Are you shutting people out with your communication?

One of the perils of working at the same place for a long time is that you forget that the terminology you use with co-workers is obtuse, confusing or bewildering to people not in the know.

The shorthand of internet-speak, whether on Twitter, text or Slack, compounds this problem. It’s not just industry jargon but also countless abbreviations and inside jokes.

Maybe I should clarify: This universe of communication isn’t a problem by default. The problem arises when this insider language replaces plain talk and clarity when speaking with customers, clients or newer co-workers, not to mention when jargon is used to exclude others.

Let’s start with an example that’s not a problem and is simply a fun thing. Slack, the internal communication platform, has a wealth of emoji, including a cheese wedge. Here’s what that cheese wedge looks like:

My department is mostly remote, and even for people at HQ, our early deadlines mean many of us start at home. So, an early arrival to the office might not have much company.

In response, one co-worker took to using this cheese-wedge emoji to signal that being alone in the office, as in “The cheese stands alone.”

This is a brilliant use of language and communication. Yes, it’s an inside joke (and it took me a couple of minutes to get it), but not one at someone’s expense or hidden from people. That’s just one example of how language can connect us.

Looking across how companies operate, there’s a reason we use shorthand. Common abbreviations, phrases or sayings that encapsulate specific themes or things can save time, reinforce a brand and, in some cases, encourage team bonding.

But are we stopping to reflect on what we’re saying and how we’re saying it?

Let’s say I’m doing an onboarding conversation with a new salesperson. If I want him or her to have a sense of what our employer does and what my department does, should I be using internal acronyms, referencing industry-specific terms without explaining them and trying to convey the entire scope of the editorial mission in 30 minutes?

Increasingly, I do almost no technical demonstration with these new hires. I use our 30 minutes on getting to know them, their level of comfort and understanding with what we do, and talking about the broader mission: Why do we exist? What’s our value proposition, our goals, and for whom? I’d rather talk about the people who are running the processes than the processes themselves.

In one sense, I’m communicating much less than a comprehensive walkthrough would. But the retention rate is likely to be higher.

The same goes for clients, especially when they are new or when there’s a tense situation being discussed. They have their own motivations and fears, their own full list of to-dos. You may be communicating with them, but they may have their bosses telling them what to say.

How can you communicate in a way that explains what you need while being complementary to their needs? How can you do this in the plainest language possible, saving the terminology and process for when it’s really needed?

What I want to convey today is a mindset for people (like me) who carry around a lot of institutional knowledge. All that memory can block us from remembering what it was like when we didn’t know the language and didn’t have all the answers.

Try stepping back occasionally and thinking about:

  • Starting simple, then going deep. You can always add details, especially once you’ve established a foundation of clear communication.
  • Asking questions. You cannot magically detect whether your audience understands what you’ve explained, so ask and clarify.
  • Assuming good intentions. If someone isn’t getting what you’re saying, there’s also a good chance they aren’t. Perhaps you can use a different communication style or a different metaphor. Whatever you do, don’t give up easily.
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