Sometimes you have a need that seems so simple, but you just can’t get out the right words to communicate it to the person you’re speaking to.
This isn’t an unknown feeling when you’re living in your native country, surrounded by people who speak your own language. But, it becomes an everyday occurrence when you’re in a foreign country that has just a smattering of people who speak the same language, and even fewer who are truly fluent.
Words I think I know are sometimes pronounced so abominably as to be unrecognizable to my audience, and attempts to describe what I mean when I don’t know the correct word are only occasionally successful. For a writer accustomed to using language with ease, struggling to communicate well abroad is a humbling and valuable learning experience.
Many of the challenges I’ve faced are extreme versions of communication challenges common in marketing and the business world in general. Here are a few key lessons.
1) There’s always more than one way to say something.
This is one of the first tricks you fall back on when struggling to communicate in a foreign language. When I get to the point in a sentence where I don’t know the word for what I want to say next, I talk around it. A ball becomes “a circular thing you use in a game,” an ATM becomes “a machine you use for change when all you have is a card.” It’s not elegant, but it gets the job done.
Flaubert reportedly re-wrote everything he put on paper extensively and repeatedly while working on Madame Bovary. He knew the best way to get at le seul mot juste was to try out as many different ways to say the same thing as possible.
When writing a business email or a piece of marketing copy, you’re not aiming for the level of literary masterpiece Flaubert was going for; but, you can still manage to produce a better, clearer piece of writing by taking a little extra time to think about alternate ways to communicate what you’re saying.
2) A little preparation goes a long way.
I went out one day recently with the primary goal of finding somewhere I could print out a boarding pass. As many technological terms in Italian are taken directly from the English (computer, for example, is “computer”), I assumed I’d have an easy time finding where I could print something.
Wrong. I had a completely unsuccessful conversation with a man at a local information office who thought I was asking where to go to buy a computer. Only with the help of his English-speaking colleague did I learn both the correct word for “to print” (stampare) and the closest spot where I could go to do so.
Had I taken 30 seconds to look up the word before I went out, I’d have been able to easily and clearly ask for what I needed.
The words you use, as an industry insider, aren’t always the same ones your target audience is likely to use and understand for the same concepts. Anyone who has thrown the title “copywriter” around to people working in different fields is used to having to give the added explanation “that’s copywrite, not copyright.” Knowing the right words to use with the right audience will save a lot of potential confusion down the line.
3) An interested audience will work to understand.
If you’ve already gained the interest of the person or people you’re communicating with, they’ll be happy to meet you halfway in understanding you and being understood. Communication works much better when there’s a buy-in on both sides.
The conversations I’ve had with the people hosting me, those interested in a friendly conversation, or, oh, Italian men who like the ladies, tend to go smoothly as they’re willing to put in the effort to follow what I’m saying, and help me understand what they have to say.
Someone who already has a good relationship with you or your company, or is coming to you based off of the enthusiastic recommendation of a trusted friend, will have a higher tolerance for any communication difficulties because they already like you.
On the other hand…
4) An uninterested audience will begrudge you for not making communication easier on them.
People at shops and train stations are often annoyed at the girl speaking broken Italian because having to communicate with me makes their jobs harder.
Someone not already convinced communication with you is worth the effort, or who has some reason to be unhappy with your company, is going to be much less patient with anything you say that’s hard to understand.
Imagine waiting for tech support on hold for 30 minutes, and then talking to someone who uses tech jargon you can’t follow. Your impulse won’t be to calmly ask them to put that in simpler terms, you’ll probably want to do some yelling.
For anyone that hasn’t already been won over to you or your company, it’s worth making an extra effort to communicate clearly and use a tone that can only be construed as helpful.
5) Context is crucial.
The difference between trying to have a conversation somewhere crowded with loud music playing or in a quiet park or restaurant is considerable. Just as who you’re talking to changes the way to approach a conversation, so does where you are, the subject matter being discussed, and the relationship you have with the audience.
