Phillip Khan-Panni, business speaker, presentation consultant and member of Society Toastmasters

The story is told of a young man who approached Leonard Bernstein with an idea for a new musical. Bernstein, whose impressive achievements included West Side Story, said, ‘Write it on the back of your business card.’ The young man protested that he couldn’t possibly fit it on the back of his card.

‘Then,’ said Bernstein, ‘it isn’t ready.’

It may not always be necessary to be that succinct, but it helps to know exactly what you want to communicate. Crossed wires and misunderstandings are often caused by poor communication, causing upsets and time wasted chasing down blind alleys. So let’s take a moment to understand the communication process and how to avoid getting it wrong.

No absolutes

Possibly the most common cause of poor communication is the belief that it’s all about transmission – the conviction that you start with an idea or a message, and deliver it to your intended recipient. Job done.

Accountants say, ‘The facts speak for themselves.’ Engineers say, ‘Our work speaks for itself.’  Both are wrong, as any lawyer will tell you. In fact, the entire legal profession is based on the reality that there are no absolutes, only interpretations.

You must use the language and style that connects with your listeners, creating in their minds the same idea and intention that started in your own

Consider this. Imagine you are marooned on a Pacific island, all on your own. How much communication is possible? Clearly none. Then one day, a bottle gets washed up on the beach. You find a leaf and something to make a mark, scribble a message, pop it into the bottle and throw it back in the sea. Now how much communication? Still none because no one has received it. Aha! Now you need a receiver.

Your bottle eventually lands on a beach in Japan, where it is opened by a fisherman who knows no English. Now you have a receiver, but still no communication because your message has not been understood.

Message received?

Therefore, communication is not about transmission; it’s about how it is received and understood. That is the first principle of communication. And what follows is that you must use the language and style that connects with your listeners, creating in their minds the same idea and intention that started in your own.

A good approach is to filter the facts that you want to impart. Facts are neutral and need to be interpreted. Then they become information. Tell me what I need to think about the information you are giving me. Is it good or bad? Should I be impressed or disappointed? Get feedback: ask inclusive questions, like ‘Isn’t it?’ or ‘What do you think?’

Listener benefit

Most importantly, think in terms of the benefit your listeners will gain from accepting what you tell them. For example, how would you answer the common question, ‘What do you do?’

A postman could give three possible answers. He could say ‘I’m a postman.’ That’s a label and a conversation stopper. Or, ‘I deliver mail.’ That just describes the function. Or he might say, ‘You know how, in these days of lockdown, you’ve been buying things online? I’m the one who brings them safely to your door.’ An over-simplification, perhaps, but it clarifies the benefit he provides.

Similarly, accountants are increasingly no longer viewed as ‘bean counters’ or ‘the person who looks after the numbers’. Instead, many would choose to tell it how it is and say ‘We are the people helping individuals and companies work out how they cope with the current business uncertainties and what it all means for their finances.’

For more information

Society Toastmasters is a club whose primary purpose is to enable people to improve the way they communicate, developing the skills to get their point across. It provides opportunities to practise speech-making in a mutually supportive environment, offering encouraging feedback and rewarding the arrival at milestones along a structured path.