Thursday, October 8, 2009

Which are you - intelligent or incomprehensible?

Although I'm a corporate coach now, I started out my college education as a theater major. I had lead roles in high school plays and musicals, did some shows at the local little theatre, and even performed (for pay) in a couple of dinner theater productions just after college. I had dreams of the lights of Broadway, just like millions of young performers.

What drove me out of theater and into mass communication as an intended vocation, however, was my fellow theater students' affection for esoteric pontifications in the theater lit class. I viewed a number of them as a bunch of blowhards, in love with the sound of their own voices and determined to prove their vast mental prowess via the use of $65 words en masse in sentences. Tiresome, and the opposite of illuminating. I couldn't imagine a lifetime of associating with those folks. I was outta there.

Taking class in journalism was a breath of fresh air. The goal was to take even the most convoluted, complicated information and transform it into something understandable for folks at a sixth-grade reading level or above. Now, perhaps you're thinking, "And that's exactly what's contributing to the dumbing down of our culture!" But I would beg to differ.

What is the goal of communication, anyway? It's to elicit some sort of action or reaction on the part of the receiver. Its success is measured in the feedback that's received and in the results it generates. Real communication is a two-way process, not a monologue. And the best communication is based upon a relationship, where the message is tailored specifically to reach the receiver - and delivered with the intention of opening the two-way channels and a win-win outcome.

One of the challenges inherent in communicating to groups is to be able to target the message and the packaging so that it can reach a diverse audience. A client of mine who LOVES language and the nuances of word choices told me one time that she was reprimanded by someone who said, "Save it for Scrabble!" In her mind it was important to choose the exact meaning she wanted - in her audience's mind it was perceived as an attempt on her part to show off and make other people feel stupid.

Perhaps sometimes (if we're honest with ourselves) our intention IS to try to make other people bow to our superior intellectual strength. It's verbal arm-wrestling, and the person with the most syllables wins. If the other person hasn't chosen to engage in a round of verbal jousting isn't it the equivalent of a bodybuilder kicking sand into the face of the 90-pound weakling? And that's without realizing that the person who you think is a mealy-mouthed twerp is actually a black belt in a compact package who could clean your clock! (I'm demonstrating here just how many figures of speech you can fit into one paragraph!)

We edit ourselves (I hope) to keep the cussing away from the kids, and to reserve adult subjects for adult time. I believe that the truly intelligent choice in communication is to edit your language to make the message accessible - even if you have to save your favorite words for the Scrabble board.


Kellie said...


I love the images you create when I read your posts. I'll have to remember the 'verbal arm wrestling' analogy. Your points are spot on as usual and I'm looking forward to buying your book.

Kellie Frazier
dot com

Dan said...

It's a beautiful message in your blog, Julie. I seem to remember when I was studying for a handful of my Engish courses (outside North America) that I could not perfect it, but the words are just words, they are given life by you - the master communicator. So big words or not, be it familiar or alien, to someone who heard it will sure to check his dictionary at home... it doesn't matter, the sincerity of your message matters. When you make it too simple with ordinary words, it might not have the same impact so sometimes we risk using rarely used words but appropriate ones because avoiding them might dilute your message. So I myself will choose simple and direct words but I would not avoid the "big words" if the message needed it.

Kwai Yu said...

Verbal Arm Wresting :) Love it. You should trademark that.

It's the only 'arm wrestling' contest I might stand a chance to winning - for a 5 ft 6 in Chinaman !!!

Great stuff.