In marketing, this point has less to do with being able to hear the words being spoken and more to do with thinking carefully about how people are coming to the information you’re putting before them. The words you use on the website’s product page will be seen by prospects at a different point in the process, looking for a different sort of information, than the words in your blog posts, emails, or that you share on social media.
The experience of the information you provide in these various formats differs and what you say, and how you say it, should reflect the knowledge of those differences.
6) One-on-one conversations work better than trying to participate in a group.
Hanging out with a group of Italians who are all more comfortable speaking with each other and for each other (e.g. quickly and naturally, with some slang here and there) means I’m less likely to actively participate, and more likely to quietly (try to) follow and learn from those speaking.
There are a lot of benefits to group communication. You have the opportunity to meet more people, learn from the questions and ideas of a variety of minds, and appreciate the difference in expertise and perspective presented.
Nonetheless, a more personalized, focused interaction one-on-one is often much more productive than a communique meant for a large audience.
7) The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Isn’t this just true of everything in life? My first week back in Italy, I thought I’d lost all of the ability I’d gained in my year here 6 years ago. But, the second week I realized my questions and conversations came a little easier, and by the third felt pretty close to where I’d been at the end of my year abroad.
Each conversation boosts my ability and confidence a bit more.
With writing and speaking, it’s inevitable that you’ll get better the more of it you do, especially if you’re mixing research into your practice. The words start to come more easily and confidently, you find yourself getting faster, and you get better at picking up techniques and wording that work.
8) Never hesitate to ask more questions.
The most egregious communication errors occur when people get complacent and assume they’re understanding each other just fine. I might feel awkward asking more questions of an annoyed ticket seller, but if I’m not 100% confident that I know which train to get on and where to get off for my connection, I’m much better off irritating a stranger than getting stuck in some small town in Sicily without knowing where to go next.
With clients, customers, vendors, colleagues, and, let’s face it, friends, family and significant others, you are much less likely to find yourself in conflict if you’re particular about clarifying terms and getting as much information upfront as possible.
You don’t want to learn that your customer thought your product had a capability it doesn’t after they’ve purchased it and are pissed. Or, that your client had a 20-page white paper in mind, rather than the 6-page one you sent in, and now wants you to do over triple the work for the same rate.
If someone gets irked at you for wanting more information and clarification from them, that’s their problem. You want to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it right, or what’s the point?
9) Being understood is more important than being clever.
I remember having a conversation with a fellow student in my abroad program years ago about the realization that it’s very difficult to communicate a distinct personality in a new language. Cracking jokes, or communicating personal quirks, just doesn’t have a place when you’re struggling to communicate at a basic level.
Humor and wit in marketing can often work fantastically and give your brand more personality. But, they should be lower on the priority list than communicating who you are and what you do effectively.
If you’ve got a good handle on that part, and someone in your organization is pretty adept in the humor department (there’s nothing worse than trying for wit and failing), then building up that personality around and within the basics can work fine. Just focus on clarity first.
10) You can’t always predict which concepts will be difficult to explain, and which will be simple.
With the Romance languages, many of the more formal and academic terms are very similar across the languages. But, the everyday common-usage terms are distinct. When the Roman Empire was imposing its language on all the territories it conquered, people deigned to use it for some business, scholarship, and writing; but when it came to talking amongst themselves and facing everyday tasks, they held on to their original languages more.
Thus, it’s actually easier to have an academic conversation with someone about great literature or history than to chat casually about the weather, food, or how your day went.
In life, we’re often not all that great at predicting what’s easy for others to understand, and what’s more challenging. Thinking back to the earlier tech support example, the guy on the other end of the line doesn’t know how adept you are with technology. Maybe you’re something of an expert and would be offended if he didn’t speak to you at your level, or maybe you’re the kind of person who really does need to hear that question that frustrates so many: “have you tried restarting?”
We have to be prepared to shift how we talk about our expertise based on the needs of the person we’re communicating with. Sometimes the concepts we think are a piece of cake may actually be those that make our audience want to bang their heads against the wall.