How many times have you read the following in a help wanted ad or job description: “Must have good verbal and written communication skills”? Almost all service industry jobs these days seem to demand proficiency in these areas from candidates considering employment.
When I read this, I assume they require people who can express themselves intelligently and have the ability to articulate ideas clearly and concisely. They want you to have the ability to write a letter outlining a position or explain something verbally to a customer. I would also believe they require you to be able to listen and understand what you are told by your supervisor and a client.
Every day I sit down at my laptop and try to communicate an idea to what I hope is a wide and diverse audience. Whether I’m reviewing something, telling a short story, or writing a novel, it all amounts to the same thing. For people to form an opinion on what I’ve written, they have to be able to understand what it is I’m talking about.
That’s fair enough; it’s my idea so that should be my responsibility. But do the people reading, or in some cases listening, not have any responsibility in the communication equation? Are they only passive recipients who have to be spoon fed, or should they take some active, participatory, role in the proceedings?
How much should a writer or a speaker expect his or her audience to think about what they are saying? How much work should we expect them to have to do to understand what we are trying to communicate? Unlike television, which is designed to feed people information and entertainment, writing engages the mind simply by demanding it be read while personal conversation requires immediate give and take on the part of its participants.
I would think that by sitting down and reading something, getting involved with a conversation, or listening to a speech there is a tacit understanding that you are agreeing to make use of your intellect in an effort to understand what is being said to you. If we think of it in terms of a contract between the parties, do we need to negotiate the amount of effort the audience should be expected to exert?
There is the argument to be made that it depends on the circumstances and the audience. There is some validity to this if you know you are speaking to a very specific readership or group of people. It’s not a matter of playing down to them or being condescending; it’s simply a matter of communicating to them in the language they understand. If you had the ability, would it not make more sense to speak Spanish rather than English to a Spanish audience?
The circumstances generated by the Internet and blogging is something different again. In many ways it’s the equivalent of the old art of pamphleteering, where someone would print out short articles to be handed out on street corners so they could communicate an idea to as many interested people as possible.
You’re not writing for an audience who may necessarily agree with you, but instead for those who are willing to make the effort required to read what you’ve written. If you are totally incomprehensible, nobody is going to bother reading and you won’t have any audience. In theory, as long as you’re honest and consistent in what you do, you should attract the audience you want.
There’s a problem with my great theory, unfortunately – reality. Have you spent any time recently in public places listening to the conversations around you? (Or if you’re like me and have exceptionally loud neighbours, you can do it from the comfort of your living room.) Have you heard what they consist of?
I used to laugh at the expression “the art of conversation,” but I don’t anymore. It seems to me that people no longer talk with each other but at each other. Conversations have become competitions. Instead of being an exchange of ideas where views are shared in an attempt to find common ground or information that is of interest to both parties is passed back and forth, more often nobody listens to each other. They simply hold forth in an effort to either be the centre of attention or convince everyone they’re right.
No matter who your intended audience is when you write on the Internet, your topic ends up being more important than your ability to communicate or your style of writing. More often than not, people haven’t even bothered to listen to what you have to say, have misunderstood your point, or responded to what you’ve said with only their own opinion.
It’s beginning to seem that, for more and more people, the idea of a contract between reader and writer or speaker and listener doesn’t exist anymore. No matter how you write or speak, people don’t seem to want to pay attention to anybody else. Communication has become a one-way street, where my way or the highway is the byword.
It makes me wonder what companies are looking for in employees these days with those ads asking for good communication skills. Then again, think about the last time you phoned a call centre for help with something.