Finding that perfect big word for the conversation is like getting the seasoning just right in a recipe. It’s magical. I love using big words, but not at the cost of losing the person I’m talking with.
It’s more important that I speak the language of my listener(s) or a language they understand. This article isn’t about "dumbing it down" or sounding like the smartest person in the room; it’s about striking a balance. It’s about what things to consider and what to avoid when it comes to communicating a message with clarity.
Universally applicable, the benefits of meeting your audience where they are mean delivering a message that’s clear and well-recieved – whether one-on-one or with a full auditorium.
So what do I do? I pay attention to who I’m talking to. And like Amazon®, I deliver the package to the person instead of bringing them to me and make sure they got it. I thought that was clever, and I hope it makes sense. (really, really clever)
Who Is Your Audience
The list of characteristics and demographics to consider would be limitless, so let me give you some examples.
I can’t talk to my parents about internetting, at all. My dad goes online to browse boats and houses, do taxes, and calls it good. My mom goes online to check email, then she’s out. In fact, my parents have a router that they didn’t know was wireless, so the WIFI at their home has never been setup. (No, they won’t let me setup their WIFI. I’ve asked.) Imagine what it’s like explaining how I run web sites and engage people on social media. The conversations dead-end somewhere like "That’s good, son." or "A lot of people read it?" What I can talk with them about are popular articles, feedback I’ve gotten, or new ideas for discussions or speeches. I had to find out the hard way that they’re very happy with their knowledge of the Web at this time. They’re not the audience for me to nerd-out with or talk tech.
Here’s another example. One of my mentors loves a good debate. He won’t miss opportunities to demand someone defend their convictions or challenge his point of view. It’s pure entertainment to watch if you’re not in the conversation with him too. After some trial and error, I know what I’m getting into when I’m talking with my friend. How I play it? I keep as much speculation OUT of responses as possible, and I keep an eye out for baiting questions. If I’m not on my game, then I’ll easily "get roped into an argument." Another weapon in these situations is that I’m very honest, and when you’re honest, open, direct, forthright, straightforward, etc., your answers don’t vary much. That makes it hard to get trapped by "but you said…" moves. #verbalchess #notcheckers
One final example is a favorite of mine: baby talk. Even if you’ve never given in to it, you’ve seen someone do it. Infants and toddlers get slow questions with few or no indefinite articles with like 5 words max and exagerrated inflictions. You probably repeat questions a few times switching up different simple words. "Do you need to potty?" "You have to potty?" "Let’s go potty, ok?" It’s a unique kind of translating that comes naturally; you use it on foreigners that are still learning your language too – taking out the tough words, ya know. You emphasize the important words, then stare at them intensely to catch some signal that says they got it. Babies are easier because they wear their emotions on their faces, so you can’t really miss their non-verbals, but you still want them to respond, because well, you’re teaching them how to speak. How conveniently are we on the subject of non-verbals now? Let’s talk about watching a listener while they’re engaged.
How Audience Responds
Now you know who you’re talking to. Don’t make the mistake of fire and forget. Watch the people listening. You’ll notice all kinds of clues that they agree, have no idea what you just said, no one knew what that word meant, they got the point/move on, they’re super offended, they’re bored, talk louder, bad joke, slow down, etc. If you’re giving a speech, it’s mandatory that you watch the people listening. How else will you know if your points are hitting the target? One on one conversations have lower stakes, but you still don’t want to feel like you’re wasting time by having to repeat something or explain something better. I don’t mean that to sound like giving more details is a waste of time. What I’m saying is that if your delivery is clear the first time around, the conversation can continue forward.
In my Air Force instructor school and Professional Military Education, we call this practice a part of Active Listenining. It sounds really smart and college-y, but it’s just observing and responding to the information. I like to think of it as key to Healthy Communication.
Avoid the Comments Section
Why do discussions on the internet with strangers suck so badly? They break all the rules. There is no way to know exactly who will hear you speak. You can’t rely on immediate feedback to know if your message is misunderstood or misinterpreted. There are too few people that are really reading to understand each other. The lack of listening is what makes Comments sections toxic.
Problem With "They Should Understand Me, Right?"
Here’s a few deadly repercussions of ignoring this sage-like advice that you can pretend came from someone with a PhD in Interpersonal Communication if that helps you put it into practice.
When you talk over someone’s head, they will get offended and will probably shut you off. It’s condescending and makes the person listening feel like you don’t care if they get the message. Who’s going to continue giving you their attention if they feel belittled? (To military people that answered that "We do it all the time", SHUT UP)
When you use slang from your native tongue (also military jargon), you’re guaranteed to lose someone or have to explain deeper. I know how tempting it is to want to speak your native dialect, but if you’re not sure the someone listening will understand it, go with the version of your language you learned in grade school. Can’t lose.
I shouldn’t have to explain what happens when a baby or young child doesn’t understand you. I’ll give you a hint: one person sits with their mouth open; the other pouts. Wheels spin.
Do you know someone that has a conversation with you and just waits for their turn to talk? That’s called double-dutching. (As of today, that’s what it’s called.) These offenders aren’t actually talking with you, their talking through you. They miss non-verbal cues or whole chunks of what you’ve said to them. It’s really, really bad listening. It’s one step away from ignoring you. I’m one of the people that will exit the conversation as quickly as possible. That’s not fun. Next time you’re in a conversation with a Double-Dutcher, I dare you to ask them "Do you need me to be here?" Hell, I dare myself.
Save yourself the headaches of having to repeat things, go into more details, or translate by recognizing who you’re talking to and noticing if you’re getting through to them. The bottom line is make your message easy to chew, and it’ll get swallowed or digested better or (I feel like I could come up with a better metaphor – something with food and eating like chili or stirfry or something. The pieces are there, ya know? Just can’t quite…).
In bad communication, what else do you notice is broken?
Are you looking forward to your next run-in with a Double Dutcher?