a speaker holding a mic addresses a large audience in an auditorium
How can you persuade an audience who doesn’t share your knowledge? Photo: Miguel Henriques / Unsplash

Public speaking guide
Make your ideas relevant to anyone

Are you a technical expert who needs to give a presentation? You know your stuff. But can you explain it to people who don’t share your expertise?

Jonathan Kahn author photo
Jonathan KahnCommunication Coach Updated: 17 Feb 2024

You’ve got expertise, knowledge and experience. You know what we need to do and why. You’ve got arguments, analysis, evidence.

But do you know how to convince someone who doesn’t share your knowledge? Like:

  • People from another department or discipline?
  • Or a different organisation or country?
  • Your board of directors?

Can you show people why they should follow your plan? How can you persuade someone that your idea will work for them?

Most technical experts aren’t good teachers. They know their stuff. But they can’t explain it to people who don’t have background knowledge. This guide will change that!

Learn communication skills that will make your ideas relevant to any audience. From your CEO to your finance department.

For the full experience, watch this video first:

Read on for the article version.

Experts can’t explain why

I’ve coached many professionals over the years. People with deep knowledge, like:

  • engineers
  • designers
  • researchers
  • scientists
  • UN peacekeepers

If you’re a technical expert, you know:

  • what we should do, and why
  • the main issues to consider, with pros and cons
  • grey areas and uncertainty

But there’s something you don’t know. How to make your ideas relevant to others. And how to persuade them that your plan will meet their needs.

person smiling, standing in front of whiteboard
Experts have tacit knowledge, which means they often can’t explain what they know. Photo: ThisisEngineering RAEng / Unsplash

There’s a funny thing about expertise. Experts know the answer, the best way to do something. But often, they can’t explain why. That’s because they have tacit or implicit knowledge. They “know more than they can tell”.

I bet you’ve been on the receiving end of this. Think about times when you’ve asked an expert for advice. Did you ever get an answer which they said was obvious, but couldn’t explain why?

When that expert talks to others in the same field, they don’t have this problem. Because they all share background knowledge.

This is why technical experts don’t make good teachers. But we’re going to change that today!

The audience doesn’t share your expertise

Let’s talk about what happens when you get in front of an audience which doesn’t share your expertise.

You tell them what we need to do. You make arguments. You back them up with data, models, evidence, laws—whatever’s relevant to your domain.

They glaze over.

  • They don’t seem to understand.
  • Or they ask questions that seem irrelevant.
  • Or they ignore your advice.

What’s going on here?

Find a shared goal

You might say, “we’re not on the same page.” But what does that mean?

You haven’t found a shared goal. Maybe you thought the goal was obvious. The audience’s blank faces show that’s not the case.

Let’s talk about another expression: “a different point of view.” If I say I have a different point of view, you might think that I disagree with you. That I don’t like your ideas. But that’s not what the expression means. It means that we’re looking at the issue from different angles.

person stands on a rocky outcrop admiring the view
They don’t disagree with you. They’re looking at the problem from a different angle. Photo: Pascal Habermann / Unsplash

In the workplace, we might think that people don’t agree with us. That they don’t want the same things as us. But often, it’s not that they disagree. It’s that they’re sitting in a different position. They see a different picture.

If you want to persuade someone to follow your plan, you need to:

  1. listen to their point of view
  2. understand what matters to them
  3. find a shared goal

A shared goal is something you both want. Once you find it, you can figure out how to make your ideas relevant.

A persuasive argument:

  • shows that your plan leads to a shared goal, and
  • explains how your knowledge shows that the plan will succeed

You need to make a concise argument which:

  • connects things you know they want
  • to actions you think we should take.

The rest of this guide shows you how to build such an argument. I’ve split the guide into three parts:

  1. Simple scenario. How to translate your plan so it makes sense to a non-expert audience.
  2. Detailed case study. The case of a person with deep technical knowledge. Who needs to convince different stakeholders to make changes.
  3. Step-by-step guide. Everything you need to make your ideas relevant to an audience.

Let’s get started!

1. Simple scenario (things business people want)

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a software engineer. Your employer asks you to build a system.

