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Most of us want to be great communicators. Many of us pride ourselves on it. However, it’s easy to fall into common traps that confuse our audience and set us back.
Being an exceptional communicator means that we’re constantly considering how we come across to others, especially those dissimilar to us. If you’re leading a team or looking to progress in your career, it’s important that your words don’t unintentionally alienate or offend others. Here are a few examples to avoid.
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1. Obscure or even semi-obscure references
Sometimes, when we like a popular sport or movie, we’ll make the mistake of assuming everyone does. Then we’ll make references to this thing, without noticing that we might be losing some of our audience.
Sports references are especially prevalent. Phrases as simple as “we should punt on that decision,” “we’re in a holding pattern on this project,” or “I don’t want that meeting to be a no-hitter” might make total sense to us, but not everyone. Especially in large groups, outstanding communicators speak in ways that everyone can understand.
In corporate settings or any kind of mixed group, it’s important to recognize that not everyone will understand your sports or movie references, even if they are from popular movies such as Die Hard or The Godfather. Those who don’t can easily end up feeling lost in the conversation because they simply aren’t familiar with the terminology.
When with friends or a homogenous group, where you’re sure everyone is familiar with your reference, that’s one thing. But making references to our favorite movie, show, celebrity or sport without recognizing that not everyone in the room will know what we’re talking about. When this happens, you run the risk that an audience member will feel ignorant or unworthy, then disengage or check out because they don’t feel included in the conversation. Find literal ways to say what you mean.
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2. Gross generalizations
As a society, we love to generalize. We’ll say things like “this happens a ton,” “everyone feels this way,” or “she’s acting crazy.” If you’re using a word that’s open to interpretation, find a better word. Generalizations are rarely helpful or accurate.
If you’re trying to estimate how long something will take, try to narrow it down to a specific amount of hours, days or weeks. If you want to discuss how commonplace something is, find data on how many people are actually affected by it. If you’re describing someone’s behavior, see if you can detail it in a specific and objective way, instead of a subjective way. Don’t just call something a terrible experience — describe what specifically made it so terrible.
Words like “a ton,” “a lot,” “everyone” or “crazy” have different meanings to different people. When we can report data and discuss situations with language that’s specific and measurable, it’s less likely that our words will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Our problem statements, pain points or proposed solutions become factual and based on data, not just “gut feel.” True professionals and mature adults communicate this way, so there’s never any confusion. People respect it far more, too.
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3. Excessive analogies and metaphors
Analogies and metaphors have a place in speech, especially if you’re confident that your audience will understand. When you insert an analogy or metaphor into a conversation, it should serve a purpose. This is the case when you draw a comparison of something that’s well understood to something that’s less well understood.
However, the overuse of analogies and metaphors can be distracting. Each time you make one, you’re asking your audience to travel somewhere else in their minds, which takes them away from what’s going on at the moment. Those who constantly liken one thing to another also run the risk of avoiding simple and straightforward communication.
If you’re always finding the need to compare and contrast things for the sake of explanation, then there’s a chance you don’t understand the current situation well enough or feel comfortable talking about it directly. This can be especially dangerous when comparing two people together. Saying “Rick is just like Sarah” might sound innocent enough, but Rick is not Sarah. He’s his own person, and chances are, they’re not exactly alike. Saying two people or things are the same is a great way for us to ignore and really appreciate what makes them different. Valuing differences is such an important part of leadership and teamwork.
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Buzzwords are a great way to say something without really saying much at all. We’ll insert them into conversation regularly, saying “I don’t like any of these proposed solutions; let’s think outside the box” or “You can’t talk to John about this; he’s been drinking the Kool-Aid.” There’s almost always a more illustrative or descriptive way of describing something. Saying “think outside the box” conjures up imagines of being more innovative or creative, but it doesn’t really address what’s wrong with the proposed solutions.
For most, especially if you have a diverse group, it would be more helpful to say: “I’m worried that these ideas are focused on the short-term, and they center on things we’ve already done. What if we took a totally different approach with this strategy by focusing more on how we expect our clients to shift their use of digital technology over the next five years?”
Saying “drinking the Kool-Aid” probably implies that John is very dialed into the status quo or current direction, but it doesn’t address why or what should be done about it. For most, it would be more helpful to say: “I know he’s very supportive of the current initiative, especially since he was here for the pilot. Let’s try to explore alternatives with him by asking him some open-ended questions, especially about the risks of this approach and what could go wrong.” Now, you’re actually communicating how you feel, what you think and what you’d like the future to look like, instead of allowing everyone to draw their own conclusions.
Remember, when you’re communicating, it’s for the benefit of your audience, not yourself. Avoiding these four parts of speech help you from alienating, losing or confusing others whose brains work differently than yours. That will allow you to be more effective with your message, which is what we all want.