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Is your communication lost in translation? Here is how you get through

Anna Balk-Møller, Principal Consultant

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head, but talk to him in his own language, and it goes to his heart” Nelson Mandela once wisely said. Here are four advice to consider when you want your communication to actually have an impact.

‘Attention economics’ is a massive challenge in every organisation today. We are all overloaded with information both at work and privately. Emails, social media, news, meetings, TV, radio, podcasts, webinars, etc. Everyone wants our attention. And attention is therefore a precious but scarce commodity. Attention is a resource. Attention is power. But gaining the power of people’s attention literally means breaking a barrier. And the competition is fierce.

More than ever, communication must be relevant. To be relevant, it must be understood. To be understood, it must fit the language culture of the audience. To fit the language culture, it often must cross borders between sender and receivers, presenter and audience.

A cultural border is not merely a place to show one’s passport (unless foreign politics have rendered this symbolic act redundant). Cultural borders certainly also exist between professionals within the same national context, e.g. the executive aisle, and the garage, production or business unit, or between the headquarter and satellite offices.

Advice #1: Consider attention a (scarce) resource
– be relevant (for them)

You will read the word ‘translate’ many times in this article. Allow me to translate: It means making it relevant, making it understandable – in language, terminology and recognisability. We usually think of translation as an activity involving a dictionary. But here, two types of translations are used. Translation across languages and translation within the same language. If we want to truly reach someone, we should make an effort to ‘translate’ – in both meanings of the word.

Why cultural translation should be considered within the same language

The first thing you learn in any communication programme is to address your target audience. Though it is common knowledge that if you try to reach everyone, you will influence no one, this is too often neglected. Because we simply assume that people understand what we understand. But they do not.

Though we might speak in the same tongue, different ways of using the language may still require cultural translations. Especially when the communication crosses borders between professional groups. Technical specialists conducting IT training for end-users need (help) to translate the digital terminology into the layman terms. Project managers communicating the purpose of the project to employees need (help) to translate the business objectives into individual benefits. And leadership needs (help) to translate the 2025 strategy into relevant actions and desired behaviours of each business unit employee.

Advice #2: People do not understand what you understand – so translate

At the top of the organisational charts, there is a wide use ‘Management language’. This language (much like the legal language called ‘chancellery’) is identifiable by being ambiguous and vague, overly saturated with abbreviations, and being visionary with little concrete direction.

And with good reason (for at least some as there is never really a good excuse for abbreviations!). Communication from the top is usually meant to set the direction for the entire organisation. Hence, almost any specification would make it unrelatable to most. But consequently, without translations it will be irrelevant to all.

 

One of two things usually happens. Most often, communication is simply passed on as articulated. At other times the effort to adapt it is put in, however, not considered to be an act of translation. But perhaps it should be considered just that. Translation is a more structured effort than simply adapting. It is an effort to make it understandable and relatable – from management language to business unit language, from technical terminology to layman terms or, across any cultural border.

And I solemnly promise that it will not devalue your strategy, your business objectives or your professionalism. The most impressive communicators I have met have had no need for fancy language. And the lack of it made them seem no less wise or important!

Advice #3: Effectful communication resonates
– it does not need fancy words.

In the era of information overload, communication that is not directly relevant for ‘me’, is deemed not relevant at all. If I do not understand it, I cannot practice it. If I cannot practice it, it will have had no effect. If it has no effect – then why bother?

Let’s take an example. The new strategy has a focus area called ‘less silo-thinking’ – brilliant. But to have an effect I need to know exactly what this means for me. What I have to do (differently) when I am doing my work in the production line, servicing customers in the store, or in my procurement processes. And I need to be told in a language that I understand.

Why translation should be considered across languages

Nelson Mandela actually spoke of foreign languages in the quote at the beginning of this article. Professor of linguistics Per Durst-Andersen has studied the differences between the mother tongue and acquired language skills. He concludes that the mother tongue is learned using our senses, whereas the acquired language is ‘simply’ learned through the mind. Therefore, our native language has the potential of reaching our heart that a foreign language has not.

Though our corporate language might be English (or Germain, or Danish, or French), we still need to consider the need for local translations from time to time. If we want to reach people, investing in translations might actually be the cheaper option.

We hire sales reps because they are good at sales, mechanics because they are good at machines and, chefs because they are good at cooking. No political decisions about corporate language will change our need for their expertise. And I can be the world’s best mechanic without being very good at English (or German, or Danish, or French). So, if you want experts, do not be rigid about language politics.

Advice #4: If you want to reach your experts
– have it translated

Though many in our organisation are fluent in English (or French, or German, or Danish) we should consider translating to the local language whenever we are communicating something that is really important or directly impacts personal matters. So, when we implement a new 2025 strategy, new company values, or general big news, we translate. When we want to initiate change that impact salary or job role, we translate. I would suggest to consider translations when communicating about:

 

 

So, please (please, please) make your communication relevant – for those whose attention we want to attract – who’s hearts we want to reach.

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