You think the future is cloud computing, and you’ve done your homework. To you, it seems simple. We’ll build and host the system in the cloud. You have white papers, costings and models to back this up.

But there’s a problem. To your surprise, when you present your ideas to management, they push back.

Hold on! What do you mean, cloud computing? We don’t do that in this company. We didn’t ask you to do cloud computing. We asked you to build a service.

Here’s your problem:

  • you know the right way to build the system
  • but your management don’t see it the same way
fibre optic cables in a datacenter
You know cloud computing is the way forward. But your management disagrees. Photo: Kirill Sh / Unsplash

The easiest way to start is to consider what business people care about. To simplify slightly, they care about two things:

  1. making more money (increased profits)
  2. spending less money (decreased costs)

(Ok, there are a couple of other things they care about. We’ll get to those shortly.)

Do you see the problem with your pitch for cloud computing? You told them we need to host the system in the cloud. But you didn’t frame it in terms they care about. They can’t see how your plan is going to meet either of these goals.

There may also be background issues, like:

  • they already have on-premises hardware
  • they’re used to a traditional billing model
  • their staff don’t have cloud experience

Reframe your argument

Your first option is to reframe your argument in terms of increased profits or reduced costs. Can you do that? For example, cloud will:

  • save money in the medium term
  • speed up system responses, saving staff time in the field (reduced costs)
  • reach more markets, increasing profits

Let’s break down what you’re doing here:

  1. take your principle (“cloud is the future”)
  2. find a shared goal with the audience (make/save money)
  3. show how your principle meets the goal

This type of argument is more likely to persuade a business or financial stakeholder.

Note that timing may get in your way here. You might get a response like:

I think you’re right that we should move to the cloud. But why do it now? Here are a bunch of reasons to wait…

Just because your plan might make or save money, it doesn’t mean that people will be willing to act now. You can try your best to explain why you think quick action will meet their needs. But sometimes you need to acknowledge that there are other priorities. Which might be not to make big changes now. In that case, you’ll need to revise your plan to include these views.

Two other angles

If that doesn’t work, here are two extra things that business people care about:

  1. reducing risk
  2. managing reputation

These are the two extra hooks you can use to make arguments to business stakeholders. You could argue that the cloud:

  • is more secure (reduce risk of cyberattack)
  • will “future proof” the organisation (reputation)
  • has better uptime, protecting our reputation as reliable

People who work in management have a specific job. They’re responsible for looking after the high-level interests of the organisation. To reach them, you need to make arguments that speak to their responsibilities.

Map what you think we should do to things they’re supposed to care about. Don’t say, “this is a best practice in my field.” Instead say, ”this will reduce operational risk to the business.” And then back that up with data.

businessman wearing a suit and tie
Find out what the management team wants. Photo: Hunters Race / Unsplash

The most effective way to do this is to find out what your bosses want. Sometimes they’ll tell you. Maybe this software project has a specific goal, like reducing costs. Other times, you have to do some digging. You can:

  • ask them what their goals are for this project
  • find out what they’ve said, for example in the annual report

Your job is to make a concise argument that shows how your plan meets their goals. And to mitigate their concerns by adapting your plan based on their feedback.

2. Detailed case study (convince all the stakeholders)

Now we’ll look at a more detailed case study.

Imagine you’re an expert in green energy. You have deep technical knowledge about how to decarbonise buildings. You work for a large construction firm. Your brief: to change the way they build. So that energy efficiency and sustainability are at the core of what they do.

Sounds like a dream job. Right?

You believe that:

  • we need to decarbonise buildings to meet “net zero” targets
  • your company has committed to do this

You think the way to achieve this is to use these technologies in new buildings:

  • heat pumps
  • solar panels
  • improved insulation

You have evidence and theory to back up this position. Things like research papers, mathematical models, forecasts and costings.

workers wear high-vis clothing on a large construction site
Imagine that you work for a large construction firm. Photo: Scott Blake / Unsplash

You have a clear vision of what needs to change. And how it will achieve the company’s green goals. But there’s a catch. You’re employed to advise and encourage the different departments to make changes. You can’t force them. They have to choose to follow your advice.

