Let’s talk about four changes you can make to how you communicate in order to ensure that your message and your meaning are clear.
These tips will encourage you to better express yourself using the language that you already have.
Let’s get started!
Identify Your Key Message
The first thing you can do is identify your key message before every interaction.
By key message, I mean the most important point, idea, or feeling you want people to take away from this interaction with you.
This is going to help guide the interaction and the way you present your ideas.
In professional settings, you may think about what you want the other person to learn, to know, to understand from listening to you.
Or it may be how you want the other person to feel after speaking with you, or the impression that you want to leave them with.
In personal situations, you may simply want to connect with the other person, or learn something about a new friend or acquaintance.
You want to focus on this key message, or the overall idea or impression that you want the other person to leave with, because this will get you focusing on what you’re communicating, rather than speaking perfectly.
It’s about making sure that the other person leaves the conversation, meeting, or presentation with something that stood out to them, something memorable.
Coming back to this key message again and again helps you stay focused.
It helps you ensure that you’re communicating your meaning clearly because you have a goal in mind.
Understand Communication Styles
Now let’s talk about your communication style.
Believe it or not, there are actually different cultural approaches to how we communicate ideas in both writing and speaking.
In English, it’s the responsibility of the speaker to deliver the message in a way that’s easy for the listener to understand.
In other cultures, it’s the responsibility of the listener to connect the dots and make meaning from what’s said.
For this reason, writing in English tends to be straightforward and direct and to the point.
Organize Your Thoughts for Clear Communication in English
In American English, we often organize our ideas in a very predictable structure:
- We tell them what we’re going to tell them;
- we tell them;
- and then we tell them what we told them.
If you ever studied academic writing in American English, you’ve probably learned the five paragraph essay.
You set out the main idea, you give three supporting details, and then you summarize and repeat what you said to make sure it’s extra clear.
(For more explanation, here is a simple example of how the five paragraph essay works. However, note that this essay structure is regularly criticized. Here is one in-depth argument against using it.)
In other languages, you may take a more philosophical approach, or you may go off on tangents.
Or the focus may be on your writing, how well you use the language, how poetic it sounds, or how well-crafted the sentences are.
In some languages, you start broad before finally arriving at the main point.
(According to Robert Kaplan, these are the writing patterns of different cultures.)
Take a moment and think about the communication style of your language(s) or culture(s). How do you arrive at your main point when writing or speaking?
If you’re used to presenting your most important idea at the end of your presentation or your essay or your email, you may be confused about the style that’s more common in English.
In English, we present the main idea right away, and then we support it with more information.
If you ever receive feedback that you need to get to the point more quickly, it’s because people are expecting you to present your ideas in this manner.
Remember, in American English, you want to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then them what you told them.
(Please note: just because this is the style we use in American English, this doesn’t mean that it’s better. However, most Americans have been trained in this style and and are expecting to hear points presented in this way.)
This goes back to what I said about the key message.
You want to identify what you want the other person to understand, and then you want to provide information to get them there.
Clarify What You Heard and What You Meant
Another thing you can do is to clarify.
When you’re able to clarify what you heard, as well as what you meant, you’re going to ensure better communication in English.
At times we don’t catch everything the other person said.
And at times we don’t explain ourselves as well as we’d like to.
When you’re not afraid to clarify what you heard or what you meant, the other person will feel more confident that you understand each other during the conversation.
If you feel like you missed a key word or idea, you can ask the other person to repeat what they said:
- Would you mind repeating that for me one more time?
- Could you clarify what you meant by this word or this phrase?
- I don’t think I got your meaning. Could you go over that again?
Another way to clarify what you heard is to repeat what you think you understood in your own words.
Summarizing or paraphrasing what you thought the other person said is a really important communication skill.
It helps show the other person that you were listening, and it helps confirm that you both are on the same page.
You can start off by using one of these phrases:
- Let me see if I understood correctly.
- So what you’re saying is…
- In other words,…
Here are more expressions you can use in order to clarify what you heard and confirm your understanding.
At times, you’re not going to be able to express yourself precisely the way you want on the first try.
In this situation, you want to clarify what you meant.
You can say something like:
- That’s not what I meant to say.
- That came out wrong.
Then you can try explaining yourself again using one of these phrases:
- Let me try that again.
- Let me start over.
- Let me rephrase that.
You’re showing the listener that it’s really important to you that they understand what you’re saying.
Here is more guidance on how to clarify what you mean and explain your thoughts better.
Better Use the Vocabulary and Language You Already Have
The last thing that you can do is to get better control over the words that you already have in your vocabulary.
In American English, we have a common saying:
Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do.
In other words, don’t use a longer, more complex word, when a simpler word will work just as well.
You definitely do not need to use bigger, more complex words to communicate your meaning!
Instead, you want to get more control over the words that you have and vary your vocabulary.
As I just mentioned, it’s very important to be able to rephrase or explain things if the other person doesn’t catch what you said.
If someone doesn’t understand you, it may be a pronunciation issue, or it may be your choice of vocabulary didn’t really fit the context.
That’s when you want to be able to come up with synonyms in order to express yourself in a different way.
If the other person still doesn’t understand the word you’re using, that’s when you want to be able to use more descriptive language.
In other words, you want to be able to describe the idea, concept, item, or situation in another way so that they can understand what you’re saying.
Rather than trying to find a perfect, precise vocabulary word, try to use the language you already have to express what you mean.
This will help you react and respond more quickly when people don’t understand you, or when there’s a misunderstanding, or when they simply need additional clarification.
You don’t need to pull out your dictionary or study long lists of words.
Instead, you want to focus on being able to easily access the vocabulary that’s already stored in your brain.
This means you may need more writing or speaking practice (these exercises will help you start thinking in English).
You need to challenge yourself to be able to react and respond quickly.
Check out this video for or more examples and tips to help you better handle situations when you’re asked to repeat yourself.
Express Your Ideas Clearly
When you have more control over how you use language to communicate your ideas, people will understand you better, and they’ll definitely think that you sound professional.
It’s about working with what you have in order to communicate more effectively.
For even more tips, learn how to communicate clearly and confidently using your voice.