Clear Communications – Who is Responsible?

A lessons-learned story; an experience of complex communications and why it is so important to consider both the experience of the speaker and that of the listener.

Modern communication is accelerating. The way that we write continues to change as we adjust to the availability of technical communication platforms and the trends of society. We abbreviate more than ever before. Style and grammatical accuracy are almost historical concepts. But we do still write.

My story today is not another eulogy to language but of the essential nature of complex, international, business communications.

The basic ‘ingredients’ of the starting position:

  • My client company is in Japan.
  • I am in the UK.
  • The client is represented by a 3rd party agent, also a Japanese company that facilitates and checks the work I produce.
  • The agent is not in the same business sector as the client nor professional in the services being delivered.

The nature of the work is to develop a suite of crisis and emergency plans. It was agreed by all parties that an existing ‘standard’ would be used for the plans. The standard is a US model. Adding a third region and culture to the mix provides another challenge.

The initial phase of the work was relatively smooth. We agreed the deliverables, reporting periods and timeline. Planning started and the first of the drafts were delivered on time to the agent. The feedback was not as expected; the agent was confused by the drafts. They provided useful detailed comments but clearly there was a chasm of basic understanding between us. There followed a back-and-forth of emails while I tried to determine what corrective action was necessary. I became frustrated by, what I considered to be, basic concepts that were not accepted or understood.

And then I saw the light.

It was not that my drafts were faulty, what needed work was the basic task of communication. I had forgotten the ingredients above. I am a consultant. My job is to make all communications with the client crystal clear. It is not their responsibility to understand, it is mine to make sure they understand. The client need plans in Japanese. I am writing them in English for translation by the agent before presentation to the client. The nature of written communications between English and Japanese requires not just the words that I write to be understood but also the concepts and the context. If the linguist cannot understand my intent, they will struggle to represent these as Japanese scripts.

The solution was straightforward. We resulted to the other ancient form of communication, we spoke to each other. We took as much time as necessary to work through the concepts and the terminology until there was complete clarity. In the process, I was forced to take a long, hard look at the quality of my written work. For English-to-English business, the work would probably be acceptable. But that doesn’t excuse the mistakes I made and the lessons (re)learned as a result:

  • professional terminology should be explained, we shouldn’t assume that all readers are experts in that profession
  • be careful using the same term with different meanings (this will not translate consistently into other languages)
  • use illustrations wherever possible for efficiency of the message
  • regularly check with the client that they understand what has been written
  • use version numbers for all drafts so that all parties are referencing the same document

In conclusion, my story specifically relates to international and multi-language communication. But the lessons learned apply equally to single-language. Clear communications start with the person speaking or writing, to make sure that they are understood.