Never underestimate the possibility that someone will misunderstand what you’re saying.
That’s always been one of my guiding principles whenever I speak or write. And it’s becoming more important every day for anyone who wants to communicate accurately, clearly and effectively.
This is nothing new, of course. Misunderstandings and misdirection are as old as language.
But it is getting worse.
The Untruth Is Out There
The overwhelming amount of information we receive is setting us up for a glut of misinformation.
If, let’s say, one percent of what we pass along is an unintentional untruth, that wouldn’t have been a big deal when we were sharing a couple pieces of new information in an average day. A one out of 100 error rate meant telling an unintentional falsehood every two or three months, maybe.
But now, when we’re reading or passing along dozens, even hundreds of items a day, a one percent error rate can mean an incorrect item every day or two.
Because of this, we need to be ever more vigilant about our fact-checking. And, for professional communicators, this means we need to be extra certain that we’re cutting through the clutter in simple, clear, precise and accurate ways.
Five Tips To More Precise Communication
Here are five rules I use when communicating something I know to be true if it has even the slightest possibility of being misheard or misunderstood by those receiving it. (Note that all these tips only happen after having researched and confirmed the truth of what I’m passing along.)
1. Read and re-read your own writing
Hitting “send” or “publish” too soon is the enemy of clarity and leads to a lot of misunderstanding.
Even if what you’re writing is 100 percent reliable, sending it quickly can cause me to miss something about grammar, word order or language that might create confusion. Most of this can be cleared up if I give it one last go-over.
2. Imagine yourself as a reader, not just the writer
Before I publish anything, one of my read-throughs is always done with the reader in mind. What might a reader possibly misunderstand about this, and how can I make it clearer? I’ve never regretted doing that.
3. Use a proofreader
No matter how many times I read and re-read what I wrote, I can miss obvious mistakes.
Before I post anything, my wife, Shelley, reads what I write. Not just for errors, but for possible lapses in clarity. If it confuses her, it will confuse others. It’s up to me to fix that.
4. Restate the same truth in various ways
Note above, before writing this list, I followed this principle.
Since it might be possible to read this list and assume that I was forgetting about fact-checking, I reminded every reader that these are “rules I use when communicating something I know to be true” and “all these tips only happen after having researched and confirmed the truth of what I’m passing along.”
And now I’ve told you a third time. Will some readers still miss that? Probably. But fewer of them will now because I went out of my way to reduce that misunderstanding.
Is that redundant? Yes. So is this. Which is exactly the point. When a topic has even the smallest possibility of being misunderstood, redundancy is your friend.
Because of the massive amount of information we’re taking in now, people scan more than they read. Especially online. I do it. You do it.
I’ve had readers criticize me for leaving an important point out of an article, even though it’s actually dealt with in the article, word-for-word. They weren’t lying, they just missed it when they scanned it.
5. Take note of feedback to learn what your bad communication habits might be
We all have habits. Bad ones and good ones.
Communicators have them, too. Some of those habits help us communicate better – they give us our unique voice and make people want to read more of what we write.
But some of our habits are bad. If you regularly hear the same complaints about your writing or speaking style, even in hurtful ways (like, “you sound so angry!” or “quit repeating yourself” or “passive-aggressive much?”) don’t dismiss them. Learn from them.
Even those who don’t like you or your ideas can be unintentionally helping you by pointing out errors in clarity that you can fix. Yes, your enemies can make you a better communicator if you’re open to it.
We Can Always Get Better
No one is a perfect communicator.
Even if our facts are correct, the way we say them matters.
Especially as followers of Jesus it's essential to communicate accurately, kindly, clearly and helpfully.
Because the more important our message is, the more important it is to say it well.
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