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THIS ISSUE:
Do You Speak the Language?

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Word count: 580
Estimated read time: About 2 minutes

When I was a foreign correspondent in Guatemala, I struggled with speaking Spanish. But as it turned out, it was great practice for translating foundation and business jargon in the future.

I lived and worked in Guatemala in the 1990s.  My Spanish was competent but I wasn’t fluent.  But almost everyone I interviewed spoke only Spanish so I had to communicate in their language.

Because I wasn’t completely comfortable speaking Spanish, I had to listen more closely to what people said. I had to ask more questions to make sure that I understood the points people were making. Sometimes I had to come back a few days later to clarify what they said.  I often had to slow the process down to have clear communications.

These are the same kinds of struggles that your audiences have when trying to understand foundation or business jargon.

For those of you who have ever tried to learn a second language, you know that for a long time, you still translate that second language into English in your head. You have to pause and think and it’s hard.  But then comes the time when you start thinking and even dreaming in that other language. You know you’ve gotten it. You don’t have to think anymore. That’s a great stage of achievement when learning a language, but not such a great stage of development when the language is foundation or business jargon.

Successful communicators shouldn’t strive to “think and dream” in their field’s jargon. It’s important not to get comfortable in the world of jargon because then it becomes difficult to communicate to people who don’t understand that language.

Here’s what I mean: the other day I was listening to the radio and the host interviewed a consultant in the auto industry. The consultant was supposed to explain to listeners the steps that one big U.S. car company was taking to survive the recession.

The consultant said, “They are going to monetize their assets by offloading one of their subsidiaries.”

Huh?

It took me a minute to realize that the business is going to raise some cash by selling one of their smaller companies.  The interviewer never paused to ask the consultant to explain what she meant. The interviewer was also so steeped in the jargon of the business world that it didn’t occur to her that listeners might not readily understand what the consultant had said.  

Here’s another example.  Not long ago, I worked with a communications colleague who kept telling me that we needed to get to the “granular” level. At first I had no idea what he meant. Then I thought, hmm, granular is like grains of sand, which is like details. Oh he wants me to get detailed.  So why say granular?  He had gone native, as they say. It’s a bad sign when communications professionals start using jargon--and it’s easy to do.

If we use the jargon too easily we soon forget that it might not easily translate to our audience.

That’s why it’s important in this world of business-speak, evaluation-speak or foundation-speak to remain in the stage of language where you still “think and dream” in English. It’s a good thing to still pause and think about what the jargon really means. That’s a big part of our job—to translate the jargon into clear English--and that’s what makes our communication work successful.  

Otherwise, you aren’t really speaking the language.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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