To reach an audience, they have to understand you

My favorite parable about the perils of not reaching an audience comes to us courtesy of the mid-19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. If you haven’t heard of him, that’s probably not your fault. Especially if you’re a native English-speaker.

Kierkegaard was Danish, you see. And although that may be the world’s favorite breakfast pastry, it’s far from the world’s favorite language—devilishly hard to learn, I’m told. So although Kierkegaard had become quite well-known in his native land by the time he died in 1855, it took a full half-century for his ideas to gain traction elsewhere. The first German translations didn’t appear until 1905; nearly another 30 years passed before someone got around to translating his books into English.

Now, full disclosure: I haven’t read Kierkegaard either, in any language. But I did edit a series of academic essays on philosophy, God help me (although some of those philosophers would say I’d be better off helping myself), which is how I came across the sad tale of his neglected ideas.

What were those ideas? Not important for this discussion, but feel free to look them up. What’s most important to me right now is that his ideas came close to being lost to the wider world.

Why? Because no one understood the words he used. Literally.


Speaking a different language than your audience is not, shall we say, a best practice. But you don’t have to babble in Danish to become incomprehensible to readers or listeners. Acronyms are a language of their own—especially those company-specific acronyms you love to throw about in internal meetings. If you’re not speaking to an internal audience—heck, even if you are speaking to an internal audience—leave the acronyms back in your cubicle. Preferably locked in a drawer. (And then please lose the key.)

Technical language or jargon, too. Redline that stuff right out. The only time you want to sound like an academic is if you are an academic—and you’re communicating with your peers. I came across a Ph.D. once who wondered why she wasn’t being booked for more speaking gigs. She had a website and everything—couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. When I went to said website, I found a banner at the top with a quotation from one of her speeches: It was as dense and complex as a Ph.D. thesis.

I explained that the words that got her there—to the point in her academic career that she had developed some marketable expertise—were not going to help her reach wider audiences as a speaker.

People hearing you speak can’t go back and re-read a long, complex sentence. They can’t look up an unfamiliar word. They can’t pause to contemplate the profound thing you just said—because you’re still talking.

Her audience already knew she was smart; she’d been booked to speak to them. And if that isn’t irrefutable social proof, I don’t know what is. The academic didn’t need to demonstrate her intelligence by using fancy language; she needed to help them understand her material. You don’t need $10 words for that. You just need a passion for the material and a desire to ignite that passion in other people.

In other words—and regular readers may know what’s coming–to reach an audience, you have to establish an emotional connection with them. Whether you’re talking about Kierkegaard or Kindergarten, emotions are what capture people’s attention.

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