One of my favorite truisms: it's not what you say that matters, it's what your audience hears.
Your audience reads, hears or sees you through a filter constructed over their entire lifetimes, aggregating inputs from their individual cultures, politics, languages, values, locales, experiences and so on. The words chosen by you with a certain intended connotation are heard by them through this filter. What they interpret from your words (and other non-verbal clues such as tone, body language and so on) may be quite different from your original intent.
It's easy to underestimate just how diverse and active the filters of those with whom you wish to communicate actually is. I propose an experiment. It's based on observing information flow in the opposite direction, inbound toward you rather than outbound to your audience, but I believe it illuminates the question at hand. Here's how…
If you're reading this, you likely have an account on one or more of the popular social networks: LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. (If you don't, get them; they're at worst painless and you can retreat to passivity or drop your account at your pleasure. Maximizing the experience while avoiding the pitfalls is the subject for a future post.) While this experiment can work on any of them, I believe it does best on Twitter, because of the frequency of posts and the way in which the 140 character limit condenses a certain "essential" aspect out of the authors' thoughts.
To do the experiment, you'll need to end up with a "Following" list that looks something like mine: a relatively large number of "discovered" / random participants beyond those that you've chosen because they're in your close circle of friends. It's the former group that's of interest. (For a while now I've been ignoring the "how to get ahead on Twitter" advice to keep your following list shorter than your followed list — which strikes me as silly, and adding a follow to just about any user that seems remotely interesting. I do avoid the online hookers, but even they would be useful for our purpose if they posted more than that one pathetic tweet!)
Now, finally, the experiment…
Take a half hour or so and watch the Twitter stream from your followed community. Look at the diversity of the posts, in terms of style, language, esthetics, topic, frequency, bellicosity and so on. Then try to peer through the patterns of those posts to the personality, character, interests and values of those people… As I've done that, I've found a cast of characters that include:
- A young female writer at the New Yorker whose every other Tweet is peppered with profanity (what would Eustance Tilley think?);
- A writer for the NY Times whose posts signal that his interests revolves around racial issues;
- A famous pioneer in computer networking whose posts alternate between a logging of his current weight and aspirational goal (automated, via a WiFi scale no less) and conservative critiques of the Obama administration;
- A well known IT marketer and pioneer blogger who's automated his tweets so that each hits three times, at eight hour intervals, so as to maximize the efficiency in driving readers to his blog (it seems to work, albeit at the cost of annoyance to some);
- A health and fitness guru who informs us of her every workout completed, blueberry pancake breakfast consumed, departure for and arrival at work, and on and on;
- The sports nut;
- The narcissist twenty-something;
- The expat transplant to an exotic corner of the Far East;
- A significant number of aggressive "ReTweeters" who scour the blogosphere and social network domains for interesting posts, and then send those out to their followers (so as to add value to their online presence);
I think you get the picture…
As you're watching your Twitter stream, ask yourself, "would I post those tweets, in just that way, with those words?" I suspect that you'll answer "no" in a large number of cases. Well, they did. There's a difference somewhere, right?
Now, thinking about the following list you've been watching, imagine that you're behind a podium, and that these folks are your audience. Can you imagine how differently each will perceive your message? Do you see the challenge here to effective communication? Can you see how easy it is for people to talk past each other, and for misunderstandings to occur, expand and fester? And, without veering off into politics, how the current distressing levels of polarization in our country are grounded in this phenomenon?
So, what to do about this?
Well, even the simple awareness of this filter effect will make you a better communicator, by instinct. You won't as easily as before assume that your audience is made up of folks "pretty much like me" that hear my words and get my intended meaning.
Beyond simply being sensitive to differences, I believe that there are a number of specifics that can help:
- Use simple and direct language. (It's good practice anyway, but it also has a lower probability of being misunderstood.)
- Excepting when in a known homogeneous group of peers, beware of language that is tied to your particular industry, country or culture. It might not be in their dictionaries.
- Consider communicating your most important points in several different ways: straight exposition, example and / or story, graphically.
- Test your draft communication by imagining yourself a particular member of your audience — how does it sound?
- Solicit feedback, real time if possible (easier in small meetings than in large groups or in writing), to confirm that they "got it", really.
Do you have other ideas that might help? If so, leave a comment here. Also, please feel free to let me know if I've fallen short of my own advice in this article. (Wouldn't be the first time.)
And remember, if you want to be a great communicator, you don't want to be heard… you want to be understood.