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My recent trip to India has once again sensitized me to an assumption that writers and speakers too often make:  that everyone understands what you mean to say.

Test yourself – what do the following three words mean?  Flyover, Subway, and Removalist.

If you are in India, a Flyover is a local bridge that “flies over local traffic”; elsewhere, it has something to do with airplanes.  In much of the world, a Subway is a road or pedestrian path that goes underneath another road; in Toronto a Subway refers to the Metro.  In Australia, a Removalist is someone who transports your possessions when you move houses; elsewhere this person is called a house mover.

When the mother tongue of the audience isn’t English, the problem intensifies.

Before delivering a critical presentation or posting a widely read blog or Twitter post, answer the following questions about your audience:

  • What is your audience’s English comprehension level?  Do you need to do part of your presentation in their language?  Or at least open with a local phrase?  I give a number of suggestions to address the issue in this Tipsheet.
  • Which English do they know? (American, British, Canadian, Indian, Australian, Hong Kong, etc) Does it make sense to test your content with a smaller group first?
  • Can you use local examples to help them better relate?  Or is it better to keep with universal principles – lowest common denominator – to avoid making an embarrassing mistake.

One of the most important reasons for a Social Media strategy is that it helps define your target audiences, and  lets you focus the version of your language squarely on this target.  Without a strategy, it will become increasingly difficult to use the “right” language to have an impact.

This week’s action plan: Whether you have a strategy or not, spend a few minutes defining your primary audience – then review your last few status updates, blog posts, or videos to see if they are using the “right” language to make an impact.  And when you are doing that critical presentation, remember that comprehension is in the mind of the audience, not the mouth of presenter.

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register.

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
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Speaking of Language

by Randall Craig on January 16, 2007

Filed in: Blog, Communication, Make It Happen Tipsheet

Tagged as: , ,

I once worked for a brilliant leader… whose mother tongue wasn’t English. To my horror, I discovered that he didn’t always understand every word that I spoke or wrote. With increased diversity and a more global business environment, expect this to happen more and more frequently.

The challenge selling a concept to a non-fluent person is that if they do not fully understand you, they will not buy your ideas. And if they don’t buy your ideas, they won’t buy you: a critical issue if you are looking to sell yourself into a special project, sell a service, or sell a product.

The problem is compounded by the fear of embarrassment; very few people are keen to admit a lack of understanding. They reason that this could be interpreted (by you) as a lack of intellect or a lack of business acumen.

So how do you make sure that your message is heard – and understood? Keep these points in mind:

  • Understanding is in the mind of the recipient, not the speaker.
  • Use simple grammar. (I could have said “Simplify the grammatical constructs used”.)
  • Use shorter words when possible.
  • Use contextual clues to reinforce meaning.
  • Avoid using idioms and unclear expressions.
  • Give examples for key points, and explain concepts a second time using different word choices.
  • Follow-up a conversation with a memo, or use visually contextual clues in your presentation Powerpoint. (They can discretely look up unfamiliar words.)
  • Don’t speak louder to them. They hear your words quite well – they may just not understand them.
  • Speak at a measured, “average” pace. If you speak too slowly, you will seem patronizing.
  • Don’t mistake your cultural clues for theirs. For example, nodding or saying yes may only indicate that your words were received – but the words may not be understood. And if this is the case, saying yes has nothing to do with gaining agreement.
  • Don’t assume that because someone has an accent that they aren’t as fluent as you; they may be.

The value of simple communications is that your message will be better understood by everyone – whether their mother tongue is yours or not. This is true when speaking to your professional colleagues. And it is also true when delivering a keynote presentation, facilitating a critical meeting, or running a workshop.

This week’s action item: Go through some of your writing: a proposal, an informal email, and perhaps your website. Then make it more understandable by checking it against the list. Use the same guidelines for your next presentation.

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register.

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)