Thinking Out Loud

May 16, 2016

“I heard you perfectly, now tell me what you said.”

Writing Literacy CommunicationIn an age when we are bombarded with voices and information, it’s easy to miss the essential core of what someone is trying to say. I often find myself going back over sentences, paragraphs and pages to make sure I get the gist of what the writer intended, and am currently re-reading a book I recently finished because I want to make certain I’ve internalized the writer’s message.

There are probably a number of reasons this becomes necessary, such as:

Overly Idiomatic

Some writers clearly overdo it when it comes to use of cultural or idiomatic expressions. One friend of mine, who worked with a “Biker Church” loved the cutting edge Bible translations but not The Message which he felt overused American speech patterns. I don’t agree, but it’s a reminder to guard the temptation to speak in nothing but clichés.

Over Concision

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?” I believe that texting or Twitter can force us into communication which is simply too abrupt. A few more words or sentences would better flesh out the story or argument. Many times I will go back through something posted here and tighten it up, but alas, as I’m not paid to do this, much that you read here is first draft.

Overly Prosaic

The opposite of the above problem is writing which overflows with flowery language and description. Some people are simply too verbose. (Notice that I kept this section short!)

Overly Cute

This becomes an issue in a world where people are accustomed to cutesy headlines and teasers. It leads to a “style over substance” situation where people end up impressed with your wit, but have no idea as to your intention. This type of writing or speech often distracts or misleads.

Poorly Structured

Living as we do in a bullet-point world, people want to follow your train of thought from (a) to (b) to (c) to the conclusion. Unfortunately, prose doesn’t offer us the possibilities seen in, for example, a flow chart, unless we’re prepared to do a lot of backtracking. In my own writing, I am very aware of overuse of “however…” or “On the other hand…” and sometimes it is unavoidable.

Too Culturally Specific

In a fragmented culture we don’t all see the same movies or listen to the same songs. If you referencing a film, it may be necessary to take a paragraph to set up the plot rather than assume that the storyline is part of a common culture.

Lack of Annotation

Especially in written works, some background or sourcing needs to be provided in footnotes or appendices, where it goes beyond the flow of the article to do it in the type of set-up paragraph noted above. This way the reader who is lost can get back on track.

Loss of Focus

Going back to our introduction, and my re-reading of a recently completed book, some of the responsibility has to rest on the listener or the reader. It’s possible that my own first exposure to what you wrote or said was ruined by my own lack of focus or ADD tendencies. In conversation, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Do you mind repeating that?”

Topical Ignorance

Again, this is reader/hearer problem. It’s possible I’ve waded into a subject with which I lack sufficient background knowledge, or a breaking news story or trend of which I was completely unaware. No amount of re-reading or asking you to repeat will cover my need to take three steps back (yes, an idiom) and do the necessary research in order to catch up.

Previous Bias

If I truly don’t like the speaker or author, it’s easy for me to be dismissive of the source. If you don’t believe the book has anything to say, you might find yourself skimming its pages instead of attempting to properly digest the contents.

Generational Shifts

People communicate differently from generation to generation. As you get older, you often need to brush up on the communication styles of, for example, Millennials, or you might miss the full impact of what’s being said. Included in this is shift of meaning of individual words. A few years ago, if your son said he “had a wicked time at youth group;” this probably meant it was great, not evil. You would need to know the word usage in advance. 

Terminology Differences

This problem arises frequently in the type of topical writing we do here and occurs when people of different faiths use the same term, but are using it entirely differently. It’s hard to not mention the example of Mormonism, where discussions often break down because people don’t stop to define their terms as used in their church. It’s a more serious problem than the generational changes of the previous section.

Generally, communication isn’t complete until the reader has fully understood. The adage that “If the learner hasn’t learned the teacher hasn’t taught” may oversimplify the situation, but I believe it’s applicable more times than it isn’t.

3 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the reminders, Paul. Much appreciated. Well articulated.

    Comment by Diane — May 16, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

  2. […] “I heard you perfectly, now tell me what you said.” | Paul Wilkinson, Thinking Out Loud Why is some writing so hard to understand? […]

    Pingback by Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog — May 17, 2016 @ 1:01 am

  3. Great breakdown of common reasons communication fails.

    Comment by sonworshiper — May 17, 2016 @ 11:39 pm


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