March 29, 2016

You’re talking, but are you being heard?

When we think about becoming better verbal communicators, we often focus on what we are saying and how we are saying it – those verbal and non-verbal signals we are sending out; however, communication is about the sender and the receiver. If you deliver an amazing speech but nobody understood it, you have communicated poorly. It helps to be aware of your audience, whether it is a large professional crowd or your four year-old niece, so that you can adapt your communication style to be better comprehended by the receiver(s).

Some things to keep in mind when considering your audience:

What is the experience level of your audience? This seems like a no-brainer, but we often assume that others have had similar experiences as us – they haven’t. We all have unique backgrounds and different areas of expertise. It’s often helpful to simply ask “what is your background?” or “what is your experience with [fill in the discipline here]?”

Are others familiar with your terminology? If you are using specialized jargon, it will be difficult for non-specialists to follow. For example, think about how often industry-specific acronyms are used, but to people outside that industry, an acronym is a confusing collection of letters. Sometimes it is more effective to explain things so that a five year-old can understand.


What is the key information? Concise is often better. Place yourself in the shoes of the receiver. It is easier to comprehend the speaker’s message when the message is simple. This being said, messages are not always simple. As the sender, do your best to simplify the message by removing any unnecessary and superfluous content.

How do others prefer to process new information? If possible with a new audience (likely an individual or smaller group), figure out if your receiver(s) prefer to think things through before they are comfortable voicing their ideas (internalizer) or if openly verbalizing their thoughts and ideas helps them to understand (externalizer).  This will support how they process information while allowing you to better tailor the style of your communication.

There are also ways to make sure that you are being understood.

Encourage others to ask questions.  By doing so, you can gauge their understanding while also recognizing which points need more explaining, or need explaining from a different angle.  Put the responsibility of good communication on your own shoulders and invite others to ask questions by probing “am I explaining this well?” or “is there anything I can help clarify?”

Ask others to summarize what you have said to see if they have captured the main points and the necessary detail.  This is a helpful way to test what others are taking in.  This also helps your audience to engrain information deeper by thinking through and articulating the message themselves.

Next time you are working with a new group, I challenge you to be mindful of the receiver, figure out how others prefer to receive information, and ensure that what you are saying is being comprehended.