It’s Not What You Say…

You hear it from your mother the first time you say, “Yes, Mom,” and the sarcasm drips from your lips or your eyes roll. Or maybe you’re unlucky enough to hear it from a friend or teacher. You say something that’s perfectly correct but the person on the receiving end is not hearing the words because they’re infuriated by the way you’re saying them. And in our TV- and media-dominated society, delivery matters. It’s the difference between winning the crowd and having them turn on you. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Truthfully, this was another lesson I had to learn the hard way (aren’t you glad I’m here to do this so you don’t have to?). And quite frankly, it took me years to figure out how to overcome the problem.

If you’re a bright child and have a gift for language and a love of big words, you might be tempted to use whatever words you’ve absorbed. You might think everyone understands the same words that you do. Or, if you realize not everyone knows the words that you know, you might think they would appreciate being “enlightened” by your brilliant vocabulary.

You might think all that, but you would be wrong.

Or you might substitute “concepts” instead of vocabulary. Same social rules apply: people don’t like being talked down to–condescension is ugly, and it seldom wins you any prizes. After a few prize beatings (junior high was an interesting time), I had to start examining what tone and words I used when I talked to people. It’s one thing to share information that someone might not know–say, in an “Oh, did you know this? This is pretty cool!” sort of fashion. It’s something else again to ask in a loud, astonished voice, “You mean you didn’t know that the space shuttle orbiter had three liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engines? What, have you been attending the school for slow children?” This reaction has the added benefit of inserting a giant foot in the mouth if, for example, the person you’re talking to had learning disabilities while growing up. You’ve thus not only made someone feel bad by demonstrating their ignorance of a topic but insulted their intelligence or made them feel embarrassed about their childhood. Neither of these will impress your audience or make them more inclined to listen to you.

I said all that to say this: the same thing applies when you’re writing science or technology information for the general public. Or any other topic, for that matter. There are people I know who are otherwise quite intelligent but who fail miserably when it comes to communicating with others because they wear their intellectual superiority as a badge of pride. “I’m smarter than you about X so I can talk to you like you’re like an idiot.” It’s ugly, not helpful, and quite frankly it turns people off to any number of otherwise wise things the audience might learn otherwise.

There are some perfectly brilliant technical concepts or business ideas that will never be funded or see the light of day because their proponents have little awareness of how people respond to their manner of delivery. And it’s a shame, too, but quite frankly, that’s reality. People are people, and if they don’t like your manner of communicating, they’re not going to listen to you, let alone buy into whatever bright idea you hope to sell. Consider some recent presidential candidates.

So add this lecture to Mom’s: don’t be a jerk unnecessarily. It’ll help your cause and might even win you a few friends…um, assuming you want that, of course.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to It’s Not What You Say…

  1. unohoo says:

    Johnny Carson used to claim that timing and delivery are everything in life.

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