Three causes for miscommunication (and what to do about it)

Everyone assumes the way they communicate is clear and easy to understand. Otherwise, they wouldn’t speak or write as they do. But to be fair, it’s the audience who decides what is clear and what is difficult to understand. If the message is confusing, the presenter or writer has failed. The ability to understand something doesn’t mean you can explain it or persuade others.

Three aspects of confusion—and, consequently, their antithesis—became glaring. The clarity-versus-confusion conundrum can be discussed as a metaphorical map:

Reason #1: The “You Are Here” Strategy

While this principle may well function for mall directories, it breaks down as a principle for explaining things. Despite this, it’s a common practice of writers and speakers: the stream-of-consciousness approach. Someone asks them a how-to question, and they launch into the details to address that particular question while never dealing with the larger question of why.

When explaining a concept or process, review first before jumping in with details. If the person is asking you a question, gain agreement before giving an answer. If you’re simply educating someone on a process or concept, review some basic principles or shared understanding before going into detail.

Reason #2: Tunnel Vision

Another reason for being difficult to understand is caused by focusing strictly on what you are familiar with and where you’re traveling. For example, if you go to work the same way on a daily basis, chances are you don’t even have to think about the streets and turns; your mind functions on autopilot. But when providing directions to somebody else, they have a larger context. They observe other intersections en route and potentially have additional destinations in mind.

Make sure to offer a context: What’s the expected outcome or goal for your presentation, report, discussion, email? Assist the other person to understand the reasoning behind what you’re explaining, presenting, or asking.

Reason #3: Blowing up the detail

Too much detail can be as confusing as too little detail. Imagine driving down the freeway, trying to follow your Google map. You hear, “Bear to right.” So long as there’s just one road to the right, there’s not any confusion. But what if the highway that carries to the right splits into six lanes? Which lane do you take? Quick, quick! Make a choice. That’s the confusion that accompanies information overload.

Additionally, imagine if the GPS begins to tell you the highway number and destination of each of the six lanes: “Highway 696 to Royal Oak on your far right. I75 to Flint on far left. Interstate 94 to Ann Arbor in the second lane to the right…” and so on. And then ultimately, the GPS summarizes the six lanes with, “Follow Highway 696 to Royal Oak on the far left to Exit 18 North.” At this time, you’ve already been forced to make a decision and circle back to get in the right lane.

That’s an easy way to confuse your audience. If you smother your audience in details early on, you may lose their attention before you can provide the key information you want them to know.

Avoid this by layering the information. Give adequate detail for your audience to fully understand your point, but save the nonessential details for Q&A, websites, or follow-up calls. Prioritize what is essential up-front, and offer additional details once you’ve gained an understanding from your audience.

In conclusion, regardless of whether you happen to be speaking, writing, explaining, or persuading (or reading a map for that matter!), remember these key points to communicate effectively:

  • Overview first; elaborate afterward.
  • Offer a context.
  • Limit the details to the appropriate few.