Take your time to develop your thoughts in someone else’s words

Even if you speak the same language

Here is a lesson I only learned a little while ago … you don’t just need to be aware of the fact that people around you don’t necessarily think like you, you also need to adapt the way you express yourself to really connect with them and make a message stick. Even if you speak the same language, you may not understand the same things.

Learning the hard way

How did I learn this? Well, the hard way. I’m proposing an adaptation to the organisational structure of my department. My team worked long and hard on the content and I invested a lot of time in the presentation. We were really proud.

There was however, one problem. The presentation I delivered was written entirely from my point of view, answering the questions I would have, structuring it the way I like to see it. So when I had to deliver it and my boss saw the presentation, I lost him quite early in the presentation.

A failure to consider my audience

I failed to take in account that the way he receives and processes information is different from mine. Not better, not worse, just different. I had not considered writing to my audience. Which is bad because I’ve been teaching this to auditors about internal audit reporting for the past years.

But there are of course a few lessons here …

Four lessons to onboard your audience

First, get to really know your audience. Especially when you are writing for an audience of one, or a few, be very aware of what their listening, reading and information processing styles are like. That actually means taking the time to get to know your audience. And a good way to do that is to look at what they have written in the past. Because as much as your presentation shows your fingerprints and reflects your way of thinking, their presentations are likely to reflect that too.

Second, once you understand how the audience you need to start speaking and writing their language, in their preferred structure. Your responsibility is efficient and effective delivery of decision support information. And that means that you need to ensure that the message delivery will not trigger negative side effects. Which is what happened to me when my boss said: “I don’t know where you are going with this.” The information was there, the delivery mechanism failed.

Third, test and fail small, ask for feedback and iterate as soon as possible. It takes a while to learn to speak another language. The same goes for this type of situation. You will not hit all the notes right off the bat. There is a learning curve. So start small, by going into regular direct communication (i.e. talking) with them if you have that luxury. And dare to ask for feedback. A good question is “Did that make sense to you?” or in an affirmative sentence “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

And fourth, just be aware that this takes time. Some people are born communicators, chameleons who are capable of speaking someone else’s language in mere hours. These people are often highly empathic. I’m not one of them, and it takes time to develop a vocabulary and a writing style that is adapted to people around you.

Showing respect

All this may feel a bit manipulative, but actually, it is not. It is showing respect to the people you are trying to share something with. Your role is not just the delivery of decision support information, it is the effective and efficient delivery of decision support information. That means it should be tailored to your audience. If you correctly apply this lesson, it will lead to less frustration for you, for your audience and quicker, more efficient decision taking. And that is what we are ultimately looking for.