Plain Talk

Talk is not the same as communication. And eloquence? Sometimes, it’s a distraction.

We know the value of talking – and sometimes not talking. We know this as wives and husbands, as managers and team players. Certainly, we recognize the value of a well placed word as a parent, and how a delicate delivery can make all the difference in the world to a child.

As a writer, and someone who focuses on the best way to get a point across in a given situation – I was fascinated by this article from Inc.com on signs of being a terrible communicator.

I admit, I’ve done my share of public speaking in the past. I learned by trial and error, and at times, trial by fire. I’ve also paid particular attention to oratory of late – if you can call it that – not only listening to our presidential candidates, but to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his then rival Franois Hollande.

And I prefer an order of plain talk, even if it’s hard-boiled.

As for the French politicians, I was intrigued by the differences in style apparent in their speeches – one more eloquent (but saying little of substance), and the other, quite the opposite.

Dumb Down Language for Maximum Effectiveness?

Does that mean that eloquence should be dumped in favor of plain talk? Or that plain talk is always stripped of beautiful language?

My own expectations of “eloquence” include exactitude, diction that delights, and words that border on inspiring. I was surprised to find this definition:

the practice or art of using language with fluency and aptness.

Fluency doesn’t mean “florid.” And aptness? That may lead to precision, and certainly, appropriate tone.

As for “plain talk,” I searched but didn’t find a definition per se. May we assume it means speaking as clearly and simply as possible? Does that eliminate exactitude, or insist on it? Does it require effectively shedding unnecessary embellishment?

Inc Think, Weak Speak

According to the Inc article above, which specifically addresses entrepreneurial leadership:

just because you talk a lot doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at communicating.

In fact, many leaders confuse eloquence with clarity, and … often leave the people who work with them bedazzled by their verbal dexterity, and entirely confused about what to do next.

Given that we’re in an election year, naturally, I think of our politicians. It’s impossible not to notice the rhetoric, the rambling, the obfuscating, the waffling, and occasionally – amidst tumbling and stumbling – a clearly made point, delivered with eloquence.

Is “plain talk” always a problem for those who like to talk? Is talking excessively (and not listening) part of the problem?

Do You Like Your Talk Over Easy or Scrambled?

Can we find corollaries in our daily lives – the parent or partner who chatters mindlessly, disregarding the mood or activities of the spouse or kids? What about thinking aloud in front of our partners and friends?

The expression “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is running through my head, as is the implication that verbal dexterity may produce a confusing result.

I like plain talk.

I also like eloquence, messages delivered with humor, and those conveyed through storytelling. I enjoy a variety of approaches as appropriate for the occasion.

I have used all of the above – along with required tricks – in business, in addressing my children, and in relationships. I will also say – plainly – that the examples in the Inc article, while helpful, miss the mark on why they don’t comprise effective communication.

The Guts of What Works and What Doesn’t

What makes communication work? What makes it fall flat? Why can a brilliant leader fail at getting his or her message across?

It seems to me we sometimes confuse communication constructs with ineffective communication behaviors – in other words, the words may not be the problem, but other factors are.

I’m an admirer of elegant language, but it has its time and place.

For most of us, that means considering what comes out of our mouths – the words, the tone, the audience, the context.

And let’s not forget – non-verbal communication. For example, regardless of what someone says, if they’re shifty-eyed or edgy in their delivery, doesn’t that undermine their words, no matter what they happen to say?

Eloquence is not necessarily obfuscating or rambling. Avoiding coming to the point is. 

The CEO Talk Test?

I thought it might be interesting to test myself on the signs of being a poor “leadership” communicator – and here are the cardinal sins, according to Inc.

  • Thinking while you’re talking (what you say is about you and your thought process, not about what the listener needs to hear);
  • Musing with no resolution (a variation on the above; potentially frustrating the listener in need of an answer, not a discussion);
  • Encouraging debate (great, if it doesn’t go on too long, too often, or involve too many people);
  • Offering a solution when what’s desired is your ear (hello, Men? Women do this less frequently).

Looking at the four items above, I plead guilty to all of them – on occasion. But whereas the article indicates that awareness is usually enough to curb these communication behaviors, I think that’s only a beginning. We need to separate out style from audience and purpose.

But thinking out loud in front of your peers or your staff? Doing so in a circuitous fashion? Using language that may irritate your listeners in a given context?

Aren’t these behavioral problems, not linguistic ones? Boundary issues? Inability to read context?

Practically Speaking: the Three C’s

The referenced article may be targeted at C-level (CEO, CFO, CMO) leadership, but I believe in my own three C’s when it comes to delivering an effective message: clarity, consistency, and credibility.

Obviously, most of us aren’t CEOs. Some of us are heads of household, and if there are kids in the vicinity, we’ve probably mastered the art of Plain Talking.

Usually, we don’t debate, we don’t hypothesize, we don’t engage in thinking aloud unless we’re doing so intentionally – wanting children to learn from the thought process.

Some of us do exercise a tendency to provide a “fix,” when encouraging our children to seek solutions for themselves may be a better idea.

We also pick our moments, and our words.

And don’t underestimate the importance of credibility, including when speaking with children. It’s about trusting and believing in what we have to say, and that we know what we’re talking about.

Talking + Listening = Connecting

With children, sometimes we’re dealing with touchy topics and won’t . So we engage them over food or shared activities – at times when they’re not tired or stressed, and they’re open to listening to whatever we have to say.

And the unspoken part of the deal? We need to be open to their responses.

When it comes to plain talk – with kids or others – it may be the natural speech pattern for some of us, or appear packaged in a more flowery (or for that matter, entertaining) style. But whatever the communication style, it doesn’t preclude clarity, consistency, and credibility – which, in my experience, are the keys to effective messaging.

As for eloquence? I believe it can convey a point clearly, consistently, and credibly. A humorous delivery (and choice of words) may also achieve the three C’s. Effective speaking is about connecting with an audience and getting through – the manner in which it’s done may vary.

Language is Power

I am generally in favor of paying closer attention to language. And we’d do well to pay closer attention to our public figures and their rhetoric. I’d say they serve up their communication scrambled, hoping it’s over easy, and rarely hard-boiled, or soft-boiled for that matter.

This verbally attentive citizen would appreciate a little plain talk – prettied up or not.

  • Do you love elegant language? Do you indulge in it?
  • How often do you speak to friends, family, or co-workers – and they misunderstand?
  • Can plain talk be eloquent – and clear, consistent, and credible?
  • Do you say what you mean, and mean what you say?
  • Does body language influence your ability to communicate effectively?