Is there a translator in the house?

We’ve all sat in our share of frustrating meetings, but I can still remember the meeting that very nearly did me in. It took place in 1987 in a Chicago boardroom.

A group of automotive industry CEOs (you’d recognize most of the company names) was meeting with a pair of representatives from a social services agency. I was in the room as the PR counsel for an auto parts manufacturer.

The program’s representatives were there to deliver a report to the auto folks. This group of companies had been funding a program that took inner-city kids off the streets and turned them into employable auto technicians. The program was clearly a success. The representatives explained how much funding they had received and how many people had been trained. It was quite impressive.

Then one of the auto executives posed a question: “We gave you (I don’t remember the amount) dollars, and you trained (I don’t remember the number) kids. Suppose we were to give you (twice the amount) dollars. How many kids could you train with that?”

The lead representative from the program looked over the top of his glasses, paused, and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” The executive nodded and replied, “If we gave you twice as much money, how many kids could you train?”

The representatives looked at each other for several moments, clearly confused. Number Two said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re asking us.”

The auto folks exchanged glances, and one of the CEOs patiently repeated, “We gave you $(amount), and you trained (number) students. If we give you $(twice as much), how many can you train?”

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the discussion went on like that for another fifteen minutes. The two sides never managed to find that middle ground. Clearly, they spoke different languages. The CEOs left the room frustrated, and the social services folks left the room confused. They never realized that the CEOs were ready to hand over the proverbial blank check. My guess is that as they drove back to their agency, they talked about the need to find funds from another source. The CEOs assumed their money wasn’t wanted, and moved on to other causes.

“Failures to translate a particular profession’s jargon into plain English frequently get in the way of messages.”

Failures to translate a particular profession’s jargon into plain English frequently get in the way of messages. For example, when consumers interact with the medical world, we’re expected to do so in their language and on their terms. If a doctor tells you that your test results were “negative,” is that a bad thing or a good thing? Should you be upbeat about a “positive” test? Those word choices are counterintuitive to most of us, so they contribute to confusion instead of clarity.

I remember reading about a hospital that opened a walk-in clinic to compete with local freestanding clinics. The medical staffers who served on the hospital’s board chose to call it an “ambulatory” clinic, because to medical folks, “ambulatory” means that an individual is capable of strolling through the doorway.

When potential patients failed to do just that, the hospital conducted some research and discovered that consumers assumed “ambulatory” was intended for patients who arrived in ambulances. The board changed the name to something like “Rapid Care Clinic,” and hit their business targets in short order.

I’ve seen similar things happen when local officials try to explain property tax issues to the homeowners and businesspeople who pay those taxes. The officials patiently present the material at a level they understand, but it soars right over the audience’s level of comprehension. It isn’t that those in the audience are stupid; it’s just that they aren’t conversant in governmentese. To them, “Form 27” has no more relevance than a gila monster.

Is it a significant problem? I think so. I’ve seen so many situations in which a failure to communicate in the audience’s language created misunderstandings and mistrust. I suspect that much of our frustration with the folks in Washington has more to do with the way they explain their actions than with the actions themselves.

Going back to the frustrating meeting, you might wonder why I didn’t intervene. I’ve often regretted my reluctance to do so, but I was a green lieutenant among captains of industry, and my attempt to bridge the gap would likely have been viewed as insolence (at least judging from the number of other times I was rebuked for being insolent when speaking simple truths or making other observations).

Maybe that’s why I always fight so hard to help organizations find that middle ground, so they can communicate instead of confuse.