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What does that mean? Pairing this powerful little question with five simple rules can help you elicit clear and effective communication.

what does that mean?

It's a question I find myself asking more and more frequently. I'm not asking because I'm stupid. I'm educated, relatively well-read, astute on current affairs and a world traveler.

The reason I keep asking "What does that mean?" is because people keep making up complicated names for simple things, just so they can make themselves feel a little more superior or more intellectual. In an age of information overload, audiences don't have time to decipher techno-speak, doublespeak, acronyms and "make it up so I sound smarter than you"-speak.

Case in point: The school's newsletter arrives and says there will be a class on information literacy. Angry parents call wanting to know why computer classes are no longer being offered.

Information literacy? What does that mean? Someone, somewhere, decided that computer classes in school involve so much more that they should be given a new name. Then that same someone gives a presentation at a summer workshop and uses the term. Now other educators attending the workshop (who always want to appear smarter than the rest of us because they have "M.Ed." after their names) start using the term.

Damn it, call it what it is! It's a computer class. The kids learn to turn on the computer, they learn to type, they learn to use programs, they learn to use the Internet. That's what we expect from a computer class--and oh, that's also what an "information literacy" class is.

I'm a communications expert. My job is to help people make communication effective by making it simple. If a communicator is writing a newsletter, if a CEO is making a speech, if a spokesperson is talking to the media, if an emergency responder is communicating during a crisis, if an analyst is addressing stock prices, if a nurse or doctor is talking to a patient, each of them has a responsibility to communicate effectively.

Rule No. 1:

Make it clear

If the audience doesn't understand what you're saying, then you have failed to communicate effectively. I specialize in training people to do interviews with the media, and I write the words they'll say during those interviews. Once I was conducting a private training course for a doctor who was scheduled to appear on ABC's 20/20. As I prepared for the course, I asked the doctor's medical school for background material. After reading it, I called the university that had hired me and asked, "What does all this mean? What does this doctor do?"

The response came back: "We don't know. That's what we hired you to find out."

The training began. The doctor and I were in the fourth hour of the session, and I still didn't know what she did.

Suddenly I started asking, "What does that mean?" Then again, "What does that mean?"

After a fourth explanation on her part and a fourth simplification on my part, I pulled out a pen and tablet and proceeded to draw four squares. I explained the relationship of one square to another and then asked, "Is this what you are trying to say?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying," she said.

"Then why didn't you tell me this four hours ago?" I asked.

"I didn't want to dumb it down," she said. "What will my peers think if I say it that way?"

"Who is your audience?" I asked. "Who do you want coming to your clinic? Is it your medical peers, or the 6 million people with a sixth-grade education watching ABC's 20/20 on Friday night?"

Rule No. 2:

Say what you mean

Please don't confuse "dumbing it down" with keeping it simple. All communication affects your bottom line. People won't give you money if they don't know what you do. When a reader, listener, viewer or member of a live audience has to take even a nanosecond to decipher what you are saying because you are making it more complicated than it needs to be, you may lose that person. At that moment, you are no longer an effective communicator.

Here is one of the worst offenders: solutions. People are tripping over themselves to add the word solutions to everything they do.

A marketing postcard in my mailbox says a vendor is offering printing solutions. What does that mean? Are they selling liquids, i.e., ink? Or are they solving problems, i.e., offering solutions? I don't need liquids and I don't have problems; therefore, I should throw away the marketing postcard. However, the print job is nice, and I've been looking for a new company to do my printing. I wonder who printed theirs?

You are a printer, for Pete's sake. Say you are a printer. Drop solution. The word was used at a data technology conference somewhere in 1999, and it has since permeated the Internet and infected the vocabulary of the tech industry and many others. For most readers, viewers and listeners, the word doesn't solve anything; it just adds confusion to the mix.

Rule No. 3:

Avoid acronyms and abbreviations

No discussion on "What does that mean?" would be complete without tackling acronyms and abbreviations. Government agencies are notorious, but every industry and organization has its own set.

Do I need to say more? Insert your favorite one here so I don't have to write about it. I understand that when it is being written (BW), the letters can save space (SS) for the person printing the page (PPTP). However, when spoken, it usually takes as long to say the letters as it does to say the words. When you say the letters only (WYSTLO), it distracts the listener long enough that he or she has to ask, "What does that mean?" (WDTM).

In that instant, you lose the listener's attention and good communication ends. (See, you are feeling it right now. Don't stop reading; hang in with me for a few more sentences.) Yes, I've actually seen news releases where virtually every sentence has abbreviations like the ones above. Some would argue that when they are BW, the letters can SS for the PPTP; however, that, too, causes the reader to look back through the document to find out what all those letters mean, thus distracting him or her from the core message.

Rule No. 4:

Be politically correct--to a point

The "What does that mean?" train gets even longer because of political correctness and the fear of hurting someone's feelings.

