Do you want to lose a good customer? Just start talking in buzzwords, jargon or acronyms and you will find that the next meeting will be tougher to schedule than the last. Earlier in my career, after I made a sale the customer said to me “I trust that you know everything that you need to deliver a high quality product, If that changes let me know. If you want my business, I need no more education.” Ouch that hurt!
Enjoy the post, John
Have you ever heard the term high-context? It describes a scenario you find in tight groups, like families or professions, where every interaction is laced with jargon and inside jokes.
Like when your Mom says, “Oh, that’s so Cindy,” and it means more to you than if she’d spent half an hour explaining. Or when architects talk about poché zones and negative space, or “service versus served.”
High-context conversation can be useful. If you’re sure everyone in your group speaks the language, it’s efficient shorthand. But today I want to share a cautionary tale about getting stuck inside the high-context cloud.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me to visit his architecture class. It’s a design course, and the students were going to present case study projects for discussion. My job was to help my friend review their work and guide their investigations.
If you are a student in that class, your temptation is to assume your audience already knows the basic information about your case study (they are, after all, a group of competitive peers and your professor, who assigned his pet projects), and dive straight into the most abstract elements of the study.
Tempting, yes, but not effective. The best projects took another tack. They walked the viewer through the design step by step, assuming no prior knowledge. Every decision and influence in the building was outlined and diagrammed. They were so clear and thorough, you could hang them on a wall in a museum and your grandma would get it without you even there to explain.
The best students had an instinct about when to step out of the high-context cloud. They understood the intellectual leap their audience would have to make, and they made it easy on them.
This lesson has so many implications. How many times have you been the new person at a party and felt shut-out because your hosts were telling first-name stories about people you’d never met? Or felt lost at a meeting because your consultants were throwing around three-letter acronyms without stopping to explain? Or been stumped by your friend’s remark until you realize she’s updating you on a situation she assumed you saw two weeks ago on Facebook?
Communication is about so much more than the words that come out of your mouth. If you truly want to be understood, if it’s actually important for people to get it, you have to do more than tell them. You need empathy to comprehend what’s important to other people, you need humility to put your audience at ease, and you need clarity to know exactly what to say when they’re ready to listen.
If you have an important message to share, whether it’s making a new friend welcome or defending the value of your profession, it’s your job to make that message accessible. You have to take responsibility for it, serve it ready-made. You meet your audience where they are. If you have something important to say, you have to know when to step out of the high-context cloud.
Photo by kasiakay.
© 2012 Sara Martin
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“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”
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