Did you ever ask yourself why all of our maps have North at the top? Why are globes always positioned with the North Pole on top (or at least within 23.5°)?
Remember, our earth is just a speck in the Milky Way, and nobody has yet decided what is up and what is down in the Milky Way, or in the universe.
North is always at the top by convention, that is, people started doing it that way, long ago, and it’s never been challenged. So now we all accept “North at the top” as just the way things are.
To be sure, many ancient cultures put East at the top, a few others put South at the top, but since Europeans drove the great Age of Exploration, their version prevailed, and now it’s universal.
So, what has this got to do with effective communication? A good deal, actually. The wise communicator will always keep in mind that amongst any population there are conventions. These apply to everything we do-- dancing, coding, driving.... If you are in Australia, for example, you might want to argue with locals that everyone should be driving on the right, but it would be smarter to adapt to the local convention while you’re there. Conventions keep you connected to the community, and in that case, alive.
So it is with good communication. By and large, we have a universal understanding of the spelling of words, grammatical structure, and (within populations) pronunciations. These are the rules by which we play. Let’s take an example from my francophone colleagues.
In modern English, we have only one form of “you” (it wasn’t always so), but in French and indeed most other languages, there are several forms, designating number and respect. Thus, if you are speaking to an individual of a higher station, you will use vous, even though vous is structurally plural. (It’s rather like the “Royal we”, as in “We are not amused.”) If you are speaking with an equal, or informally, you use tu.
I asked a French-speaking legal colleague whether one could address a judge as tu (the familiar form). He laughed and answered, “Yes, but only once!” Convention requires that you address the judge as vous. If you hope to get back into the courtroom, you will vousvoyer the judge and tutoyer your friends!
Most of the time you want to respect convention because it keeps you on the same wavelength as your communication respondents. It signals tribal solidarity, which means your talk is more likely to be accepted. To breach convention unnecessarily is jarring to the listener and introduces suspicion.
But there are circumstances where you want to upset the apple-cart. If you want to get your listeners to (if I may use a dreadful cliche) think outside the box, you need to jar them. Thus, in a formal essay you may want to use the expression "Say it ain't so!" for impact and effect, so long as the reader clearly understands that you've used it deliberately. Breaching conventions is something like handling dynamite-- extremely effective if done right, but never to be done carelessly.
Want to have some fun? Next time you have access to a globe and can do this without getting lynched, just turn the earth upside down in its frame and watch the reactions! Or if you have a map on your wall, pin it upside down. If you get some really interesting reactions, let me know.
From a purely cartographic perspective, see upsidedownmap or even a great article in Al Jazeera.
As a Canadian, I’m looking for some kind of projection to get us a little closer to the equator-- if you have any ideas in that regard, let me know.
He was bright, witty and a great moderator. But he got off to a bad start. Having introduced the panel, he turned to the camera and smiled, “With no further adieu, let’s move on.”
I thought I was going to have a stroke.
He clearly did well in law school, but in high school he must have been late for the class where “Much Ado About Nothing” was being discussed. “Ado” means “a great fuss or uproar”.
And it must have been a snow day when “adieu” was being taught. “Adieu” means “to God” and is one of the French forms of “good-bye” (which in old English was “God bwye” -God be with ye-, thus pretty close to the French.)
The term “with no further adieu” should be reserved for lingering good-byes at the airport. Otherwise, it’s “with no further ado”.
I’ve also heard some professionals utter “It’s a mute point, don’t you think?” Better they’d stayed mute! “Mute” means “silent”, “moot” means “uncertain or debatable”. And the list goes on...
When George Dubya used to warn about “nucular war”, he simply confirmed our guess he was a simpleton. Stand-up comedians feast on such malapropisms: “Having just one wife is called monotony.” It would all be funny, except it isn’t.
You see, the problem with using the wrong word is that the listener’s brain tells him it’s silly. If you’re a stand-up comic, silly is good, but not when you’re trying to make a serious point. If you’re on stage trying to convey a serious corporate message, or drafting pleadings, or pitching a project proposal, the last thing you want is to have your audience laugh at you.
There is a very simple and inflexible rule: if you want your audience to take you seriously, you need to take your audience seriously. In professional communication you can’t afford goofy language.
Why is this? I think there are two reasons. First, the zit factor. Second, the “Squirrel!” syndrome.
