What children can teach us about communicating effectively

I have been thinking a lot recently about how people communicate effectively to large audiences. Conventional wisdom suggests that the key to landing such messages is “levity, brevity and gravity”. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is only 272 words long but in those words he was able to tell the story of the past, present, and future of America.

When the message we share with an audience does not lead to the action/reaction that we desire, we generally react in one of two ways. We either become frustrated with our audience for not understanding the message or we become frustrated with ourselves for not communicating clearly enough. Unfortunately we often opt for the former.

When I was a teaching in rural Japan, I would join some of my classes for lunch. During our classes I would insist the students only use English but at lunchtime I would encourage them to speak in whichever language they preferred. It helped our discussions to be more authentic and interesting.

One particular lunchtime, my 6-year-old students had just finished a science class. One of the students was really excited to explain this exciting new concept that he had learnt about. He tried to explain the concept in very fast Japanese and I had no idea what he was talking about.

The group of students started giggling as I struggled to understand this concept. They could not believe that a teacher had not heard of this new thing that they had just discovered.

I tried to understand for a few more minutes but I could not. I explained that I likely was aware of the concept that they were talking about but I just could not understand the explanation of this concept in Japanese. I challenged them to find a way to communicate this concept to me in a way that I would understand.

They sat in silence pondering my challenge. After about 3 minutes one of the students had an idea. She pulled a tennis ball out of his bag and let it roll off the desk. I started to guess a few things but the children did not understand the English words that I was frenetically expelling from my mouth.

Another student then pulled out his textbook and showed me a picture of Isaac Newton. The two of them pushed the ball to the edge of the desk once more and then started thrusting a picture of Isaac Newton into my bemused face.

Aha! This magical new concept was of course “gravity”. I laughed and told them I was really impressed by how they managed to find an alternative way to communicate this concept to me.

I recounted this story recently to a startup CEO I was coaching who was having trouble explaining the merits of his intended change in strategy to his board. Great disagreement would occur as both parties were more interested in refuting each others arguments rather than really understanding what each other really meant. We talked about the principle of charity and whether the arguments both parties gave were presented in the simplest possible way with little room for misinterpretation. We came to the conclusion that there was a definite lack of simplicity in the communications from both parties. I asked him to think about how he could make a change. To bring the exercise to life, we practiced what this communication would 1. look like if it needed to convince a 6 year old to agree and 2. how a 6 year old would explain these arguments to a group.

So in response to my original thinking about how to communicate to large audiences, I have challenged myself to think more about how the delivery of a message is better suited to what the audience want rather than what I prefer. I am finding this is much more productive and constructive than getting frustrated at the audience and myself on occasions when the message is difficult to land.

How do you deal with this challenge?