”Use the type of language that your customers will understand”

In a certain organisation the technical experts had been instructed to ”use the type of language that also the customers will understand”. And that was the instruction in its entirety.

It is rather horrible advice even though the person who gave it in the first place can’t be blamed for it. For in this subject, it seems, we can’t really give more specific instructions. So we give the only request we can.

And wrong it goes

”So that X understands” is, obviously, an impossible assignment. There is no way of knowing for sure how someone understands. We cannot have certainty what are the words we could use to make the other person understand. So, all we can do is try, fail, and hopefully at some point succeed.

We might, of course, have some rough assumptions how to get going. That’s what this instruction leans on as well. Wa can assume that the thickest vocabulary in the field is recommended to be left at home, and, perhaps, it would be wise to explain things a bit more profoundly. But that’s pretty much the farthest we can go.

The vague instruction causes angst

If I receive an instruction to ”act so that X” I naturally assume that it should be possible. My first thought is that I should know how to perform that trick. When – after the instruction – I end up staring at my hands in confusion, it merely makes me feel anxious. If the thing is supposed to be clear, then how come I don’t immediately know how I’m supposed to act.

I begin to wonder if I’m somehow defective or stupid because I cannot follow an instruction as simple as this.

There are moments, you see, when I do have the required knowledge or understanding to act according to the instruction. Those situations are like this:

  • Use your brush so that the paint won’t cross the marked lines.
  • Run so that you’re still able to speak without panting.
  • Compose your presentation in a way that your opinions are grounded with facts.

When it comes to these instructions, we know how to act. Or if we don’t know, we can ask the instruction-giver for further advice. But go and try asking the one who gave the instruction on the heading, how to write/speak in a way that the customers will also understand.

The adjustments could be something of this kind:

  • Avoid difficult language.
    • But how do I know that it’s difficult for the customer if it’s easy for me?
  • Use the vocabulary that you share with the customer.
    • But what if I don’t know what vocabulary the customer uses or I don’t understand the customer’s vocabulary myself?
  • Write as if the customer is a human/friend/4-year-old.
    • But what if this is my way of communicating, from where do I adopt a new kind of language and how?

So is there nothing to do?

Absolutely there is. Firstly, it is possible to test the message before sending it to the customer. You can have somebody, whom you assume to have quite the same level of knowledge as your customer, read your texts. This I recommend especially highly, because it’s impossible to improve your communication skills, if you don’t get any feedback from anywhere, ever.

The second possibility is to ask the customer directly:

  • Are you familiar with this term/thing/phenomenon, or should I explain it a bit further?
  • What are you used to calling this thing?
  • Does this feel clear to you or should we go through it once more just to make sure we got it right?
  • What is the standard of expertise in this project, how do we make sure that everybody is able to follow?
  • Did I manage to explain this clearly or did I leave something blurred?

The problem is, of course, that the customer might not answer straight and truthfully. It is still worth asking, because it makes it easier for the audience to admit if they didn’t understand something. Maybe they are not yet ready to be honest, but next time they will. Or they are daring enough to approach you with a message afterwards.

In addition, there is in fact one universally applicable piece of advice to follow. Write short sentences. You can’t always avoid long sentences, but it’s usually easier to understand compact sentences than long ones. I don’t mean by this that the short sentences should be stuffed with loads of meaning, but rather than consider cutting long ones into parts.

How? Come to Koodarikuiskaaja Slack with your sentence and I will help you to cut it into pieces. I can also help you calibrate the degree of difficulty of your text to match your supposed customer.

TL;DR: The instruction ”use the type of language that your customers will understand” is bad

  • Following the instruction is based on guessing. People can’t have specific knowledge on how to make the other understand.
  • The only way to learn is to test and fix the language you use.
  • Make people, who have different degree of expertise than you do, read your texts.
  • You can also ask the customer directly. Ask how much they know of the vocabulary in that particular field. Make sure if it’s needed to go through the things more carefully.
  • Finally a universal piece of advice: use short sentences.

Or what do you think?

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