Miscomm isn’t the name of that new relief teacher

Miscommunications (or ‘miscomms’ as we say in truncated speech) can occur anywhere, at any time.

It can occur in relationships, both at work or at home.

It can occur over big things like a country’s future plans for the next 20 years, and over things closer to home such as one’s job scope, your expectations of another person, what homework to hand in the next day, what to wear on a particular occasion, what noodles you ordered at lunch…the list goes on.

Lately, I’ve been going around asking people from all kinds of places what the term ‘effective communication’ means to them and I realise that one word keeps coming up — Clarity.

Not perfectly enunciated words. Not long fancy speeches filled with points and counter points.

Effective communication, it seems, is simply about getting what you want to say across to the other person using whatever medium you choose, be it in speech, in writing or in pictures.

One would think this would be pretty simple. “Just say/write/draw what’s on your mind!”

But sometimes, it seems that the distance between your mind and your mouth/hand and the other person’s mind is just so far, not least because of the various filters we already have embedded in us, as well as the existing expectations and mental models and the value systems that we access when we communicate. When these are compounded with layers of words that come with their own nuances or complicated by language and cultural barriers, the destination of full comprehension seems a distant one. (That last sentence was probably a case in point of an unecessarily complicated sentence.)

In the Singapore civil service however, I’m grateful for leaders who have insisted on clarity right from the start.

In five days’ time, we’ll mark the 33rd year after Feb 27, 1979, which, according to this ST article (http://www.asiaone.com/News/Education/Story/A1Story20090227-125024.html), was when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called for a meeting of ministers, ministers of state and senior civil servants to discuss how government papers and minutes could be written in clear, clean prose.

As I read the exerpts in the article from the then-PM’s speech, I marvelled at some of the lines:

“When I was a law student I learnt that every word, every sentence has three possible meanings: what the speaker intends it to mean, what the hearer understands it to mean, and what it is commonly understood to mean. So when a coded message is sent in a telegram, the sender knows what he means, the receiver knows exactly what is meant, the ordinary person reading it can make no sense of it at all. When you write minutes or memoranda, do not write in code, so that only those privy to your thoughts can understand. Write simply so that any other officer who knows nothing of the subject can understand you. To do this, avoid confusion and give words their ordinary meanings.”

“It is a fallacy to believe that because it is the English language, the Englishman has a natural advantage in writing it. That is not so. He has a natural advantage in speaking the language because he spoke it as a child, but not in writing it. It has nothing to do with race. You are not born with a language. You learn it.”

“When you send me or your minister a minute or a memo – or a draft that has to be published like the President’s Address – do not try to impress by using big words; impress by the clarity of your ideas.”

“To begin with, before you can put ideas into words, you must have ideas. Otherwise, you are attempting the impossible.”

“The written English we want is clean, clear prose – not elegant, not stylish, just clean, clear prose. It means simplifying, polishing and tightening.”

There’s so much food for thought in those lines, which are still so relevant in today as they were all those years ago.

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