As a speaker or writer, one of the most powerful techniques is to look for common cause with your audience. This may mean using words or imagery that conjure up something from a shared past, or play to a shared cultural experience.
Unfortunately, this very same technique is unwittingly used to the exact opposite effect: it excludes. And when someone feels excluded, at best the remainder of your message will never resonate. At worst, they may disqualify both you and your organization from consideration.
It is very easy to fall into the uniformity trap: just because everyone “looks” the same, we assume that we share a common background with them. This is especially true when we speak. To a Hindu, Muslim, or Jew, Merry Christmas defines them as outsiders. Or, to women, a term such as Chairman automatically erect a glass ceiling. Simple alternatives such as Happy Holidays and Chair are far more inclusive, and easy to incorporate. The goal is not to be politically correct, but rather, to engage your audience instead of alienating them.
When interacting with someone whose primary language isn’t English, the problem is even more basic: lack of fluency itself may be exclusionary. If we are the ones that seek to be understood, how might we change our communication practices?
- Enunciate each word clearly and slightly more slowly;
- Skip complex grammatical constructions, words, idioms, and jargon.
- Look for signs that they understand, and are actively listening
- Summarize without appearing patronizing
- Follow up with a written note, so they can look up words without losing face
This week’s action plan: Whether you are speaking to an audience of 1000, a group of 5, or are writing an email, blog post, or report, the goal is to effectively get buy-in to your ideas. And to do this means including the message recipient – not excluding them. This week, don’t assume that everyone has precisely your background: double-check your words to make sure they resonate with everyone.
Counterpoint: Must you really avoid wishing someone Merry Christmas, instead substituting the relatively toothless “Happy Holidays?” There is absolutely nothing wrong with wishing someone Merry Christmas, when you know that the recipient is a celebrant of Christmas. But what if the person may not celebrate Christmas, or might even be offended by the phrase? Or you are speaking or writing to a diverse audience? This is where judgment comes in: it is the balance between connecting through shared experience (Christmas) vs. the downside of making others feel excluded.
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