When We Speak of Things That Matter

The Art Of Communication Is Balancing Who You Are And What You Believe With The Expectations Of The Audience.

By Thomas J. Roach

Nothing is more naïve than dismissing communication by saying, “it’s only rhetoric,” or “it’s just political correctness.” The first and most important lesson about communication is that it is strategic. The world we live in after we communicate is not the world we knew before we broke our silence. 

What we do and say influences what others do and say. 

Knowing that we set changes into motion when we communicate, we consider possible outcomes and choose the medium, message and tone that are safe and persuasive. Public relations, marketing and advertising professionals construct public images using mass media. Managers create context and direction for workgroups when they hold meetings. Students practice public speaking and hone skills for successful presentations. Children develop vocabularies for appropriate interaction with friends, parents, and teachers. Even babies intuitively learn that smiling and crying trigger different kinds of responses from parents.

Most of us navigate through our day making wise communication decisions by force of habit. As we mature, we develop psychological constraints against things like lying, being rude and bragging. However, we need more careful strategic communication when we speak to a group, announce a decision, or write any kind of an email.

Here are some basic questions we should consider when we speak of things that matter:

  • What result do I want? Often we think in terms of what we want to say. Forget that. Identify the desired result and carefully select what you will say so you can get it. 
  • Who is my audience? There is no such thing as “the public.” All groups are different. What does your audience expect from you, and what don’t they want to hear? 
  • How will this play out? Almost all communication is part of a dialogue. What will others say in response to your argument, and how will you react to their responses? Sometimes it is useful to think of communication like boxing. No boxer enters a fight expecting to throw one punch. Pace yourself and throw combinations of punches. Start the dialogue and wait for a response, then introduce new information. Wait for the next response and add something else. 
  • What shouldn’t I say? If you are in a debate, don’t make a weak argument. If you make four good points and one weak one, a wise opponent will ignore the good points and attack the weak one. 
  • Do I need to defend myself? Since almost nothing that is worth arguing about is absolutely provable, the most persuasive argument we make is about our character. If your audience trusts you, then don’t do anything to change that. If they have reason to doubt you, then address that before making your argument.
  • What tone is most effective? Think about how you want to be seen. Is it best to appear friendly or authoritative, unassuming or confident? Ancient rhetoricians said counter your opponent’s seriousness with your humor, and your opponent’s humor with your seriousness.
  • Is it worth the effort? Sometimes we show the most strength and gain the most respect when we back away. 

Essentially strategic communication requires research and adjustment. Communicators who don’t pay attention to their audiences and come across the same in all situations have more limited success. Sometimes they get lucky, and sometimes they get beat up. 

One note of caution. Never over-adjust to an audience. Each of us has a reputation that should include trustworthiness, knowledge, and goodwill. Saying one thing to one group and something contradictory when interacting with another group ultimately only communicates that you are untrustworthy. 

The art of communication is balancing who you are and what you believe with the expectations of the audience. When that isn’t possible, then the strategic choice is to remain silent.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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