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Weekly 3: So clear they can't misunderstand you

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Summary: Avoid any misunderstanding. Know your audience. Find the essence. (~3 min read)
 

Idea Journal Weekly 3

February 2 · Issue #124 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Avoid any misunderstanding. Know your audience. Find the essence. (~3 min read)

#1. Understanding is not enough
In their book Writing That Works, authors Joel Raphealson and Ken Roman suggest that it’s not enough to write so that your readers can understand you: “Careful writers are ever alert to the many ways they might be misunderstood.“ 
For example, a student paper begins: 
“My mother has been heavily involved with every member of the California State Legislature.”
Some readers might misunderstand the nature of the energetic mother’s civic involvement. 
Ambiguity can also result from a single sentence trying to do too much work. 
Here’s an example from a report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC):
“It would be prudent to consider expeditiously the provision of instrumentation that would provide an unambiguous indication of the level of fluid in the reactor vessel.”
Huh?
If you break that idea into two sentences, and simplify the language, you might end up with something like this: 
“We should make up our minds quickly about getting better gauges. Good gauges would tell us exactly how much fluid is in the reactor vessel.”
#2. "It's not what you say, it's what people hear"
Communications expert and political consultant Frank Luntz writes in his book Words That Work that one way to prevent messaging mistakes is to understand the specific context of your audience: their biases, education, and life experiences.
As Luntz puts it, communicators too often overlook this, “figuring that whomever they’re pitching their product or policy to is just like they are.” 
How your message is understood is influenced by your audience’s context, and you take this for granted “at your own peril.”
For example, imagine that an electricity company’s CEO attends a Wall Street analyst meeting. She promises higher utility rates, encouraging investors and shareholders to bid up the stock, but that same message will generate outrage among consumers at home.
The CEO had prepared her message for one audience, “forgetting that the other audience is listening as well.”
#3. "50 words to woo your lover"
Advertising executive Michael Parker writes in his book It’s Not What You Say that you should be able to condense your speech or story to fifty persuasive words, or less.
Even if you’re going to present or talk for an hour, you need to capture the essence in order to set up what you will develop later on.
Creating your fifty-word summary not only clarifies your own thinking. It also lets your audience know what’s coming, and reinforces their understanding of your message and why it’s important to them.
Parker’s book It’s Not What You Say is 160 pages long, and here’s his attempt at capturing its essence in thirty-two words:
“Based on the experience of 1,000 pitches, this book contains a constant source of ideas and inspiration to help you perform at your best and be a winner when it really matters.”
Quote of the Week
“Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter … Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”
- William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in their book The Elements of Style
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