© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Communication

By Carole McNall

St. Bonaventure, NY – Ah, communication. Simple process, right? I get an idea, choose my words, speak or type them and my listener (I'll use that term for readers as well) understands. But maybe it's not quite so simple. Two recent events reminded me that my thoughts won't travel a straight line from my mouth or fingers to your brain. Instead, those thoughts work their way through potential detours. Over here, I use jargon and you don't understand. Over there, I assume you know more about the subject than you actually do, and you don't understand. In another spot, my tone of voice suggests something I didn't mean and - you guessed it - you don't understand.

Take, for example, the process of buying a house. In Western New York, buyer and seller sign a document that is often labeled "purchase contract." Bold letters remind those signing that this is a binding contract.

But before I morphed from a lawyer to a college professor, I had too many buyer-clients who had to be reminded that they couldn't simply declare they'd changed their minds about buying that house without some type of consequence. In Cattaraugus County, that standard real estate contract says the closing shall take place "on or about" a given date or on a mutually-acceptable time and place. Clearly, the original drafters intend that contract not to set a firm closing date. But I've lost count of the number of times I've reminded buyers "don't plan to move yet; wait til we have a date from the bank." We very rarely close on the date listed in the contract. The problem? Most real estate buyers and sellers are relative rookies. Both sides are excited, eager to close and move to the next phase of their lives. If you consider that, you can rework your message to fill in information gaps and add reality checks. Or try this example. I recently started a new phase of treatment for a long-running medical problem. One of my doctors told me it would require four doses, identical - I thought - to a treatment I went through last spring. Hearing with last spring's ears - and a desire to be done - I mentally budgeted two months. That's the amount of time it took last spring.

But I was hearing without enough information. I now know there are options: four major doses, three weeks apart, or 12 smaller doses, one week apart. You'll note both of those add up to the same amount of time - 12 weeks. That is, as I'm reminding myself tonight, three months, not two.

I suspect the meaning was clear to the original speaker. What he didn't consider was the information gap. Because I didn't originally know what he did, I heard his words in a different way than he intended them.

I'm now having one of those "aha!" moments. During the school year, I work with students at St. Bonaventure University who want to become communicators - newspaper or magazine writers, broadcasters or spokespeople for organizations. We spend lots of time teaching them how to carefully gather information, choose words that make their point, and put those words together in clear sentences. But I'm beginning to wonder if we spend quite enough time reminding them to carefully consider who is reading or listening.

What does the audience know and what don't they know? What parts of their lives will impact how they hear what you're saying? How can you work with that knowledge to make your message more clear? Once you start to think about your listener, you can shape your message to avoid potential problems and fill in that information gap.

Your reward might be a message more clearly understood. Look around at our world - that can only help.

Listener-Commentator Carole McNall is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

Click the "listen" icon above to hear the commentary now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.