frank words, shared meanings

Recently I attended the fabulous Frank “Gathering” at the University of Florida. The theme was emotions, one of the most crucial considerations in communications. 

For me, I think a lot about how speakers can make the audience feel (or not feel) if the content of a talk is presented without consciously thinking whether the audience understands. So I ran a short version of one of my workshops to help scientists and engineers connect with audiences. Whether it’s excitement for what data means or frustration that a problem still exists, those who discover and apply have a range of emotions that they can use to share their work.

The trick is to share clearly.

Using a short activity, I helped participants think about whether the words they use to describe their work are the same words the audience might use for that work.  

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Photo by Danish Muhammed on

One of the attendees really latched onto this idea. He said that much of the discussions in his field are because of disagreements on word choice. Since his work has implications on decisions made in society – on policy – word choice can be very important. Possibly with legal ramifications. Even matters of life and death. 

For example: 

Imagine a talk on a city’s water system. If there’s a sudden increase in water levels, the speaker might say that  “The system is taxed.” Does this mean that a (financial) tax is introduced? Or does it mean that the system is put under stress? 

The same phrase can have very different meanings, depending on your audience.

If the audience was sewer maintenance workers, they might interpret “The system is taxed” as stress. But elected officials might hear that phrase as asking residents to pay more. This difference of meaning could result in two very different conversations after the same talk. And if the speaker is not in the room where those conversations take place, decisions might be made that are not what the speaker intended. 

If your audience uses words differently than you do, who is at fault when the audience makes or influences decisions that you disagree with?

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So this participant asked me: How could he go about making sure that he and his audience were using words in the same way? He rightfully wanted to avoid speaking about semantics: lectures can cause a total breakdown of conversation potential.  After all, do you want your audience to think that you think they’re wrong? Is that the emotion you want driving their decisions?

I told him that the best option makes for a better talk:

To find out what your important words mean to your audience, ask your audience what those words mean. 

Ask the audience as close to the beginning of the talk as possible: put the crucial word(s) up on the screen and ask the audience for their definitions. Allow a few people to contribute. If the audience uses those words the same way that you do, then you can say:

Thank you. Sometimes when I give this talk, audiences say it means ‘this.’ That’s something that we need to take into account when making recommendations for society/policy decisions. So I would like to focus on those issues with you now.

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But if the audience defines those words in a different way, you can say:

Thank you. In my field, we tend to define this word ‘as this.’ But it seems that you use this word differently. It is really important that we acknowledge this difference. The issues I would like to discuss with you today need to be carefully considered so that we come up with recommendations that help many.  So let’s talk about that now, together.

Notice a few things: 

– in either case, you thank the audience; 

– both responses speak to how “we” use words and “we” recommend decisions.

By asking and involving your audience in your talk, everyone walks away with better understandings. That’s productive. That gets conversations started. Conversations that can result in better outcomes as opposed to blindly assuming that the audience thinks the same way that you do. 

Involving your audience in your talk increases the chances that they will involve others in your ideas.

This approach of asking the audience makes your talk doubly better: you make sure that the important words are heard the same, and you draw your audience into the presentation from the beginning. This makes the talk the audience’s as well, which makes it more captivating and memorable. More likely to motivate others to your cause. 

You do have prepare extra for this approach. You have to be ready to possibly present the same slides in two different ways. Or you could anticipate those two different ways, and (re)design your slides to make that an easier delivery. Hiring a presentations coach to help you with this process can go a long way. 

Also important, you and your audience will learn more from each other. By asking your audience what an important word means, you can transform an engagement barrier into a bridge. Or even a launch pad.

After all, isn’t the goal of your talk to get your ideas talked about in rooms where decisions are made? So talk with your audience, not at them. An excellent way of doing that is to check in on what words they use.

Understanding together, you and your audience might just change the world.

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Photo by Martin Damboldt on

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