“Reading between the lines” sounds like a straightforward skill, but if you grew up with a very literal brain, as I did, it sometimes takes years before you get this skill working for you. I’ll take a shot at explaining what I mean today because it’s been on my mind lately. As a fair warning, I should say that this ability is, for me, very much a work in progress.
If someone tells you to read between the lines on a document or public statement, there’s usually a reason, and that reason is that not everything that you need to know about a given document or verbal statement has been included in the words the individual or organization uses. So here are some questions to ask yourself if you want to learn how to better capture what more might be going on when you read or hear something:
- Why was the statement given when it was?
- Does it matter who is delivering the statement? Would it have a different impact if someone else made it?
- [How] Does the speaker or organization stand to gain from making the statement?
- Was anyone affected by the statement not mentioned?
- Were any potential downsides of the statement or the described outcome not included?
- Was blame assigned or accepted in a statement regarding a negative outcome?
- Does someone not related to the speaker or organization stands to benefit from a particular outcome? Were they mentioned in the statement?
- Did the statement require the sharing of evidence?
- Was the method of evidence collection germane to the outcome, and was it described in the statement?
- Was unusual or non-standard terminology used to describe a situation?
These types of questions all lead to further questions of intent–the “why” of certain aspects of the statement. This is why speechwriters or public affairs writers manage to earn a living. A lot of it has to do with being conscious that other people will ask these types of questions and crafting one’s words as carefully as possible so there can be little doubt about the speaker’s or organization’s intentions.