Speaking with Specificity

Try to ignore my reflection to see the building in the picture.

When looking for a restroom on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco recently, I was reminded of how important specificity is. We inquired of a sales person at a souvenir shop, and she said that the nearest restrooms were “at the end of the parking lot.” We walked across to the parking lot and realized the area was irregularly outlined and that there were buildings at each end, but no sign of a restroom. We walked across the street in hopes of finding an available restroom in a museum. On the door was a sign with big letters “Restrooms.” Just what we needed!

Upon further examination, we saw that the sign had this photo and this caption: “Restrooms are across the street behind that building.” The photo of that building made perfectly clear where the restrooms were. We walked quickly and directly to the restrooms across the street, where we found that they were actually “at the end of the parking lot.”

Communication is easier, less time consuming, and offers fewer frustrations when we are specific. We may not be able to take a photo of what we are talking about, but we can incorporate speaking techniques which paint accurate pictures in the mind of the listener.

Think of the knowledge level on your topic when having a conversation or delivering a speech. If you are explaining to a new employee, definitions are critical. When I was trained to sell shoes as a teenager, my trainer discussed labels on the fronts of some shoe boxes. Several were marked “PM,” which meant nothing to me until she said that PM meant “push more” and I would receive a commission for selling that out-of-stock shoe.

If you are explaining a location or place that you know is not familiar to the person, provide a well-known landmark such as “The travel agency is next to Wendy’s.”

If you see a quizzical look on the listener’s face, consider using a comparison by relating the topic to something you think would be clear to the person. When I’m coaching someone in public speaking, I will allay excessive anxiety by saying, “Public speaking is like having a conversation. You simply speak louder, look at more people, and incorporate bigger gestures.”

You can turn the conversation around and help the speaker be more specific by asking him/her to give you a definition, provide a connecting landmark, or ask for a comparison of what an unknown concept is like.

We may not be able to provide a photo of what we are referring to, but with these three techniques we may give clarity and avoid miscommunication.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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