but aloof, unwilling to share information, and annoyed by Paxman’s insistent questions. If you want to alienate people, look like their questions are annoying you.
In the video of the interview, which starts at 6.18, Smith is clearly unprepared, but perhaps she was more of a sacrifice rather than a valuable offering. Politics ay? But even so, no amount of charisma and no amount of wriggling will get you out of not knowing your onions.