Avoiding the pitfalls of miscommunication

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2019

Public RelationsPrint

Miscommunication often starts with the assumption that those we are speaking to are receiving the information as we intended them to. 

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We don’t always stop to think that we might not have their full attention because they have other things on their mind or are impatiently waiting to have their say and are not listening at all. Perhaps they are busy with their own thoughts, searching their memory for a story that tops the one we are telling them.

Their preconceived ideas, cultural background, education, ego, agendas, prejudices and a dozen or so other distractions may also get in the way.  Maybe they think they know more about the topic than we do or doubt the credibility of our views or find them superficial, tedious and boring. These issues are often magnified by the fact that the person who is speaking is not doing such a good job either. 

George Bernard Shaw went as far as saying: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” We are all guilty at one time or another of not speaking clearly and distinctly, rushing on from one thought to another and not articulating what we meant to say, but just thinking that we have. 

It could be that we have assumed the person we are speaking to is absorbing every word we are saying and has the same understanding of the information as we have. But it is equally possible that they have grasped just enough of what we said to form an incomplete picture in their mind like a broken jigsaw puzzle, and they are busy filling in the missing pieces with their own assumptions.

To illustrate this, If I tell you that I just had a wonderful barging holiday, you might not know that a barge is a flat-bottomed boat that travels along canals or rivers. So you are completely at a loss unless I explain further. If you are a friend you might say outright that you don’t know what a barge is. 

But if you are a casual acquaintance you might keep quiet hoping to be enlightened later on in the conversation, either because you are too polite or because you don’t want to appear to be ignorant. If you do know what a barge is, a picture will pop into your head that matches your own experience, perhaps relating to a barging holiday you had in France or the UK or a scene you saw in a movie that featured something about a barge.

Meanwhile, I am picturing the wonderful barging holiday I had in Germany. Whichever the case, our minds are in two different places and are filled with completely different pictures. Miscommunication challenges like these, follow through into writing, and the implications are magnified by the size of the target audience. The wider the audience, the greater the number of ways an ambiguous statement could be misunderstood. 

We live in an era of instant gratification, where attention spans are shorter than ever. So, to grab the attention of the target reader and keep them interested we need to get to the point as quickly as possible. A good start is to put oneself in their shoes and think about how they will interpret what you have written, while you are writing it. Then once you have finished it, read what you have written through their eyes. 

When it comes to clarity, depending on the profile of your readers, it might also help to use words that the majority of them will understand without looking them up in a dictionary. In other words don’t be clever - be clear. To keep the reader’s attention throughout, it is also best to use strong words that will have the most impact and make statements that will be meaningful to the readers you are targeting as opposed to just meaning something to you.

Don’t fall into the trap of being so smart with words that what you are writing comes out in a stilted way. The easier the flow of information the less likely it will be misinterpreted. This leads back to making it as easy as possible for the reader by getting to the point as quickly as possible without preamble and creating a clear picture in their minds of what you are trying to say.

Jennigay Coetzer has 30 years’ experience as a journalist, freelance writer, editor and author. She also provides writing and editing skills training. She is passionate about helping people to uplift their writing and editing skills and can be contacted at Jennigay@icon.co.za for assistance. A PDF copy of her book, A Perfect Press Release - or Not? Is also available free of charge on request.


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