Will you accept my apology?”
Expressing regret, explaining the circumstances, offering possible solutions - each attempt at forgiveness only triggered the next round of irritation and new tries to soothe hard feelings.
This was a classic example of a conversation “going around and around in circles.”
Nothing seemed to work. How to break the cycle?
Then a sudden switch of gears.
A simple “I’m sorry” - offered in the listener’s own native language.
Immediately, the objections stopped. The anger disappeared. The emotional storm clouds lifted, and a sunny mood returned.
There wasn’t a language barrier between the two sides of this frustrating back-and-forth - not in the typical sense; each side understood the words the other was saying.
But from the upset party’s perspective, an actual foreign language was being used throughout the dialogue, and it was a mismatch for the audience on the receiving end.
It encouraged a “me vs. you” mentality, reinforcing the differences between the two sides and making it impossible to come to agreement.
Only when one side found the key to connecting with the other was she able to unlock the acceptance and mutual understanding necessary to extinguish the argument.
During 25 years as a Congressional staffer, management consultant and non-profit co-founder, I’ve identified fundamental “Messaging Mistakes” that can turn off listeners, undermine efforts to persuade and tarnish brand and reputation.
And I've developed guidelines for connecting with your audience and avoiding the miscues that can sabotage the delivery of your message.
For example, when you convey your message in an actual language that differs from the one your audience normally uses, you risk creating a gap between yourself and the individuals you want to persuade.
Nevertheless, it’s often unavoidable. That’s why in these situations, speakers, including politicians, frequently sprinkle their remarks with words or phrases in the audience’s native tongue.
They are trying to connect and close the gap with their listeners.
Still, it’s a high risk, high return endeavor.
That’s because mispronouncing or misusing the words you choose can have the exact opposite effect from the one you’re seeking.
A misstep can trigger a negative audience reaction: "He really is an outsider." "She’s unfamiliar with our community." "He doesn’t understand us."
On the other hand, skillful use of foreign terms or expressions can bring you closer to your audience on an emotional level vital for influencing and persuading your listeners.
That’s what finally happened in the example above, after many other strategies failed.
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Your audience’s preference for a language foreign to you is not the only linguistic challenge to be aware of when speaking to a group.
Because communities often have their own particular terms to express themselves or describe certain situations, you need to be tuned to their vocabulary and word choice, even when you share their native language.
When I was working on telecom policy in the U.S. House of Representatives, I joined with my boss at the time, Congressman (now Senator) Ed Markey in pushing for a landmark technology bill and getting it signed into law by President Obama in October, 2010.
The Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) enables Americans with disabilities to use the latest telecommunications and video devices and services - think accessible iPhones, closed captioning for Netflix and audio descriptions of TV coverage, among other tech products and services.
It’s made a big impact, helping millions across the country participate more fully in everyday life.
During the all-out effort to get the bill passed, we always were sensitive to the use of certain words and phrasing.
For example, we intentionally referred to the need to make technologies accessible for people who are blind and people who are deaf.
We never said “the blind” or “the deaf”.
Our language reflected the way individuals in these communities refer to themselves: they are individuals, and they aren’t defined by whatever disability they might have.
It was the right thing to do - and it also sent the right message to one of our core audience segments and coalition partners.
We understand. We get it. We're on your side.
This feeling of unity was key as we faced opposition and attempts to water down the legislation. We needed to stick together.
When you don’t take into account the particular vocabulary of your audience, you can damage your credibility, likeability and overall brand.
You create distance and undercut your ability to achieve your goals.
Another messaging landmine is long-winded, technical jargon causes the speaker to lose the audience in all the details and technical terms.
When I was in grad school, I learned the importance of a key messaging principle in a brilliant class taught by Professor Gary Orren.
To be an effective influencer, you need to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid).
Over the years, I’ve added a corollary: Don’t H.U.G. (Have Unnecessary Gibberish).
It’s essential that you strip away distracting details, boil your communication down to its core and convey the message in simple sentences free of jargon.
Otherwise, you risk losing your listeners.
Ironically, it’s often hard to create a simple message.
Another common messaging mistake is over-reliance on facts to the exclusion of other aspects of persuasion. Aristotle, the giant of Greek philosophy, wrote his groundbreaking “Rhetoric” in 350 B.C.E. on how to use language to persuade and influence.
It’s still fresh and relevant today.
A particularly powerful principle developed by Aristotle is the idea that facts and logic are necessary to persuade your listener, but not sufficient.
In “Rhetoric”, Aristotle wrote:
“There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man
who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to
reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in
their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions-that is, to
name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which
they are excited.”
A message that resonates with your audience will contain these additional features - unless you’re trying to convince Mr. Spock - then just logic will suffice…
Humans are complex, and an effective message takes this complexity into account. That’s why Aristotle refers to the need to understand “human character” and emotions, not just rely on logic.