Girl on a boat with a sunhat
Oct 04, 2011
Amanda O'Donovan

Lost in Translation?

Communication breakdowns can happen anytime, anywhere-often without a language barrier in sight. Translation traps exist in even the most innocent of exchanges. Caught in the confusion, your message could either sink without trace or become misinterpreted and misrepresented. Instead of basking in accolades you’ll find yourself fighting fires.

We spend significant chunks of every day interpreting other people’s words. Reading a novel, a website, an email. Listening to a presentation, a speech, a webinar. Networking over an apparently collaborative cup of coffee. The moment we express a thought or make a statement, each audience member has started to translate our words into a unique language. We may share the same mother tongue, but the message has to penetrate many layers of cultural, geographical, educational and experiential interpretation before it successfully reaches its target.

The clearer your communication at the outset, the better its chance of hitting home. But how do you avoid linguistic nightmares? Here are a few ways to tune up your messages before you deliver them:

  • Simple is not so Stupid

Leave complex theories to Nobel Prize contenders and rocket scientists. If we don’t understand your message, we can’t act on it. If you confuse us, we won’t be back for more. Gauge the appetite, understanding and knowledge of your audience. Keep things simple and informative…but please don’t stoop too low and risk insulting people’s intelligence. Leave that to the politicians!

  • It’s OK to be Emotional

Don’t dress your words in a stiff shirt and conservative business suit. It doesn’t make what you say any smarter. Establishing an emotional connection with your audience doesn’t make you weak, vulnerable or open to attack either. On the contrary, it brings you closer to the people you are trying to reach. By understanding and sharing the hopes, dreams and fears of the people you’re communicating with, you will give them plenty of reasons to trust what you’re saying.

  • Declutter and Eliminate the Fluff

You’ll find them littering emails, websites and proposals. I’m talking about the puffed-up words and phrases we use to make our message sound more important. Or the empty sentences we add to fill space on a page. If a word doesn’t add meaning to your message, be merciless and cut it loose.

  • Challenge Your Assumptions

Never assume that someone else’s mind works the same way as yours, or that their knowledge and experience matches your own. The information you’re sharing was once unfamiliar to you, so take the time to spell it out…or at least interact with your audience and check for signs of understanding.

  • Put Things in Context

We all see life through our own lens, but the best communicators have the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Explain what your product, service, opinions, beliefs would mean in their world.

  • Get a Second Opinion

Before you allow your message to lead an independent life, ask someone you trust to take a look and give you honest feedback. Make it quick and painless by asking them to use Track Changes and Margin Comments, so you can see straightaway where any confusion lies.


Amanda O’Donovan is a communications specialist, based in Toronto. You can contact her via 416.456.3859, or LinkedIn