Do the people in your audience understand you?

Whether you’re in business dealing with customers and creating written content for your website, social media and content marketing campaigns or you’re a writer creating your own books, be sure you’re communicating in a language your audience understands.

As I write this, we are in the final stages of a major, down-to-the-studs master bathroom remodel. It’s been traumatic—and the fact that just about everyone who works with our contractor speaks in industry jargon that I don’t always understand hasn’t helped.


Our bathroom remodel demo in progress.

For example, the actual work on the project began with what the contractor called the demo. In my experience, a demo is a demonstration—as in, demonstrating a product. In contractor language, it’s a demolition.

When they told me “cabs are scheduled for Tuesday,” I was puzzled. To me, cabs are either vehicles for hire or a particular type of red wine. To them, cabs are cabinets. Similarly, when they talked about installing the base, I thought of a foundation piece (floor, pedestal, etc.) but they meant baseboards (narrow, decorative strips of wood that attach to the bottom of a wall next to the floor).

This is not a new issue. I’ve written about it before (see What Language is Spoken in Your Company?).

It makes sense that people working together in small groups develop their own verbal shorthand. However, if you use that verbal shorthand when speaking to anyone outside the group (or even someone new to the group), misunderstandings ranging from minor inconveniences to major problems can result.

Of course, even as you make the effort to be sure your audience understands you, you need to take care not to come across as condescending. That’s just as bad—if not worse—than using jargon your audience might not know.

One simple way to do that is the standard technique of completely spelling out the first reference to something followed by the abbreviation in parentheses, then use the abbreviation for future references. In long written pieces (such as books or lengthy, multi-section reports), you may need to repeat the explanation if there is a significant span between uses of the term.

A ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a type of outlet designed to protect people from electrical shock. A GFCI is not the same as a fuse.

In a conversation, often the first explanation is sufficient. In a presentation, it can depend on how long and how technical your talk is.

Always keep this in mind: When people don’t understand you, their first reaction is not to be impressed with how smart you are. They’re more likely to be frustrated or annoyed.

It’s human nature that in transactions where we are the consumer, we are focused on ourselves. If you make it difficult for us to grasp your message early in the process—whether you’re selling, servicing or just entertaining—we’re going to thinking about where we can go to find someone who will be easier to understand.

If your goal is to educate, fine—but the student has to start with a basic understanding before being able to grasp more advanced concepts.

I’ve spent much of my career interviewing people who were experts in their field for articles and books that had to accurately report on what they thought or were doing. Because of that, I’m usually quick to say, “I don’t know what that means, can you explain it to me?”

Even though I’ve always found that to be effective regardless of whether I’m conducting an interview or chatting with a friend, I know many people aren’t comfortable admitting they don’t understand something.

Don’t assume that if people don’t understand you, they’ll ask for more information. What’s more likely is that if you’re trying to sell something and what you’re saying about your product’s benefits isn’t making sense, your prospects will just make their purchase elsewhere. If you’re an author and they don’t understand what you wrote, they won’t buy another book from you.

It all comes down to knowing your audience and making the effort to communicate effectively. The number one way to do that is to speak the same language your audience speaks.


Jacquelyn Lynn
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