Your audiences are the departments in the firm. Like:

  • finance
  • legal
  • design & planning
  • operations
  • compliance

When you get in front of these people, you’ll tell them they need to:

  • use new technologies
  • design buildings in a different way
  • rethink the way we finance new builds
  • comply with new regulations

Remember, you’re a technical expert. Your background is in engineering or architecture. But this job calls for a different set of skills. The question becomes:

  • Can you explain what we should do in terms that are relevant to these stakeholders?
  • Do you understand which parts of your plan will be difficult for each department?
  • How can you mitigate their concerns while keeping them on side?
  • What’s the best way to manage priorities and timing?

Let’s discuss some examples.


Imagine you go to the finance people and say:

Hi, my job is to make sure that our buildings are more energy efficient and sustainable. That means we need to spend a bunch of money on new technology…

They say, “hang on, what do you mean spend more money? Where’s this money going to come from?”

When you show them your models and forecasts, they glaze over. It doesn’t seem relevant to them. And it’s too much information. They won’t approve major new spend based on technical information.

For this audience, you need to explain either:

  • how your plan will save them money (eg if there’s a subsidy), or
  • how spending more money fulfils their requirements

You choose the second option. Is there a mandate from management? Something that says we need to invest in green technology? If so, argue that your technology choices are the best way to meet this requirement.

You’re helping them to do their job:

  1. Management requires you to implement this policy.
  2. Here is a practical way to do that, based on my expertise.
wind turbines on the horizon
Show that your technology choices are the best way to meet goals. Photo: Appolinary Kalashnikova / Unsplash

As long as they agree with your argument, it will work.

Here’s another way to look at it. Have you considered what it’s like to work in the finance department? What exactly are they responsible for? What constraints are they under?

Find out how they approach decisions about new investment. What have they been told about spending in your area? What processes do they follow? Can you provide information that will speed this up?

As in our previous example, you may need to answer some tricky questions about timing. Like:

  • Why do we have to do this now?
  • Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait until the technology gets cheaper?
  • What risks are involved in adopting new tech before it’s been proven to work?

If this happens, you need to engage with the constraints of this team. You need to come to an agreement that seems financially sensible to them. While also meeting the goals you’ve been set for sustainability.

At this point you need to stop being an expert. And become a teacher. Show them why heat pumps, solar panels and insulation are the right choices. Explain your thinking and why you think investing now is worth it. Talk through the benefits they’ll see and how this ties in with the company’s goals. How will your plan reduce their pain?

Instead of presenting them with data, have a conversation with them. Work to understand how they see the situation. And what they need from you. This way, you’re more likely to come to an agreement that works.


Let’s talk about another department: operations. These are the people who construct the buildings.

Consider their point of view. You’re telling them that we need to use new technology, change the way we plan, spend more money. Which is going to mean:

  • disruption
  • new skills required
  • longer build times, higher costs
  • more risks, uncertainty and delays

This means that when you present a plan, you can expect resistance. How can you present a case that they’re more likely to accept?

Sit down and identify:

  • their goals
  • likely concerns and objections
  • which problems you can mitigate
  • benefits of your plan (from their point of view)
  • reasons they have to do this (eg rules, management policy)
  • ways to make their job easier

Your goal: imagine what it’s like to be them. How do they see this problem? Which parts of your plan are hard to stomach, and why?

One way to approach this is to have an informal meeting with people from this department. And ask them how they see the situation. What’s most important from where they sit?

When you’re presenting your plan, think like a teacher. Avoid telling them what to do. Instead, give them the tools to understand why we need to do these things. And find creative solutions that mitigate their concerns.

solar panels on a roof
The compliance team need to check that the firm is following rules and regulations. Photo: Markus Winkler / Unsplash


Let’s talk about the compliance team. These are the people who need to check that the firm is following rules and regulations. They get all the boxes ticked and the final buildings signed off by the authorities.

What are they going to worry about?

You want to introduce new technology and processes. Their job is to make sure we’re following the relevant rules. Like:

  • Which regulations apply?
  • Which skillsets do we need?
  • What processes must we follow?
  • Can we keep risks to an acceptable level?

