I have a friend who seems to refuse to use anything but vague nouns when she speaks. Out of the blue she will say things like, “I talked to that guy about that thing.”
I usually look at her with a blank stare and say something prophetic like, “Huh?”
She will then get frustrated with me for not understanding and give another description laced with imprecision. It usually takes a few back-and-forth exchanges to understand who and what she’s talking about.
I see similar communication styles at work. If you remember Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla from Schoolhouse Rock, you will know that pronouns were created so that we don’t need to repeat the same proper noun over and over again, once it is mentioned. The key words there are “once it is mentioned.”
I once had car trouble on a trip. The timing chain broke while I was driving. A tow truck came and got me. While we were heading to the shop with my car trailing his truck, I asked him what the timing chain is.
He began to explain it to me, “Well, you’ve got your overhead cam, right?”
Right there he lost me. If I didn’t know what the timing chain was, I certainly didn’t know what the overhead cam was.
Sometimes we get lazy and don’t want to provide critical details for what we are talking about. Sometimes, when working with professionals at the same level, we tend to assume that they know everything we know and we forego critical details.
Getting rid of “stuff”
I’m a big “stuff” guy at times. I don’t always want get into details that aren’t necessary. I say things like, “We completed a lot of stuff last week,” or “We finished the software deployments and got some of the technical stuff out of the way.” I do this assuming the people I’m talking to already know the stuff I’m talking about. Either that or I know they just aren’t interested in the gory details. They just want to know that, in general, accomplishments got done.
I often get away with it. Some people don’t want to get into the details. Some people aren’t confrontational enough to ask for clarification. But every once in a while, someone will ask for clarification. And every once in a while, I can’t provide the details. I’ve glazed over the details because I don’t really know them.
Have the details ready
Some people aren’t specific because they don’t know the details. They say “that guy” because they don’t remember his name. When we give status, we know the big things that were accomplished but don’t know a lot of detail around it.
When you give a status update to a client, they often just want a summary of the major accomplishments. Sometimes they want to know the details behind it. I’ll often try to write details down that they might want to know. Writing it down helps me to remember the detail better if they ask. And if I don’t remember every detail, I’ve got it in written form.
Using pronouns or generic terms
Like the Schoolhouse Rock example, using the same proper nouns and full names can get monotonous. When you mention someone’s name, repeating it over and over just sounds stranger than saying him or her for the rest of the conversation.
That’s also why we use nicknames and acronyms. Imaging saying International Business Machines every time you talk about IBM. But if the audience you’re talking to doesn’t know who IBM is, you might as well be talking about an overhead cam.
Everyone seems to be in a hurry. And our everyday language can be cumbersome if we force ourselves to be specific about every detail. To make it easier, we use pronouns and shortened versions of bulky terms. That makes communicating more convenient. But when we try to make it easier to communicate, we can make it murkier.
It is important to make sure that the audience you are talking and writing to understand all of the terms and terminology that you are referring to.
Have you ever made false assumptions about what your audience understood?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
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