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.

My own medicine

This morning’s post comes from the “Do As I Say, Not As I Do” Desk.

I wish we could tie all the acronyms in the world in a bagful of rocks and throw it in the nearest river. But when I wrote about that a few weeks ago, I granted a reprieve to generally well-known acronyms, like FBI.

Of course, the definition of “generally well-known” depends on your audience. As I was reminded by a couple of loving “ahems” from two quite intelligent friends who have been paying close attention to my recent writing. And my increasing use of the term “C-Suite.”

I could argue that C-Suite is an abbreviation, not an acronym. I’d win that argument, too. But the larger point is that not everyone understands what it means. “C-Suite” encompasses all those folks with “Chief” in their titles—Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer. A business audience will understand it, but my friends have built careers outside of the corporate world. If you want to speak to a broader audience than that, you’d do well to avoid C-Suite.

I said “a business audience will understand it,” but as I wrote those words I remembered that, in fact, when I first encountered the term it puzzled me. As has every piece of business jargon I’ve encountered in over 25 years of writing for the corporate world. The first time one of my Wall Street bosses praised a speech I’d written by saying, “You really added value here, Elaine,” I had to suppress a giggle all the way back to my office. “Value” seemed a very odd way to describe creativity. But I digress.

In using the term “C-Suite” without explanation, I had fallen victim to what Chip and Dan Heath call (in their excellent book Made to Stick) the Curse of Knowledge—”the difficulty of remembering what it was like not to know something.” I’ve built a career on not being “cursed” by too much knowledge of the business world. It’s how I justified not pursuing an MBA years ago, when I write for so many people who have that degree. I figure my “value” to them is that I can recognize the difference between complex ideas and, you will pardon the expression, bullshit couched in complex language. The former I explain, the latter I call out.

Anyway, lesson learned. “C-Suite” will become, I guess, “leading executives.” Excuse me, I’ve got to go rewrite my marketing materials now.

The Don’ts and Don’ts of Acronyms

Yes, yes, I know. These lists are usually “Do’s and Don’ts” (note to my fellow grammar nerds, this article explains my choice of punctuation.) 

But when it comes to acronyms, just Don’t. Practically ever.

To be clear, I’m not talking about common, everyday acronyms. Say you’re writing about the FBI. You wouldn’t write “the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), says…” right? It would be “the FBI says…” If you can safely assume that anyone who hasn’t just crawled out from under a rock will know what the initials stand for without your spelling it out, by all means use the acronym.

But the rest of the time, don’t use acronyms unless you absolutely must. 

Learning these ubiquitous collection of initials is like learning a foreign language. Literally. I know at least one company that hands its new hires an acronym dictionary so they can get fluent before their first day of work. 

Now, sometimes you need to learn a language. You can’t order a croissant without speaking at least one word of French—unless you eat “crescent rolls,” in which case it’s probably best that we never have breakfast together. 

But if you’re going to ask me to learn your acronym language, make it worth my while. If you’re writing a piece on the Grand Widget Inspector and the term pops up frequently, then by all means let me know it’s “the Grand Widget Inspector, also known as the GWI.”

And just because legal contracts use the “phrase (acronym)” construction—”Grand Widget Inspector (GWI)”—doesn’t mean you have to. 

General Rule of Writing: Unless you’re writing a legal contract, don’t make your work sound like a legal contract! Find a way to incorporate the acronym into the sentence, as I did at the end of the previous paragraph. It’s much more elegant, and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the thought.

Few things (in the word world) annoy me more than being asked to learn an acronym when that acronym never appears in the text again. Or when it doesn’t reappear for long stretches of time. When that happens, spell out the phrase. Don’t make me use precious space in my memory to store the translation.

And never use an acronym in the first sentence. There’s no rule requiring you to offer the acronym the first time you use a phrase. Give your readers a chance to get interested in what you’re trying to say before you start making them learn that foreign language. Plenty of time to introduce the acronym on the second mention.

I could go on. I will, at some point. But these are my MPPAA (Main Pet Peeves About Acronyms).