Speaking the same language…differently!!

Published on 2011-09-01

Source:James Guppy@flickr
WINSTON CHURCHILL ONCE COMMENTED on the relationship between the UK and the USA saying that we were ‘two countries, separated by a common language’. Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ may recollect a scene in which a British soldier and his American counterpart are talking before the D-Day landings. Both are native English speakers, yet they find it impossible to understand each other. The reason for this is that one is speaking London (Cockney) English whilst the other is using New York English. This failure to ‘put themselves in the other person’s shoes’ leads to a total communication breakdown.
Not only does this example show that Mr Churchill’s opinion was accurate, but it also mirrors a common issue faced by companies around the world. I am not referring to differing levels of English amongst staff. It would be incredibly Anglocentric (a particular character trait of Winston’s) to suggest that if all businesspeople spoke perfect English then miscommunication would be eradicated. The problems that arise from people failing to consider their audience’s level of understanding can occur just as easily between two Chinese speakers, a couple of Germans, or a pair of Spaniards.
Not so long ago I gave a presentation seminar to a group from a leading software producer. As an ice breaker we all started introducing ourselves. Each introduction was peppered with acronyms, abbreviations and laced with departmental jargon.

Trainee:  ‘Hi. My name is David’

All: ‘Hi David!’

Trainee: ‘I am the C.B.R. of the G.T.D in charge of the B.Q. and responsible for our T.T.O.s’ (genuine acronyms replaced to ensure company anonymity)

All: ……….[ Uncomfortable silence and much looking down at books and fiddling with pens]……

Within his department, David’s introduction may well have been considered a shining example of concise speech. To the rest of us it was as if the fluent English speaking, highly-educated, Chinese, middle management executive had suddenly decided to use Swahili as his language of choice.
Herein lies the issue. Whether it be the finance department explaining tax rules to the marketing staff, or, (and this is my own personal slice of communication kryptonite) I.T. staff explaining anything to anyone who doesn’t have a poster of Bill Gates on their bedroom wall, the same mantra must be repeated and remembered. ‘We may speak the same language, but we may not all understand the same language’. Framing information in a way that best ensures the recipient will understand is key to successful communication.
With this in mind, it was with some slight trepidation that I contacted Pat McDonald, our R.D.S. (and to show that I practice what I preach, that is Research, Development and Support) Manager in order for him to take me though the recent changes to ClarkMorgan’s OpenEye system.  Now, I am fully aware that Pat is a communications expert and that gave me a warm, safe feeling. However, I also know that Pat is fluent in the language of I.T. and, well quite frankly, I am not!
To give you a more visual comparison, Pat sits in the Shanghai office surrounded by a bank of computer screens, all of which are connected to his collection of iPhones, iPads and other gadgets. Like a bearded Captain Kirk, he is in his element. Pat can make his collection of laptops dance, sing and as far as I know they can probably clean his house too. I on the other hand have a much smaller comfort zone with regard technology. This begins with me plugging in my X-Box and ends when I put in a game cd.
My fears of appearing to Pat like a modern day Luddite (a group of English factory worker revolutionaries who feared technology’s threat to their job security and so smashed industrial machines in the early 19th century) vanished within seconds of our conversation starting. The reason was simple. Rather than explaining steps from his own viewpoint and level of understanding, Pat took into consideration my own knowledge base and included information which, whilst irrelevant to him, was highly pertinent for me. Thus, what could have been a long afternoon of confused e-mail exchange, face losing, temper fraying and wasted time became 15 minutes of clear, step-by-step, non-patronising explanation.
In business terms we can certainly put a monetary value on the time saved. Worth consideration also must be the professional image and relationship building that such consideration and clarity enhances. Time taken thinking about clear communication translates directly into higher levels of customer (internal and external) satisfaction, client retention and, in the long term, profit. Take those extra few minutes to plan your message with the recipient in mind, then sit back and reap the benefits!