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Being clear isn’t just about “dialing down”

Need to Communicate Complicated Stuff? Talk About People

By Chris Graham

If you speak English and only English, does it make sense for me to explain something to you in French — even if I speak slowly? Of course not.

While you probably never make this specific mistake with your clients, almost all of us commit a version of it on a regular basis. We try to explain complicated legal problems using what we consider to be “simple” or “basic” legal language.

“Let’s start with the basics …”

“Tell me if I’m going too fast …”

Sound familiar? The result is almost inevitable: No matter how slowly you talk or how clearly you break down your points, many clients still get confused.

Failure to Communicate: What’s Going On?

To be sure, using big words and jargon are roadblocks to understanding. Research also shows that experts tend to overestimate the knowledge of their audience — a cognitive bias called “the curse of knowledge,” meaning that even when you think you’re being accessible, you’re probably not. (See “The Curse of Knowledge” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Harvard Business Review.) Hence why “dialing down” the detail can only go so far, and why sometimes it seems like no amount of simplification gets your point across.

The real problem, it turns out, is forgetting to talk about people.

Socially Encoding Your Information

To see how it’s easier to make sense of people instead of rules and concepts, take two minutes to try the following puzzles, variations of what is known as the Wason Selection Task.

Look at these four cards:

You need to verify that the following rule holds: If a card has a D on one side, it must have a 3 on its other side. Which card(s) must you turn over to check if the rule holds?

The answer is: D and 7. Not D alone. And not D and 3, because the rule doesn’t say that a 3 must have a D on the reverse. The answer is D and 7 because if you turned over the 7 and it had a D on it, the rule would be broken.

If you got that wrong, you’re in good company: On average, 75 percent of people get it wrong.

Now look at these four cards:

You’re a bartender, and you need to make sure that anyone drinking in the bar is over 21 years old. Each card represents information about one of your four patrons. One side shows what they’re drinking, the other their age. Which card(s) do you need to turn over to see if everyone drinking beer is over 21?

The answer is: “beer” and “16.” Put another way: If you saw someone drinking beer, you’d check their age; and if you saw someone who looked underage, you’d check what they were drinking.

Did you find the second puzzle easier? Seventy-five percent of people get this version right.

The thing to notice about the puzzles is that they present the same problem two different ways. The first version is abstract, at the level of rules and concepts. The second is at the level of people in familiar situations.

Using the Language of Real People in Your Practice

It’s a mistake to think the second version of the puzzle is somehow easier or “dialed down.” Instead, think of the second version as being in a language that almost everyone understands: the language of real people.

How can you use this language in your practice? As much as you can, try to illustrate what you mean using examples that involve real people in real life situations.

For example, don’t just recite the legal requirements for a partnership (i.e., two or more people carrying on business with a view to profit). Instead, add to that definition something like the following:

If you kick in money and your friend kicks in money, and you use that money to rent an office and conduct meetings to sell consulting services, you and your friend are in a partnership.

You probably use this language already, but do you do it every time you explain something to clients or colleagues? Do you break down hard problems in terms of their effect on real people?

Remember: While your brain might be good at understanding legal problems, everyone’s brain is good at understanding people.

Illustration ©

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Chris Graham Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder of TellPeople, a vehicle for teaching communication and storytelling to professionals. He is head of speaker coaching at TEDxToronto (Canada’s premiere TEDx event) and the Storyteller in Residence at Manifest Climate (a global climate technology firm). Twice-retired from law himself (first in New York, then in Toronto), through TellPeople, Chris makes lawyers better at talking to their clients, each other and everyone else. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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