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It’s not what you say that matters

BenjiHow many times have you seen a misunderstanding caused by a message being delivered lazily over text? How many people have you seen get into an argument because of what they perceived to be an insult, that was not intended that way. It’s happened to most of us at one point or another, particularly during heavy political events like Brexit and the USA election. But there are ways to minimize the chances of being mistaken, and it starts with one simple fact …

It’s not what you say that matters.

That might be making you question my sanity, but it’s true.

It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear that matters

  • That picture up there is our dog, Benji. Whenever we are carving or eating chicken we always have a battle of wills, and he always wins. We have basically trained him to howl and bark to get scraps of meat, because to shut him up we throw him pieces. How silly of us, right? We tell him to be quiet while rewarding him for the behaviour we are trying to correct.
  • A few years ago we went on a Husky ride with Snowy Owl Dog tours in Canmore, in the Rockies. They told us to say “Hike Up!” enthusiastically if you wanted to go, and “Whoa” in a low tone if you wanted the dogs to slow or stop. Then they told us it was how you said it that mattered, you could probably say anything in the right tone and they would understand.
  • Lately I have been heavily involved in the 3D printing and maker community as I build my new blog, Maker Hacks. Makers are passionate and can be heavily brand-loyal. I am sure you have seen “iPhone versus Android”, and “Windows versus Mac” debates. It’s like that every day. Don’t get me wrong, I am having a huge amount of fun, but it’s a particularly easy trap to fall into 🙂 I learned very quickly to wrap any criticism of a certain brand or product in a lot of context before hitting submit.
  • Professional pollsters will tell you, how you phrase a question can lead to very different answers. This is why I try to never ask the question “How stupid do you think I am?” 😉

Choose your words carefully and be congruent if you want to be successful.

Now, obviously, you can’t entirely control how someone will receive your message. We all go through life with our own set of filters. Heck, missing your morning coffee might be enough to make you grumpy the entire day, so none of this is going to be perfect. You can, however, do your best to ensure you deliver what you want to say in the best way possible. After that, well, it’s up to them.

  1. Empathy – It’s great when you are in the flow and the words come tumbling out, but don’t just publish your stream of consciousness. Consider where you might be tripping people up, implying the wrong things, confusing an issue, or blatantly going off topic. I am a bad culprit of this, especially in social media when people are often pushing buttons and being wrong on the internet! See the topic from all sides. Where can you meet people where they are before showing them your side? This is not like a normal conversation where there are two sides who are equally invested, it’s your message you want to get out there so it is your job to ensure it is delivered correctly.
  2. Context and Packaging – How you present a message matters. Make your message easy to consume. Use a visual hierarchy of headlines, subheads, bullets. Emphasize important parts. They have to read and understand before they can accept or take action. Context is also very important. What is the situation, are you “reading the room”? You would think my blog is a safe place for me to express myself, but actually I still have to be careful here because 1) I blog so infrequently, many of the people on my list forgot who I am and 2) Articles get shared far wider than your close and comfortable network bubble, so we have to be sensitive that your reputation is only as good as your last content mistake 😉
  3. Moving language – As well as actual visuals, language creates visuals in people’s minds. What you say can lead to disgust, joy, a fond memory, or an upsetting one. For example, I could have said in the packaging bullet that “you don’t want your message delivered like it was scribbled on a soiled napkin pulled from a clown’s underpants”. That would likely be memorable but lead to revulsion and criticism that clowns are people and should not be used to humorously (or not) make a point. Words evoke emotions, changes of framing, influence. If you are positive or negative, if you are pro, or anti, constructive or dismissive, creates a lot of space for how you are regarded, especially over time. Are you building up or cutting down? Are you warning about potential mistakes or telling people they are wrong? Are you judging behaviour or the person doing the thing?
  4. Specificity and precision – Being vague can make people feel mistrust. Specificity and precision allows you to cut through the noise. Instead of a “big marketing improvement” say you had “a 72.5% increase in opt-ins”.  Another major aspect of this is actually having a point. Know the point you want to make and drive toward it. Repetition helps, as does coming at the point from multiple angles. The point of this article is you have to work hard to get your message across. Repetition also helps get your message across, because their understanding is your job.
  5. Proof read and edit – I tend to write quickly, overly verbose, and I tend not see my mistakes until they are too late. I imagine what I think should be there rather than see what I have actually put down on the page. Fortunately my wife has a super power of being able to spot my mistakes from a mile away. You don’t need to have perfection, just know for every mistake there will be someone who can’t get past it to see what you are meaning to say.

Do your best. Polish. Then let it go

As I said earlier, at some point you have to understand that you did your best and someone is always going to hallucinate something you never said in order to attack you for it. Someone will attack this article with a straw man of their own making no matter what I do, and it is to be expected. So long as you put in your best effort, hopefully you will reach your audience and you can try to ignore the grumpy guts who just want to give you a hard time. Mostly 🙂

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  1. Patricia Troyer says:

    Outstanding article, Chris. And some of the best advice around. Thanks. Patricia

  2. I was steered here by a media savvy friend of mine. Now I know why. Nice article ( I was going to say ‘piece’ but that may not translate appropriately between our locations 😀

  3. Great post…I usually am not good (little lazy) at “Proof read and edit”…but all of your points are worth inculcating in day to day life….Thanks once again!

  4. The last paragraph is usually the case. People don’t read, they comment on what they put in their head instead of what was written. I see it all the time; people asking a question that the article actually addressed. I just decided to let it be or give a terrible answer (hi hi) if the silly comment was directed at me. I just did it an hour ago but most of the time, it’s not worth your time.

    • Very true. Listening and reading seem to be vanishing skills. I like your approach of giving a terrible answer because I think sometimes people just want to be paid attention to 😉

  5. I just read a post that told me why their dog was happier than them. Dog’s treated correctly simply respond with trust and obedience. We has humans must make everything more complicated.

    How much better off would we be if we simply showed empathy and spoke from the gut about what we know? We must be right or not write at all. It’s a bad position to take. If we would only trust that what we are sharing others will want to hear what we say then the truth is that they will.

    One is an expert in the eyes of another even if they only know 10% more than the receiver. As you explore the topic that you are targeting the end result will be that you yourself will learn more and more. This knowledge can then be turned into future wisdom to share with the world. It may alter I current understanding in some way, but nothing is static – nor does it stay the same.

  6. > One is an expert in the eyes of another even if they only know 10% more

    Yeah Liz Strauss said once “10th graders can teach 8 graders”. You only need to have something valuable to share.