“No one cares about your feelings,” the professors told us on the first day of class. “If you have come to write about your feelings you can get out now. We are not kidding.” This class, unofficially dubbed the Fascist School of Writing, was the most wonderful class I ever took in my life and, incidentally, this jarring banishment of emotional baggage led to the most valuable lesson of communication I ever heard.
Whether you are a writer, filmmaker, politician, nonprofit guru, or entrepreneur, if you’ve ever tried to ‘improve your impact’ or ‘extend your reach,’ I expect you regularly hear platitudes like
- “Produce audience-driven communication”
- “Always answer the question, ‘Why should I care?'”
- and “Start with Why.”
Each of these true directives points to two implications: first, that we tend to be terrible communicators, and second, that good communication has something to do with understanding our audience.
As to the first dour implication, I recently read on the blog The Creativity Post this passage about our communication handicap:
“Schools don’t teach communication. They teach math, (not very well), some science, history and give rote instructions about rigid grammatical rules, but give very little guidance on how to express ideas clearly. When we enter professional life, we immerse ourselves in the jargon and principles of our chosen field and obediently follow precepts laid out by our respective priesthoods. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those outside our tribe. Then we wonder why our ideas never get very far.”
As the post describes, our dysfunctional communication skills inhibit our ability to connect with others and realize our potential for innovation. It’s one thing to have ideas to share, but if no one can understand us, we limit the value of our ideas. Therefore, we have a deep incentive to pay attention not just to what we communicate, but how we communicate.
This passage also points to the second implication, the idea that communicators need to pay more attention to those with whom they communicate. Who are they? What is their context? What matters to them? Is it similar or different to the communicator’s context? Good communication demands that these questions be addressed.
Even if the communicator asks these questions, though, it does not guarantee that the answers will be applied. This is where the Fascist School of Writing drops its epiphanic bomb. The reason our feelings were not wanted in that classroom was because feelings were not going to persuade anybody. Feelings are one-directional and un-directable; they come out from us and land wherever they land. When we share our feelings, we are getting something off our chest. In other words, it is all about us. When we share ideas, by contrast, we want those ideas to germinate in the minds of others. If we seek to disperse our ideas well, we need to take control over how they get disseminated and understand more about where they take root.
On the first day of my writing course the professors explained that readers think differently from writers. Writers are obsessed with things–stuff that needs to be organized into a logical flow. Stuff is made of nouns. Writers love to arrange sentences around nouns. The problem is that readers look for actions. They want to know what’s happening, where things are going, the movement from A to B. They look for the verbs. Acknowledging this distinction confronts the writer with a critical decision: Will she depend on the readers to figure out her noun sequence and risk losing their interest and/or comprehension? Or will she adjust her approach to make it more reader-friendly, i.e. action-oriented? The answer is obvious in terms of what she should do, but as many readers know, few writers reorient themselves enough to make it easier for the reader to read, let alone more pleasant.
The big takeaway from this lesson is not only that readers and writers think differently, but that the burden of communication (i.e. getting ideas across successfully and comprehensively) lies on the writers, NOT the readers. Communicators need to reorient their whole message to begin from the audiences’ context and communicate in ways our audiences think. Why? Because we can’t afford to delude ourselves that our audience will stick around if we bore or confuse them. We also shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation of thinking they are too stupid to understand us. They are not stupid, but neither are they patient. The responsibility lies with us to escort them through our argument, beginning with something that our audience believes to be important. If we want to move someone’s point of view from point A to Point B, then we have to start at Point A. This might sound simplistic, but reflect for a moment on how many times you’ve read an article or watched a presentation in which the writer or the speaker assumed you agreed with him from the beginning, or used jargon without defining it, or spent your valuable time in the weeds of irrelevant details. Annoying, isn’t it? Learn from such instances. After all, no one is useless; as the saying goes, everyone can serve as a bad example. Do what these communicators failed to do: respect your audience.
Good communication, therefore, is about taking responsibility for your message and stewarding/manipulating/reshaping it in ways your audience can appreciate. This means making it easier for your audience to receive and comprehend your ideas, instead of making them do backflips. This involves starting where they are starting. It involves getting out of your own head and into theirs’. It is about carrying them along step by step. Oh, and heaven forbid you make the path enjoyable for them.
Communicators, take to heart the words of Lady Galadriel: This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will.