Earlier this month I was in Montreal for a conference, where my total immersion French language and culture course from undergraduate school proved to be far too dusty to be of much use. However, on entering one of the restaurants I frequented and greeting the host with “bon jour,” he immediately began rattling on at breakneck pace in French. I knew full well that he and the rest of the staff would happily converse in English, but it took a few moments before I was able to beg him to “répéter en Anglais.”
The host made an assumption about me, based on my marginal attempt to assimilate. As professional communicators we sometimes – in boardrooms, classrooms or written materials – make similar mistakes. Many audience members may attempt to play it cool – nodding along, even though they may have been lost at “bon jour.” In the case I described, the choice was to either own my insufficiency as a speaker of French or go hungry – which meant asserting myself to make that clear.
In many communication situations the audience may be reluctant to exercise that same self assertion to clarify the message. Further, if we have not created a mechanism for feedback, even an assertive “decoder” of our message may be left without a means to understand the meaning.
On a face-to-face basis, the message maker (as instructor or pundit) likely sets the parameters for feedback from the audience. Creating an environment that is conducive to exchange doesn’t mean the message maker must give up complete control, but at least must offer a reasonable way to ask questions and raise alternative perspectives.
In mass communication channels, we need to at least provide directions to accept comments, questions and feedback. Better yet, engaging the audience in an active dialogue will help assure individuals get the message, while helping the “encoder” refine the elements of communication that prove problematic for the audience.
Regardless of the type of communication involved, the person behind the message must have the commitment, and sometimes courage, to hear feedback and act in the interest of audience understanding. This can be difficult to do, particularly when a great deal of time, energy and passion has been put into developing the material.
So, before delivering your next message, pause to consider what has been put in place to assure the audience knows that you are willing to adjust your language to meet their ability to understand the content. You may find there have been pretenders in the audience that will suddenly make themselves heard.
Dr. Michael C. Porter, APR is the director of the UST MBC program.