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Mastering the Art of Conversing Knowledgeably on Unfamiliar Topics

Mastering the Art of Conversing Knowledgeably on Unfamiliar Topics

Mastering the Art of Conversing Knowledgeably on Unfamiliar Topics

We've all encountered situations when we need to talk intelligently about things we know little about. We don't want to say, "I don't know anything about this," yet we also don't want to say anything wrong or foolish. So, we need a method that allows us to talk in knowledgeable ways about subjects when our understanding is limited. Here is how we can do it:

1. Place the Subject into Its Broader Class and Name the Class

We categorize the specific topic within a more general classification. Essentially, everything can be seen as being a member of a broader category. For instance:

  • An Alsatian can be categorized as a member of the classes 'dog', 'animal', or 'pet'.
  • A Boeing jumbo jet can be classified as a 'jet plane', 'airliner', or 'aircraft'.
  • The NHS can be delineated as an 'enormous taxpayer-funded public service and enterprise.'
  • The Prime minister can be categorized as 'a person in a position of high authority.'

2. Make Intelligent and True Statements About the Broader Class

Whatever we can say about the broader class applies to anything in that class, including our specific subject. For example:

  • What universally applies to all dogs and animals?
  • What are common traits shared by all pets?
  • What characterises all "jet planes"?
  • What holds true for all "large government-funded public services"?
  • What can be said about any person in a position of high authority?

3. Apply the knowledge that is universally true about the broader category to the specific topic

For instance, if you are asked about Alsatians, you can begin by discussing what you know about pets, substituting "pet" with "Alsatians":

Alsatians necessitate a substantial amount of food, water, exercise, and healthcare to maintain their health and well-being. They offer emotional support, companionship, and security, thereby contributing to improved mental health. However, owning an Alsatian also entails numerous responsibilities, including providing ample attention, appropriate training, and addressing issues like shedding, allergies, and behavioural challenges.

These statements are confidently applicable to Alsatians because they are universally true of most pets, including Alsatians. Thus, even though our knowledge about Alsatians may be limited, we can engage in an informed discussion by referencing the broader category from which they originate.

4. Supplement Your Knowledge of the Broader Class

Use whatever personal experiences of informed opinions you have about the particular subject.

5. Engage your audience

By inviting your audience to contribute further information or personal experiences regarding the specific subject, which can complement your existing insights.

A True Example of Using This Method

A year ago, I found myself in a situation where I was interviewed on camera about my views on "the current state of the NHS," a topic I wasn't particularly well-versed in. To navigate this, I began by mentally categorising the NHS as "an extensive, government-funded organisation with a complex structure." From this standpoint, I made generalised observations about all such entities within that category.

I acknowledged that such organisations often contend with political pressures influencing decision-making and budget allocation. I recognised that they are characterised by a high degree of regulation, resulting in administrative inefficiencies and bureaucratic processes. I also noted that balancing costs while providing high-quality services to a diverse population can be a common challenge.

I then applied these general observations specifically to the NHS. I articulated my opinion that the NHS appeared to be excessively intricate and inefficient. I suggested that efforts should be made to streamline bureaucracy and allocate the funds saved toward enhancing patient care. Additionally, I voiced the view that politicians should refrain from treating the NHS as an untouchable political symbol, open to constructive criticism.

Subsequently, I invited others to share their thoughts on the matter.


1. Put the subject into its broader class.

2. Think of all you can truthfully say about the broader class.

3. Apply what you can say about the broader class to the specific subject.

4. Elaborate your statements with whatever personal experience you have of the subject.

5. Ask the audience what they think about the subject, and you have finished your task.

About the Author: Chris Farmer


Chris Farmer is the founder of the Corporate Coach Group and has many years’ experience in training leaders and managers, in both the public and private sectors, to achieve their organisational goals, especially during tough economic times. He is also well aware of the disciplines and problems associated with running a business.

Over the years, Chris has designed and delivered thousands of training programmes and has coached and motivated many management teams, groups and individuals. His training programmes are both structured and clear, designed to help delegates organise their thinking and, wherever necessary, to improve their techniques and skills.

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