Let’s say you’re having a critical conversation with a sales prospect. You’ve researched and prepared well. But, right on the end of your nose is a Rudolph-certified zit the size of a golf ball. You know that their attention is 90% on the zit and 10% on your conversation. It’s not fair, but life’s not fair. Blurting out the wrong word is exactly like that, except that you can control it.
Similarly, every listener suffers from “Squirrel!” syndrome. If you don’t know what I mean, ask a friend who owns a dog. It takes very little to distract the listener, and a malapropism is just the squirrel to do the trick.
When you’re out to persuade, you can’t allow your audience to lose focus. Don’t serve distraction up on a silver platter.
Remember, when you finish your presentation, you want the audience to complement you. Or is that compliment? Dang, where’s my dictionary?
Image attribution: By William Shakespeare, Valentine Simmes (printer), Andrew Wise (publisher), William Aspley (bookseller) - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/hyyrn6, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40929008
The Fourth Deadly Sin of Communication is Enigma. It’s perhaps the most prevalent. “Enigma” is a polite term meaning nobody knows what you’re talking about.
During the Second War the Axis Powers used the Enigma code machines to scramble messages in such a way that you needed a similar machine and the code key to unscramble the message. Their unintelligible message was deliberate. That’s fine if you’re a U-Boat, but not if you’re in the business of professional communication! (Generally speaking, that is. There are exceptions, discussed later.)
You know you’re being enigmatic when you say something and your conversation partner stares blankly, asks you a series of questions then finally brightens, “Oh! Now I get it!” In response, you scowl and harrumph, “Well, I knew what I meant!” As long as the subject matter is not urgent, no harm done.
Technical language is too often enigmatic. Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan once warned his audience (only partly in jest) “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Especially in technical writing and speaking, cryptic or enigmatic language has no place. The purpose of technical communication is to convey complex concepts with precision. Special effort needs to be made to ensure that the meaning is clear and unambiguous. As fans of adventure movies know, the fate of the world depends on knowing which wire to cut first-- the red or the black.
Technical language is sometimes criticized for not being “plain English”, with the unspoken assumption that every web-surfer should easily be able to read a medical, legal or scientific treatise. This criticism is misguided-- the truth is that language should be easily understood by the target audience. There is no need to “dumb down” a medical article for the benefit of the casual reader-- in fact, it would be retrograde. Terms of art have special meaning to the practitioner, allowing for more concise and unambiguous language. To translate into “plain English” would necessarily make the document verbose and complex-- so much for “plain language”. If the material is intended for a professional audience, let it be in their language. (However, if even the technically-trained audience gets lost, there’s a case for re-writing-- are you listening, Canada Revenue Agency?)
There are two caveats. First, where a professional writes for a general audience he should be writing to enlighten, not to strut. Jargon-dropping is like name-dropping-- it makes you look a pompous ass. The true professional understands the subject matter well enough to be able to explain the broad strokes of his trade in clear, everyday English.
The second caveat has to do with the giving of opinions and advice: write or speak so that you can be understood. Advising a patient that they have a serious medical condition they can neither pronounce nor understand is not only useless, but cruel. Similarly, a legal opinion which can only be read with a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary in hand is of little value to the client.
To mock the sins of others is both unkind and hypocritical, so let me make amends by suggesting a few ways to avoid falling into the Fourth Deadly Sin:
Now, before we wrap up: I had promised to talk about exceptions to the rule. There are times when you want or need to be a little murky, even if you’re not a U-Boat.
Ontario’s beloved Premier Bill Davis was a master of the Art of Fog. He loved to hold press conferences and welcomed the tough question with an air of great sincerity. After acknowledging the question and the questioner, expressing gratitude for this opportunity to clarify this very important matter, Brampton Billie would lead the press through the long grass and the swamp and into the deep woods, qualification upon qualification, parable upon parable, quoting historical figures, reeling off statistics, until finally, half an hour later, with the room in awed silence, he’d turn to the young reporter and ask, in kindly, fatherly tones, “Sarah, did that clarify things for you?” It worked every time. He was Premier for fourteen years and retired undefeated.
I’ve said that lawyers should always strive to be clear, except when they shouldn’t. There are times when an issue is better left under a snowbank, for example, in delicate negotiations, something which will get your client raging about the dirty, lying, low-life scumbag on the other side. Keep a lid on that stuff.
