You know what I love to do? Go and speak with very technical people in a field that I know nothing about in the language of their profession to ensure I am utterly confused by what they are telling me. What's that you say? You would hate that? Confession time: I hate it too. The thing is most of the time that would not happen because the professional that I am speaking with would (hopefully) explain to me what he/she is trying to say in language that I could understand. To do so otherwise would not be very effective of them.
I try and keep this in mind when either writing for the web, consulting with clients, or just having conversations in my everyday life. I should make an attempt to know my audience. It's important that we bridge any communication breakdown so that we can stay as transparent as possible with each other. Nobody wants to be left in the dark and some may have trouble asking for clarification.
"If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers. - Sun Tzu"
That quote has always reminded me that if I am conveying information, it is up to me to make sure that I am clear and understandable. If I am not then I have failed in communicating. This means that I have to understand my audience and not talk over them or make assumptions about their level of ability. I also have to give them opportunities to clarify if needed.
People also tend to be slightly defensive and intimidated if they don't understand what you are trying to say. I remember a professor once told me that during user-testing for web projects that he was working on, he would tell the users that he is not testing them but the website and he would also try and make small talk to find out something about them and confess to them that he does not know that much about the subject that they were speaking about. This made him seem human and not this super intelligent being that they feared looking foolish in front of. They know something he does not know. Now they're even. It's a great tactic that puts people at ease and it was not hard for him to do that.
Also, don't be afraid to ask questions like are you familiar with "Subject X"? Questions like this need to be asked in a non-pretentious way. If people know you are genuine they tend to be more honest with their answers or course on the web there many be no immediate feedback since you are not having a dialog with a person so as a general rule, I tend to keep it in the simplest language possible so I don't lose my audience. Of course tools like analytics can help you get to know who your audience is as well.
So remember that if you know who you are speaking to, you can communicate better by tailoring your conversation to them to deliver the message as effectively as possible. It's not easy and it's something that I try and work on everyday. Now good luck on that next public speaking engagement!
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