The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Interpretation through Personal Services

The Problem of Communication

Anyone who has tried to explain something unfamiliar, or give directions how to reach a certain point, knows something about the problem of communication. It is one thing to know yourself what you want to describe, but entirely different when you start to tell someone else about it. Communication is a subject of greatest importance, and something to which the interpreter must give careful consideration. No matter how much he knows about his subject, if he cannot transmit this knowledge to his listener, he has failed.

Many ideas are advanced today on the best way to communicate with another person. Some, however, are basic, and hold the key to understanding by your listener. Let us look at them:

A really big problem is putting into simple language what is being said. This is not as easy as it sounds. Each of us talks from his own frame of reference. The interpreter whose background is biology, or perhaps geology, will be familiar with certain terms and ideas not common to his listener. When he talks about an ecosystem, he may well be leaving his listener far behind. While the latter is trying hard to grasp the meaning of the word, other thoughts being expressed are barely registered, if at all. I once heard a speaker give a talk on geology that was most interesting to anyone familiar with the subject. However, his audience left in a much bewildered frame of mind, simply because they could not understand what he was saying. He talked about faults, thrusts, isostatic conditions, tectonics, Permian and Cretaceous time, and used other terms equally unfamiliar to the listeners. He spoke for the professional geologist, not for the public, failing to grasp the fact that one must gauge the likely background and experience of the audience in selecting words to describe the subject. While he made the common mistake of using technical terms for a non-technical audience, we do not mean that technical terms should never be used. Rather, they should be used sparingly, and explained when first used, just to make sure listeners understand. Keep the talk or conversation simple. Don't "talk down" to the audience, but keep the talk on an understandable level. Some speakers go too far in the direction of simplicity and act as though the listeners are no better informed than a child. Nothing can terminate communication more quickly!

Often we use words that have more than one common meaning, thus failing to put across the true significance and value of what we are trying to say. The common word "frog" may mean different things to members of an audience. To some it means an amphibian; to some it means part of a horse's hoof; to others the place where two railroad irons are joined; to some an aid in arranging flowers; and to still others, it might even mean a Frenchman, or a five dollar bill! The word "fast" is another example of how a simple word may convey the wrong idea. It may mean: speed; being tied to something; a color that will not run; doing without food for a time; or, a free-swinging socialite. Much depends upon the listener's background as to the image a word will bring to mind. Certainly all terms used should be carefully chosen for clarity.

Rate of speaking is very important. Many people are not trained to hear rapid conversation, and cannot grasp ideas poured out too rapidly. One must learn to speak at a moderate rate, and at the same time, speak clearly and enunciate distinctly. Speaking too slowly is as deadly as a machine-gun type of delivery. There is nothing much more boring and sleep producing to an audience than to have the speaker drag out his words and phrases in a slow, measured way. So vary the speed of your presentation to add emphasis to important points.

Stay away from slang. It is true there are some expressions that seem to describe things better than more accepted forms of speech. However, there is real danger that the slang word selected may not mean to the listener what it means to you. It may have overtones to him that he will not accept. He may also resent slang terms simply because he does not agree with the use of such.

Another "don't" concerns references to states, especially when used as the subject of a wise crack, an uncomplimentary reference, or an object of ridicule. There is always the probability that someone in the audience will be from the state mentioned, and is proud of it. If so, you can be sure he will resent your reference and will have a mental block against what you are trying to tell him.

We must also remember that some things we say are relative in their meanings and really do not tell the listener anything. For example, a wife calls her husband and says that dinner is served. He calls back and says "I'll be there in a minute." He didn't actually mean that he would be there in that time; simply that he couldn't be there immediately, and that some time would elapse before he reached the dining table. Speakers and others in the interpretive field often resort to this sort of vagueness in describing something. We hear such expressions as: "quite some time elapsed," "it is only a short distance," or possibly "it is a relatively soft rock." None of these mean much to anyone except the person who said them.

Simple illustrations are most useful. If possible, choose those reflecting in some degree the listener's experience and background. If speaking to a group of farmers, one would normally not use illustrations taken from a chemistry laboratory.

A good interpreter is always keenly aware of the fact that listening is a skill few people possess. Most people hear what is being said, but only a small percentage really listen. Herein lies the difference between success and failure for most communicators. Only when a person really listens has he some chance of understanding what you are trying to tell him. If he has not been trained to listen, he is likely to grasp only a part of what you are saying. The relationship between what you tell a person and what he actually retains can easily be shown by the following simple diagram: (read from bottom up)

What he remembered about the subject later
What he retained about the subject initially
What he understood about what you said
What he actually listened to about the subject
What he heard about the subject
What you actually told him about the subject
What you think you told him about the subject
What you know about the subject

It becomes quite apparent that much of what we have to say will be wasted effort, even if your audience listens carefully. Keep in mind that the normal person retains only about 10% of what you tell him, if he actually tries to absorb your message. The lesson is obvious: Don't overload the listener or audience with a vast assortment of data. Choose a limited number of key ideas that you want to present, and make these clear.

Several important points should be considered when we try to communicate. All are of value and are not listed in order of priority:

A person's response to what you tell him depends in large measure how he reacts to your word selection, tone of voice, actions, attitudes, mood, personality and appearance. Failure in any one of these categories may mean a decided lessening of acceptance.

A person reacts to you in terms of his own attitudes, moods, character, knowledge of the subject, need for importance and social status. Your background and experience may differ widely from his. He may have come from a poor family, while you did not. He may not have much education, while you may be a college graduate. There are so many ways in which the two of you differ. Consider what sort of problem faces you in presenting a talk to a large audience. Somehow you must present an image that everyone will be likely to accept.

You may fail to convey the information he needs and can understand. As an example, try giving a person directions about how to get to some specific point. Loss of communication frequently follows.

His beliefs influence what he hears; he will have prejudices that may govern his thinking. As an example, it may be quite difficult to convince your listener that a snake has value, even in nature.

His emotional state of mind will in large measure control what he hears. If he has just had a difference of opinion with someone, he may not be too receptive to what you say.

He may be fearful about what you are saying and not get the message. For example, telling him it is perfectly safe to travel alone through wilderness country may not be accepted. Your message about the wonders of such a trip simply will not be received.

He may suspect your motives and think you are trying to trick him into something. He may feel that what you say and what you mean are two different things.

He may fail to evaluate what you are saying and the meaning may elude him.

He may simply not believe you. This can happen with any subject you bring up. If what you say doesn't sound true, based upon his knowledge and experience, he may simply refuse to accept your statements.

Good communication depends upon feedback. How many questions does your hearer ask? Possibly you have made your message so clear that he hasn't a single question to ask, but such isn't likely.

Courtesy, consideration and tact are vital if he is to be in a receptive frame of mind. The desire to hear and understand must be there before he will really listen to your message.

Communication enters interpretation in many forms. It is essential in public contact, talks, guided activities, signs, exhibits, audiovisual materials, publications, etc. All will be discussed in the pages that follow.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association