The Key to Understanding

the key to understanding

The words the audience hears is as important to understanding as the speaker’s presentation style.

I read a dozen articles every week on how to be a better communicator. They revolve around some version of using words that are clear, coherent, cogent, and concise. Use great words with a great presentation, and you are sure to be a great communicator, the thinking goes. However great the presentation, however great the words, the audience may not understand the words. More to the point, everyone in the audience may not understand the words. Understanding has two parts: the words the speaker uses and the words the audience hears. If the words the audience hears do not make sense, there is no understanding, and it is incumbent on the speaker to use different words. The key to understanding is using new words, not changing the tone and tenor of the speaker’s voice. To illustrate my point, I’ll use an example from my high school English class, the lesson on how to write a five-paragraph composition. The three-part approach goes like this.

  1. Deliver great words in a calm, measured voice. When the speaker uses the wrong words, the audience hears, “This is how you write a five-paragraph composition. Blah, blah, blah, blah…” The words didn’t sink-in – something is off. The audience feedback is “We don’t understand,” and they are thinking ‘You need to explain what you mean.’ Frustrated, the speaker uses the same words and tries the standard second approach.
  2. Slow-down the delivery. The speaker assumes they spoke too fast the first time, so they slow down and enunciate the same words. But the audience only hears, “This…is…how…you…write…a…five-paragraph…composition. Blah…blah…blah…blah...Slowing things down didn’t make the words sink-in any better– whatever was off the first time is still off. The audience feedback is “we still don’t understand,” and they are thinking ‘We heard you the first time. The speaker must think we’re dense.’ Exasperated, the speaker tries the third standard approach, again using the same words.
  3. Sharpen the pitch and increase the volume. The speaker is upset, and now the audience hears, “THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE A FIVE-PARAGRAPH COMPOSITION. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH…” The harsh tone closes-up everyone – all communication and understanding come to a complete halt. The audience feedback is nothing or a simple non-committal nod, and a mumbled, “Okay.” They are thinking ‘We must be stupid because we just don’t get it. Maybe we never will.’ Infuriated, the speaker and the audience give-up. At this point, if the speaker continues, the conversation devolves into a desperate shouting match or a total shut-down.

Understanding fails because the speaker uses the same words in all three examples, only changing the tone and tenor of their voice. The key to understanding is using new words when the first words fail. The key to understanding is knowing that the audience matters. The key to understanding is knowing that words that are clear, coherent, cogent, and concise to one audience may be muffled, unintelligible, unconvincing, and verbose to another. The key to understanding is using different words with different audiences. The key to understanding is, well, I hope by now you understand.

Kenneth Merwin

Ken is the President of Polaris Systems. He helps you write winning proposals.

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