A dear friend works for a group historically known for helping the handicapped. However, if you say the word handicapped near anyone in the organization, you'll hear a collective shriek, followed by the admonition that they help people with disabilities.

Handicapped, I'm told, is offensive.

Something tells me it's only a matter of time before the word disabilities becomes offensive to the same people who find handicapped offensive. Then they'll introduce a new word that is not perceived to be offensive, primarily because no one will know what it means. When everyone learns it means the same thing as the previous two offensive terms, we'll change it again.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not insensitive. As a vertically challenged French-American living in exile (translates to "short Cajun whose French ancestors were exiled from Canada by the British and who relocated to Louisiana"), I understand. But I'm tired of playing the game.

A friend who sets up a teepee and teaches about his culture at my child's school is introduced by the teacher as a Native American. He then tells the children he is an Indian. Whom do I believe?

Please go easy on the political correctness and the labels. Every time you create a new label, you confuse the audience. And since someone other than the people you are describing makes up most labels, perhaps it is best to ask them how they would like to be described.

Rule No. 5:

Get to the lowest common denominator

So what is the solution to this problem? How do we attack the plague of doublespeak, technospeak, acronyms, abbreviations and made-up terms?

Ask yourself, Does my audience understand every word? If I had to give a presentation to a group of school kids on career day, would they understand it?

If the answer to either one of those questions is no, then you need to ask the question, "What does that mean?" Ask it of the CEO, ask it of the tech guy, ask it of the educator, ask it of the engineer, ask it of the accountant and ask it of the doctor.

Generally, I find that when I'm preparing someone for an interview and I am writing key messages for the spokesperson and organization, I have to ask "What does that mean?" no less than three times before I can get to what the person is really trying to say.

In math class we were taught to work our numbers to the lowest common denominator. Usually, we need to do that with our words as well.

Getting people to communicate in simple terms is not easy. In trying to get to that point, you'll discover that you are very much like a salmon swimming against the current. The journey isn't easy. You'll have to jump through hoops, conquer barriers and fight beasts that think certain words make them look more intelligent or more like an expert in their field.

It is silly that we have to fight this fight, but it is the age we live in. Your weapon in the battle is as simple as asking "What does that mean?"

It is a powerful little question. And it may hold the key to more effective communication in your organization.

Defining clients and goals

A charity needed help with its messaging. In a role-playing media training interview, one executive said, "Our clients have barriers to employment." My first "What does that mean?" came because I wanted an explanation of the word clients. I was told it meant the people who come to the charity for help.

My second "What does that mean?" came as I asked about "barriers to employment."

The executive's response was that some individuals are unable to obtain employment because of barriers related to their social, economic and/or physical conditions.

In my third attempt at clarification, I asked if it was because they were poor, divorced, uneducated, living without a car, raising children as single parents, or living with a physical or mental disability.

The answer was yes, all of the above.

The organization's new clarified key message is: "Our goal is to help people find jobs, whether it's people with physical limitations, single mothers, people with no transportation, or a variety of other issues that keep them from getting and keeping a good-paying job."


Helping people communicate

A retail company executive I was training recently said he was in charge of information technology solutions. "What does that mean?" I asked. He said he was responsible for devices that offer customers portability in their communication challenges.

I asked again, "What does that mean? What kind of portability?"

"Portability in their cars, offices and homes," he said.

"What does that mean? Are you talking about cell phones, PDAs and BlackBerry devices?"

"Yes," he said.

I told him that from now on, his key message is: "I'm in charge of helping people communicate better with their families, friends and businesses by using the latest technology, such as cell phones and other portable devices that give us access to the Internet."


Avoiding government doublespeak

In a recent seminar for government employees, I was leading the class through a writing exercise. Larry, in the front row, threw down his pen and said, "I can't do this."

So far Larry had written "The JCWC seeks to offer women services designed to enhance their lives."

I was clueless as to what that meant, but it meant something to Larry. So I asked the million-dollar question.

Larry said the JCWC provided rehabilitation programs.

First, I had to learn that JCWC meant "Jackson County Women's Center."

"Are these women on drugs?" I asked.

"Some are," he responded.

"Tell me more, Larry. What are you trying to say?" I begged.

Eventually, as Larry provided more clues in government doublespeak, I asked, "Larry, do you work at a women's prison?"

"Yeah," he responded.

"Then why didn't youjust say that?" I asked.

His new key message is: "At the Jackson County Women's Center, inmates are given opportunities to learn to read and write, given a chance to earn their high school education, placed in programs to free them from drugs, and educated on how to provide for their families after they serve their jail term."


Gerard Braud is a speaker and trainer specializing in media training, employee communication, crisis communication, key messaging and video production. He is based in Mandeville, Louisiana.
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Author:Braud, Gerard
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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