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I just landed in the U.S., flying back from Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s not a whole lot to do in the baggage claim area at the Newark airport, and maybe that’s why a sign caught my eye.

baggageIt was a poster reminding visitors not to use unlicensed cabs. Quite an important message, delivered simply via a picture of a man and a car, and the banner text “If someone offers you a ride…be careful, they may be trying to take you for one.”

Very cute, but do you see the problem? In that particular Arrivals Hall a VERY high percentage of travelers are not U.S. citizens, but people traveling under a different passport and different language.

I’m quite certain the message was primarily targeted at them. But however good the intention, the overly cute agency (or whoever created the message) essentially killed any chance of making their point with most of their audience because to the non-English speaker, that poster makes NO sense at all.

It’s the problem of ‘insider language’ – when a communicator uses a term familiar to THEM but incomprehensible to their AUDIENCE.

In this case, an English language idiom (“taking someone for a ride”) used with non-English speakers is a particularly toxic example, but the same problem shows up in almost all communication. The most common form is the technical term or insider acronym, and either of these will create a really nasty fracture in comprehension, often accompanied by frustration or irritation. Something no communicator can afford.

Given it’s such an obvious mistake, why does it happen? It’s for a very simple reason. We all live in our own unique world, and our world has its own unique use of language, vocabulary, syntax and idiom. And the longer you’ve lived in that world, the easier it is to forget that the language of YOUR tribe is not the same as the language of every other tribe. The tribe of engineers speaks a very different language from the tribe of attorneys.

But as communicators, we can’t afford to create these constant fractures…so how do you fix the problem?

It’s quite easy. First, for every communication, do an intentional round trying to sniff out the offending terms. Acronyms are (usually) easy to spot, although technical terms may be less so.

And then of course, second, run your communication by someone from a different tribe. What they don’t understand will both shock you and instruct you at the same time.

Then… change it so your language works. All great communicators are adept at keeping their message within the reach of their audience. Historical documents reveal that Winston Churchill would regularly simplify his language in his final edit rounds, and it was clearly to make sure that his message always got through.

Whoever designed that Newark airport poster had an important message, but they got way too caught up in ‘cute’ – and so they completely failed in their goal without ever realizing it.

So make it a rule – comprehension trumps cute every time.

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