In Support of Clear, Simple Language

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

I’m not always a good communicator. Things that I think are straight-forward get bungled in the strangest ways sometimes. Part of my world-view comes from growing up in a German-speaking house-hold in Canada. I like to joke that I learned English off the TV. Me sharing this will probably upset my mother (yes my mother reads my blog, hi Mom!), but isn’t too far from the truth. I often had to translate, explain cultural context, or figure out even in my own head what was going on for my parents. You can imagine as a child I didn’t always get this right. It’s a common experience for first generation immigrant children.

      Plus I’m also a bit left-brained, procedural, and rule-following. Again, I joke that with a German father and Swiss mother I had to have my room cleaned up on time. But this isn’t how everyone sees the world, so this also make for “translation” errors. You can imagine the knee-slapping adventures that ensue in a household where my partner and sweetie teaches creative design, my step-son is a professional musician, and his girlfriend is an animator. But they love the project manager me and even find me useful on occasion.

Painting a Picture

“People think people create stories. It’s the other way around.” — Terry Pratchett

 The very best communicators tap our emotions this way. Think of the Churchill’s “we will fight on the beaches“, JFK’s “send a man safely to the moon“, or Martin Luther King’s “I have seen the promised land.” No matter what you think of them as historical figures, it is objectively demonstrable that their ability to tap into clear, simple, evocative language tapped into people’s motivations and affected how people behaved.

The Science

Why does the brain like pictures so much? We express our feelings or make decisions with words all the time, don’t we? Maybe not.

Depending on how you measure it, 30 percent of the brain is used or involved in visual processing (with 8 percent for touch and 4 percent for sound). The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 9/10ths of the information the brain receives is visual.

In his seminal TED talk Simon Sinek talks about the golden circle (“How Great Leaders Inspire Action”) and how this golden circle corresponds to different parts of the brain. The newest parts of our evolved homo sapiens brain, the outer layer called the neocortex, is responsible for all our rational, analytical thought, and language.

Great leaders seek to motivate. They appeal to the emotional, the visual. This corresponds our limbic brains. Our limbic brains, in the centre and the oldest parts of our brains evolutionarily speaking, are responsible for all our feelings, emotions, and decision making. Our limbic brains have no capacity for language.

The part of us that makes decisions doesn’t use words.

In Practice

The U.S. Army defines leadership as “…the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation….” You’ll probably notice that two if not all three of these factors are influences applied to peoples emotions, feelings, or even values and beliefs. Getting people to make the right decisions, act in a positive way, and commit to a particular outcome or goal (for whatever definition or “right”or “positive” you care to define) means making an appeal to their motivations.

The Army leadership manual goes on to talk about such airy-fairy leadership responsibilities such as developing future leaders, fostering trust, open communications, and earning respect.

So, providing clear, simple language means more than just using small words. It means understanding others’ motivations and applying influence. It means painting a picture of what the future looks like and why they should care. It means providing direction and purpose that appeals to people’s need to be part of something greater than themselves.

Clear communication means doing the work to be clear.

How about you?

What’s the worst miscommunication you ever had? How do you make sure you’re saying the same thing the listener is hearing? How well do you pay attention to other’s motivations?

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One thought on “In Support of Clear, Simple Language

  1. One of the problems with communicating is getting your actual ‘intent’ across. This subtle element of communication is essential. There’s a game I use in my effective listening classes that demonstrates this.

    I form the participants into pairs. One member is the tapper; the other is the listener. The tapper thinks of a well-known song and taps out the rhythm of that song to the listener. The listener tries to guess the song. Listeners are typically right less than 3% of the time. Then I get them to switch places and let the listener try tapping out a song.

    The point of this exercise is to demonstrate the difficulty of communicating intent. The tapper hears the song in their head, but all the listener hears are beats. The problem is that tappers have knowledge (the song itself, in its entirety), and it’s hard for the tapper to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like to hear isolated taps rather than the song. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it is like not to know it. When we have an idea, we find it hard to imagine that others don’t get it. It becomes difficult for us to share knowledge, because we can’t easily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.

    So, to continue the metaphor, we have to sing the song, not just tap it out.

    Liked by 1 person

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