December 3, 2019 ~ 3 min read

Finding the right level of context

SpeakingListeningWeekly Tips

Not every topic is this simple to zoom in on, but it highlights both some important mistakes to avoid and an approach that is super valuable.

Mistake #1 - Assuming too much context

What would have happened if I had jumped into this conversation by stating the street I lived on? Well for most folks, that would have been completely non-helpful. Anyone who doesn't live in my city would have no idea what I was talking about, and in fact most folk who do would still have no idea unless they are in the same neighborhood.

And yet this is something it's easy to do in other topic areas. Someone asks you about your hobby and you jump deep into the details of what you're working. Or as an engineer you have a conversation with a non-technical stakeholder and dive deep into the technical guts of a problem.

This mistake leads to confusion, and often people talking past one another. To avoid it, start at a high level unless you already know your conversation partner has the appropriate knowledge and context

Mistake #2 - Staying with too little context

Another common mistake is to only ever stay at the highest level, and not dive any deeper. In my example, this would have meant staying at the city level and not going into more detail when I learned my coworker was ready for more context.

In the example, it was easy to know I should go deeper, because my coworker prompted me - he asked for more detail. But this doesn't always happen.

As a speaker, you can actively seek out more details for how deep to go, carefully asking questions like "are you familiar with X?", "How detailed of an answer are you interested in? Is this a good level or would you like more specifics?" and even "Does this make sense so far?"

This mistake can lead to boredom - never getting to a level of detail that is actually interesting to your conversation partner. To avoid it, actively seek out their level of understanding and expertise

The approach

You may have already seen it from th example and the counterbalances to mistakes, but the approach here is simple.

Start assuming very little context, and progressively layer more and more while checking in with your conversation partner. Repeat until you get to the level they are interested in conversing on.

You wouldn't want to have a surface-level conversation about a topic you care about with an expert in that topic. But you also wouldn't want to completely confuse a novice by assuming expertise.

Start high level, and progress downward into detail, layering on more and more as you go.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at