Are you talking to your audience…or yourself?
Every organization has its own language reflecting its internal culture. Executives are comfortable with the language used within. Lobbyists speak with infinite nuance about the most arcane details of important legislation. Software engineers can write complex programs in multiple programming languages but often lose others when stringing English nouns and verbs together. Each group of experts is masterful in communicating to others within their group. And usually lost when trying to talk outside it.
This creates a failure to communicate. The internal gobbledygook we speak to ourselves obscures our message – even when what we are saying is truly profound. Consider this quote found in a recent news release about a new book on food sustainability:
"Although progress has been made, the prospect of sustainably feeding nine billion people by mid-century can seem incredibly daunting. This book helps meet this critical challenge by breaking solutions down into vital principles and practices, and by providing a combination of practical tools and techniques as well as inspiring examples showing that, with the right approach, we can succeed."
In other words: We can feed nine billion people without damaging the planet!
That’s incredible, but you might have to read that quote twice to grasp the significance of what the speaker is saying. The other information in the paragraph is important and provides details about what the reader will find in the book. But the point of the book itself is buried. The unique value – feeding everyone AND being environmentally responsible – is separated by too many words and becomes obscure.
Here are a few questions to ask if you are talking to yourself or to your audience:
1. Can you imagine your target audience using the same language that you are to convey a point they want to make?
2. Could someone in your target audience relate your message to his or her neighbor using your words?
3. Can you make your main points in one sentence in 20 words or less (or 280 characters)?
4. Is your prose sprinkled with acronyms needlessly?
5. Is the information important/useful to the recipient?
6. Which takes up a larger percentage of your paragraphs: your main points, or qualifications and caveats?
One important point: This does not mean we have to “dumb it down.” But if you want people to listen to you then you have to get their focus quickly in a loud and crowded world. This means talking to your audience in their language. Not yours. Stating something simply in plain talk that your audience will relate to is not dumb – it’s communication. After all, the goal isn’t to prove how smart you are to your peer group. Your goal in communicating externally is inform, persuade and engage your audience. Speak their language and you will succeed.
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Scott Barker has more than 27 years of experience in public affairs communication. He has worked with Fortune 100 companies, senior level government officials, political leaders and candidates to deliver winning communications campaigns.