Everyone pays lip service to the concept of keeping the listener or reader in mind when communicating. But the reality is that when it comes to speaking and writing for an intercultural audience, a glaring mistake is committed repeatedly.
My clients, who speak English as a second language from an intermediate to an advanced level, are all focused on impressing their colleagues and bosses with their English skills when communicating interculturally. For example, rather than using a very simple word, such as ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’ for a sales presentation, I see them employ every possible verb variation. I worked recently with a client who declined to use those simple words and instead preferred to use ‘progression’ and ‘dissension’ when describing units on a graph. Unfortunately, those words mean something else: to progress toward an objective and disagreement. It is also not unusual for me to see slides with fifteen-word titles made up of unpronounceable, three-syllable words. How much of that will the audience understand as the slide flashes by?
When I ask my clients why they avoid simple words and short sentences, they often say they do not want to communicate “too simply.” For many of my clients, simplicity means something negative. It means they fear being seen as not intelligent enough or eloquent enough or “something” enough. In what ways do you complicate things for yourself and others when you speak or write in English as a foreign language? Do you spend significant amounts of time searching through a dictionary or online to find synonyms for the perfectly good and simple words that you, and your audience, already know in English?
Of course, this constant search for the ‘perfect’ word, with just the ‘right’ nuance, is a habit we all bring from our native languages and cultures. Within those contexts we know how to subtly alter our meaning. Within that context we can also expect our listeners to understand such nuances. As well, most people have the mistaken belief that communication takes place within just the words. In general, when you are speaking English to people from other cultures with varying degrees of English, simplicity is a much better communication habit.
For instance, if you are in the habit of using fifteen words in the title of a slide, cut it back to ten words. Then challenge yourself — can you say it in five? If you are in the habit of writing three paragraphs, cut back to two and eventually to one. In my recent book, Dance of Opinions, I show in detail how to simplify expressing opinions in English for a variety of business documents.
It would be draconian of me to say that you can never show off your verbal prowess. In other words, sometimes you can use big words. Both of the previous sentences mean the same thing — which one is simpler and clearer? Simplicity and clarity go hand in hand. Einstein, Michelangelo and others through the ages have said quite a bit about simplicity. And while simplicity is not a new idea, it seems better suited than ever to our current, fast-paced, intercultural world. Think of all the time and trees you could save by keeping your communications simple. Your listeners and readers from other cultures will thank you for keeping them in mind.