Friday, 4 August 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 28. ask, 'What could people take the wrong way?'

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)


'I felt as if the future of the orchestra hung on every word. Even though it likely wouldn't, I might risk the orchestra if someone in the Middle East took our message the wrong way.'

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin


Here, Paul is referring to a presentation he was preparing for a TEDx talk in Cologne, Germany. He was going to tell the story of the formation and development of the NYOI and outline the challenges it faced and how it had met them. He was also going to share the NYOI's vision and future aspirations.

Clearly, Paul needed to know who his potential audiences were and how best to speak to them: which language they would comprehend best and the types of examples they would appreciate. Given that Paul's audiences were segmented in terms of native language and country of origin (and within some countries by race and culture), this task was not easy.

Now, given the diversity of the audience and the different contexts in terms of time and place from within which audience members would be listening to his words, this task could seem at best daunting and at worst impossible. It would be all too easy to overcomplicate the analysis of the differing audiences and lose oneself within a tangled mess of competing demands and preferred words.

Faced with this challenge, Paul instinctively took a few steps back to look at the bigger picture. Having done this, he was able to identify one simple question that could guide the choosing and shaping of his language:

'What if someone from within my many different audiences took what I said and the way I said it in the wrong way?'

Keeping this question in mind as he prepared his presentation enhanced Paul's chances of speaking to his many audiences (and the supporters and potential supporters within them) not only clearly and concisely but also positively and persuasively.

The effectiveness of this question can be enhanced by applying it to the four key areas that must be considered when engaging with people and presenting ideas to them. Could anyone within a very diverse audience, listening from a different place at a different time, take any of the following 'in the wrong way'?
  1. The language you are speaking in: how will people react to it? Will it be sufficiently comprehensible? Could it irritate or even offend some people?
  2. The key message you need people to hear: how will people respond to It? Will some people find it difficult to accept?
  3. The key words and phrases you are using: could any of these be misunderstood in unhelpful ways?
  4. The examples you are using: could any of these prove too emotive to audience members, so obscuring the intended messages? Is there a danger that an example could become the focus of a discussion rather than being a tool for conveying a message?   
To be clear, applying the 'taking it the wrong way' question to the above areas is not about avoiding saying difficult things but saying everything (including difficult things) effectively. Once the question has been asked and possible misunderstandings and difficult areas identified, work can begin on shaping the language and finding the examples that will convey your messages and meanings in the most acceptable and least ambiguous ways to the maximum numbers of people (whoever they are, wherever they are and whenever they are listening).

Finally, as Paul's words emphasise, when asking the above question it is important to keep a healthy sense of perspective. Even though people could take some things you say the wrong way, the consequences will often be manageable and the position retrievable. But asking the question and addressing the issues raised by the answers you gain will significantly minimise the possibility of dramatic, project-ending turbulence.

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