Words of Communication

Driving down I-25 toward I-40 in Albuquerque, I passed through more than one weaving section – those complicated stretches of road where it seems everyone is trying to get into a different lane, coming up from an on-ramp or trying to reach the off-ramp or to position themselves for the upcoming interchange where two major roads meet or diverge. I know the term weaving section courtesy of a transportation planner with whom I had a relationship a very long time ago. He also taught me to drive competently and safely. Thank you, Ray.

Once through the series of weaving sections, I traveled from southbound I-25 to eastbound 1-40 via a flyover – or that’s what my British friends would call it (I know the term courtesy of all the British authors I’ve read over the years). A flyover is the part of the interchange that takes you up and over other lanes of traffic, what we in America call an overpass. As I passed over (flew through at high speed) the interchange, I remembered a number of other lessons in American versus British English, these taught me by my Uncle Eric and Aunt Hilda in Sheffield when I was still a teenager. In (I hope) mock horror Hilda scolded my use of wash cloth (only for cleaning dishes) when what I wanted was to clean my skin (using a face flannel). She was also upset that I called her garden (grassy with flowers) a yard (bare dirt or pavement). And she made it clear that the soil in her garden was earth, not dirt!

My venture into reflection on terminological differences arose following my attendance at an emergency planning conference – more properly the New Mexico Local Emergency Planning Committee Annual Conference – at which a number of intelligent, engaged, caring and thoughtful people tried to convey their knowledge and expertise to a largely receptive audience. My problem with the conference was not in participation, nor content, but in the strange transmogrification which occurred in the speakers – from competent communicators to committed users of stilted government-speak. Several of the presenters tried to include humor in their talks; all had the ubiquitous power point at hand for support; some also added pictures and graphics to illustrate key points. But the bottom – common – line amongst almost all of them was their use of that strange obfuscation which passes for communication within bureaucracies.

Ah, you’ve noticed my inclusion in these paragraphs of big words. It’s fun, sort of, to fall victim to that of which I am complaining. Here, I’m changing my usual form of communication for fun, and with intent. The presenters did not alter their delivery for fun. They seemed, rather, to feel the need to assume a formal persona because they were presenting a talk. As though who they are/how they speak normally was not good enough or important enough to give a conference presentation. One exception was the only attorney to make a presentation – he is so at home in his public delivery that there was no discernible change in him (except voice projection) when he stopped chatting over lunch and stood to give the luncheon address.

I’ve coached students learning to write essays for school, and encountered a similar perceived need to drastically alter their manner of communicating. One teen with an engaging ability to tell stories, when asked to turn the story he’d just told into an assignment for English class, became the written equivalent of tongue-tied (pen-tied, computer-tied?).

“How do I begin?”
“Just start telling your story.”
“I don’t get it. How do I begin?”
“Pretend you’re talking to me and just put the words on paper instead of speaking them.”
“But how do I start? Where do I start? How far back should I go, to get the reader to understand what the story is all about?”
“How far back did you go when you told me the story just now?”
“I didn’t have to go back because you know me.”
“So pretend the reader knows you and start the way you started with me.”
“But the reader doesn’t know me and might misunderstand.”
“Write it like you’re writing a letter to me, then. You know I won’t misunderstand.”
“So do I start with “Dear Ms. Sebastian”?”
“If that lets you get into your story, go for it.”

It would seem that wanting to communicate, for many people, contains within itself the root of lost ability to do so! It is a painful truth for stutterers, that the more urgently they desire to speak, the more inhibited that speech is likely to become. Some stutterers overcome the problem by taking singing lessons. Next, they think of singing their daily speech, and the words come out fluently. I aimed for a similar transfer of skills with my encouragement of my writing student to tell me the story on paper just as he’d told it aloud. He did write me a letter, then transferred the body of the story to essay format, and got a good grade on the paper.

I’m convinced that effective communication – whether in a formal presentation or a chat over tea in a garden – is not about the words one uses, not about the style, but about having a comfortable sense of oneself, and an intent to communicate. The presenters at the conference became ensnared by their efforts to appear as some formalized image of themselves, perhaps labeled “the professional”. The student, a natural story teller, was blocked by replacing his intent to communicate with an intent to “be a writer”. Many people, convinced that they won’t be understood, don’t try to express themselves at all, and become the fulfillment of their perception, going sadly misunderstood through life.

The simplest injunction to give to someone undertaking a new communication task is “be yourself” – yet it is also, often, the hardest one to manifest. How many of us really have “a comfortable sense of ourselves” that we are willing to expose through our written or spoken words? To become a good communicator then, there are in fact four necessary steps:
1) Know yourself
2) Be yourself
3) Trust yourself
4) Express yourself

Just four steps – but ones it often takes a lifetime to learn.

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2 Responses to “Words of Communication”

  1. Ron Maltais Says:

    This entry was particularly appreciated as I am in the midst of preparing a presentation which I’ll deliver in about one week’s time. Your words brought back a memory of a difficult fourth grade experience where I was asked to stand in front of a class to talk about a book I had just read which was a collection of ghost stories. Standing in the front of the classroom I froze up just facing my classmates, but a calm individual (the teacher) coaxed me into merely telling one of the stories. Of course I chose my favorite story and as the words began to flow I could feel my audience being drawn into my vision of the work. I suppose that on that day I realized that I had an inner strength which was reflected in what turned out to be a dramatic presentation which surprisingly led to applause at the end. I felt as if I had grown one inch taller in less than a day.

    After a significant number of years teaching which requires me to give presentations in front of students every day, I would imagine that my confidence results from discussing topics I love and from my desire to share information with others. That hesitant young boy is still part of me for sure, but the deep breath one needs to take before plunging into a speech seems to relax the spirit.

    • chelawriter Says:

      Another element of comfort speaking out in – or in front of – a group is reaching a point in one’s life where one cares more for the content one is transmitting than how one will be perceived by those hearing it.

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