Effective communication is rarely easy, even when you know exactly what you want to say.
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to China.
As I was standing outside the hotel one evening, a Western businessman arrived in a taxi. The local driver helped him unload his suitcase, and then passed him a piece of paper, which I assume was the bill.
The businessman looked at the piece of paper, then said something to the driver. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could see from the body language that he was asking a question. The driver shook his head, as if to say, “I don’t understand”.
The businessman pointed back at the piece of paper, and appeared to repeat himself. The driver shook his head again.
The businessman looked around him, presumably trying to find someone to help, but the hotel staff were already tending to a large group who’d also just arrived.
He turned back to the driver, and pointed at his paper again. The driver shook his head for a third time, only this time he pointed at the paper himself.
Clearly frustrated, the passenger raised his voice. I could make out that he was speaking English, but it was quite clear from the driver’s face that he couldn’t understand any of it.
The businessman shouted the same words again, gesticulating and waving his piece of paper.
The driver continued staring at him blankly.
Despite perfect audience reach and multiple message frequency, the businessman’s attempts to communicate simply weren’t working.
Eventually, the businessman gestured to the driver to follow him into the hotel, and off they went, presumably to find someone who could help them.
I used to work as an interpreter, so I’ve seen episodes like this many times before.
On one of my first interpreting assignments, a colleague gave me the following advice:
“Don’t worry too much about the words you say. If you can’t find an exact translation, don’t panic; just explain what that word means, or gesture, or draw pictures, or act it out… whatever it takes. Because the only thing that matters is helping the receiver to understand what the sender intended.”
As communicators, our core challenge isn’t expressing what we want to say.
It’s ensuring that people understand us.