There’s a great gulf between telling a lie and spilling your guts. The first is wrong, the second is stupid. But sometimes, if you’re afraid there’s going to be a gunfight, filling the room with popcorn can be useful. In such cases, obfuscation is an art, not a sin.
Just understand the difference.
Sarah, did that clarify things for you?
The sixth deadly communication sin is ill-timing, that is, saying the right thing at the wrong time.
I'm ashamed to confess that in getting out this blog and the Friday Briefing, I nearly fell into a diabolical trap set for me by myself. A narrow escape, but for the benefit of my fellow communicators, I’ll come clean.
It was like this. Over the last week I’ve spent most of my spare moments crafting the most insightful, entertaining, witty and educational piece about the communication foibles of a certain personage. It was entitled “Alternative Facts-- Alice in the White House”. You can see where that was going. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was clever and brilliant.
But as the week progressed, the utterances spewed by His Orangeness became even weirder and there were sinister undertones that late in the week led me to re-think my thesis.
But, dang, the draft was really pretty amazing in terms of style, with catchy phrases, tone and tenor, if I must say so myself. In my ear a voice whispered, “They won’t care! They’ll laugh and think you’re a reincarnation of Shakespeare! It was brilliant. You’ve worked ever so hard. Nobody will question the gaps. Just send it out. Send it! Send! Yes..... Send......”
If you’ve ever suffered temptation you know there is never evil cackling in the background, no pungent odour of smouldering brimstone-- just sweet reason and flattery.
But you also know that if you want to practice what you preach, you need to suck it up and do the right thing. The draft went in the trash. I do need to practice what I preach.
In effective communication timeliness is everything. Some wag put it this way: “The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Getting the cheese too soon, even slightly too soon, was deadly for the first mouse. Saying the right thing at the wrong time is just as deadly for your message. And perhaps your reputation.
Why is this so? Simple. Successful communication is all about listener readiness.
Think about the hunter and the duck. If you expect to get the duck, you need to aim a little ahead of it so that the bullet and the duck arrive at the same place at the same time. Otherwise the duck flies on to quack another day.
The same calculus applies to effective communication. You have to be aware of what is happening in the minds and hearts of your listeners. You need your words to arrive precisely when the listeners are intellectually and emotionally prepared for them. If they arrive before listeners are ready to buy in, your words are wasted. If they arrive too late, you have stale inventory.
Robert Cialdini in his new work Pre-Suasion drills down into the process of ensuring that the listener is ready for your message. He cites studies that show, for instance, buyers are five times more receptive to your sales pitch if you ask them what they don’t like about their current provider, rather than asking them what they do like. It’s about understanding what drives your audience, about being smart in setting the table.
Public speakers know that one of their key challenges is timing, and nowhere is this more important than at the opening. Grab attention right out of the gate and get down to business quickly. Be certain the audience is on board with you before you begin to deliver the important stuff. Some helpful tips can be found in my December 10, 2016 blog “What Great Communicators (and Leaders) Can Learn from a Border Collie”.
Timing is equally critical when ending a talk. Once, when I was a young lawyer I delivered a long and passionate elocution at a sentencing hearing. After I sat down, quite pleased with myself, the grizzled old duty sergeant leaned over and growled in my ear in his best Vanier French,“Young man, you need to know when to shut up.” Best advice ever.
Above all, understand that successful communication speaks to the heart before it speaks to the mind. Appreciate the importance of allowing the listener time to come on board emotionally before you try to make your intellectual point. If you deliver a message before the listener is ready, it is not only going to wasted, but may actually create opposition or resentment. Similarly, speaking before you have listened honestly and openly is the verbal equivalent of carpet bombing-- great kill ratio, but unlikely to win hearts and minds.
Finally, keep in mind that sometimes the best timing is no timing. Sometimes its best to say nothing. There may be nothing useful for you to say and your conversation partner just needs to vent. Until you fully understand what they are saying, and why, if you simply deliver a pat answer you will do nothing but alienate. Unless you understand the situation, keep your silence. There will be another day.
In music, golf, chemistry and baking bread -- nearly any human enterprise-- timing is of the essence. Effective communication is no different. In your development of more persuasive communication, make timing a matter of strategic consideration. The message may be powerful, but always ask “Is this the right time?”
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.