Just like operations, a good starting point is to sit down with the team. Explain what you’ve been asked to do. Find out:

  • how they see this area
  • what their top concerns are
  • likely roadblocks
  • processes they need to follow

Your goal is to understand how they make decisions. And then to do everything you can to make your plan easy to implement. Then you can make an argument which explains why your tech choices meet company goals. And that the compliance burden is tolerable.

Change your plan?

There’s no guarantee that everyone will agree with you. They may push back, or even refuse to cooperate. If this happens, what do you do?

The way you respond depends on:

  1. how sure you are that your plan is the only way to achieve the goal
  2. whether management is committed to a specific route

Are there several ways to achieve your goal? You may need to change your plan based on what you’ve learned from others. This is a good thing! Nobody has all the information. Your plan will be stronger when it includes a broader set of knowledge.

If you’re certain that your plan is the only way, and your management agrees, then go back to explaining. Focus on showing people, like a teacher, that your way is the only way to achieve the goal. If you have management backing, and you persist, you’ll win in the end.

One final trick. Sometimes there are a few options, but you prefer the stronger one. And the departments might prefer the weaker one (eg, a phased approach.) The way to handle this is to draw attention to the consequences of each plan. Write up a 1-page report which lists the options, and lays out the consequences. Refer to evidence. Then send this 1-pager to the higher ups to decide. If they’re okay with the consequences, you’ll be willing to run with the watered down plan. Because it becomes their responsibility.

3. Step-by-step guide

Use this guide to translate your knowledge into a concise argument. That’s relevant to your audience.

To start, separate out what you do and don’t know. You know:

  • your area of expertise
  • what we should do
  • the important issues and areas to address
  • complexities and nuances of your area

You know a lot! But there are a few things you don’t know, yet. Like:

  • how other people see your area
  • what’s important to them (goals, needs, concerns)
  • other issues they’re working on

Let’s find out.

1. Identify your audiences

The first step is to identify all of your audiences. List them and break them up into separate groups who have different viewpoints. Similar to the departments int the previous section.

2. Find out what they care about

For each audience, find out:

  • their goals
  • how they see the problem you’re working on (if they see it at all)
  • problems your solution can solve (pain points)
  • benefits for them
  • their concerns and issues

Write it all down.

3. Review your plan as if you were them

Sit down with the plan you’re recommending. Ask yourself, if I was a person in finance (or whatever group), how would I react to this? You’ll find that you don’t have a clear argument that starts from their goals and leads to your plan. Which is why it often seems like we’re talking past each other. Because people can’t see why what you’re saying is relevant.

4. Write a concise argument

For each audience, write a short, clear argument:

  • explain why we need to do this, by relating it to their goals
  • consider options: is there more than one way to do this?
  • address prioritisation and timing (eg, why now?)
  • mitigate their concerns (eg provide workarounds)
  • sell to their pain points or benefits

Don’t make the mistake of using the same argument for different audiences. Focus on one audience at a time. This lets you address their perspective and needs.

5. Present your argument to the audience

Sit down with each group and share the argument you wrote for them. Listen to their responses. Which parts resonate? Which make less sense? Make sure you understand their concerns and issues.

6. Explain it like a teacher

You know this domain like the back of your hand. But they don’t. You need to explain it like a teacher.

Great teachers make their audiences feel smart. They make complex topics easy to understand. To do this, identify which principles or concepts your audience needs to understand. And then use simple language or diagrams to show them what they need to know. Give them new ways of looking at the problem.

7. Take feedback & iterate

Make sure to find out how well it’s going. Ask people:

  • did that make sense to you?
  • did that answer your questions?
  • what concerns do you have?

This will help you to listen and improve your understanding. Then you update your plan and iterate based on this feedback. Maybe you’ll tweak the plan. Or try a different analogy when you explain the concepts next time.

Show them why they should care

Now you have everything you need to present your ideas in a persuasive way.

In this guide we’ve covered:

  • why experts have difficulty explaining what they know
  • how to make arguments that business people will appreciate
  • handling the needs and concerns of different departments
  • a step-by-step guide for reaching any audience

Remember that public speaking skills don’t come naturally. It’s a skill you need to learn, just like any other. If you practise, get feedback and repeat, you’ll be sure to improve.

So get out there and start persuading people to follow your plan!