The Guardian Weekly recently raised the issue of plain speaking when specialists communicate with non-experts in their field. This comes in the wake of the decision to arrest the six geoscientists who were accused of not sufficiently alerting the public to the danger of an earthquake in Aquila, Italy.
The consequent earthquake killed 309 people. Apparently there was a crucial difference between what the scientists actually said about the situation and what the government official understood and subsequently diffused to the public. Good communication should always take the audience into account. It is important to modify how we communicate our messages according to the audience we are addressing. The language we use in an e-mail, in a presentation slide, or on the phone needs to reflect whether we are addressing someone working in our own or a different profession. Effective communication is about getting the message over efficiently in a way which is both meaningful to the recipient but also faithful to the original message.
So what do we need to modify? We need to be careful about our use of jargon. Most of us use jargon in our professions and this can be very effective when talking with our peers from the same industry. However, when speaking with colleagues in the presence of somebody from outside our own profession who comments: ‘I didn’t understand half of what you were talking about’ it becomes clear that we have used too much jargon. . For example, when a language trainer talks about ‘linking’, ‘cognates’ or whether a word is a ‘homophone’ or a ‘homonym’ they are using jargon. A delegate on a language course does not necessarily need to be familiar with this jargon to improve their fluency in the language and may well prefer not to waste valuable training time learning it. The trainer therefore modifies their communication and replaces the use of jargon with more every day language and explanations. It is therefore invaluable for professionals to find out about their audience and their levels of knowledge before preparing a presentation or meeting. For example, an engineer would present a project differently to other engineers at a conference than to potential project funders.
It is not just jargon which is particular to professions. It is also the way something is said and the way it is interpreted can differ from one profession to another. The precise culture of the scientific world is reflected in the way scientists use language. This can be very different from the way language is used in the media, for example, where words are used in a more entertaining and playful way.
Communication is fundamental and needs to be valued and carried out with the audience in mind. An ambiguous or incomprehensible message may well lead to negative consequences, hopefully not as drastic as in the extreme example in Aquila consequences that could still affect our relations with our clients, business partners and colleagues. In order to be aware of the needs of our audience and adapt our communication style accordingly, it can be helpful to attend communication skills training programmes. Training can help us to develop the awareness and skills to find the balance between patronising our audience with simple language and blinding them with incomprehensible jargon.