In order to be successful as a professional speaker and inspire your audience, you have to be able to speak the language of your listeners. I am not talking about the actual language they speak, although that too is important, but instead about the way your audience thinks and processes information. In order to get them to respond to your message, you have to act as a Rosetta Stone and translate the information you want to pass on from your way of thinking into a language your audience can understand. While this is crucial to being an effective speaker, it is equally as important in your everyday life. Every day you have conversations where you either want to teach or get someone to do something. In order to get them to respond favorably, you need to be able to speak their language. By being an effective translator of information, you can teach someone almost anything. I first realized how important this can be thanks to a random turn of events back during my junior year of high school.
One evening when I was 17, while I was doing my homework my mom told me that I had a phone call. When I picked up the phone, I was greeted by a pleasant, happy woman named Joan. Over the next few minutes of conversation I learned that Joan was a retired art teacher and painter that had just moved to the area. She had read a recent newspaper article about my life and found me very inspirational. She wanted to offer to teach me to paint, at my home free of charge, if I was interested. She would supply all of the paint, brushes, and other supplies, and all I would have to do is show up. I am all for trying new things, and it is hard to pass up free, private art lessons from a professional art instructor, so I told her I would love to give it a try. She was very excited that I was interested, and we set up a time later that week to have our first lesson.
Now, what I had declined to tell Joan, and something she quickly found out once we got started, was that I don’t have a creative bone in my body. When it comes to logic, patterns, or numbers I am like Rain Man, but ask me to create a new picturesque scene or hum a new melody, and I am, like my dad would say, “as useful as tits on a boar.” This was readily apparent once Joan tried to teach me about color and such at our first lesson. She was very patient with me, but I am sure she had not expected my level of artistic ineptitude. Even though I was a little discouraged by my lack of creativity after our initial meeting, I had enjoyed painting. It had been very relaxing and was a nice contrast to the mental rigors of school. So I decided that I was going to give it another try next week before I gave up.
At our next lesson the following week, Joan took a different approach with me. She already knew that I was a math and science guy, and she told me that her husband, who is also a gifted painter, was the same way. She also shared with me that even though they both are talented artists, they go about painting in totally different ways. Joan was a more traditional artist that is “right brained” and paints by feeling and creativity, while her husband is “left brained” and paints using geometry, patterns, and formulas. She said that I needed to stop trying to be something I am not, and instead apply the talents and skills I do have to this new situation. Joan showed me how to measure the amount of each paint I use to mix new colors to create formulas for every tint and hue, how to use patterns to recreate a scene on canvas, and how to use spacial relationships to maintain a consistent perspective. Once I started thinking about painting in this way, I not only enjoyed it even more than I had before, but I found that I was actually pretty good at it. Over the next 18 months until I left for college, I worked with Joan once a week and painted about a dozen different pieces, all of which hang in the homes of my parents or I.
As amazing as Joan is as an artist, she is even more gifted as a teacher. She knew the importance of putting information into a language that your student can understand, and then took the time to get to know me and my way of thinking. She didn’t try to mold me into some new, uber-creative “artiste,” but instead molded the situation to fit my abilities. She translated what to her is an act of creativity and emotion, into an exercise in logic and numbers that I could understand, and in doing so opened up a whole new world to me that I am extremely grateful for. She introduced me to the joyful, cathartic experience of painting, which was so beneficial to me in maintaining my sanity during this chaotic time in my life filled with SATs, ACTs, and college applications. Even more importantly though, Joan showed me how you can teach someone anything, even a creatively challenged man to paint, if you can translate the information into a language they can relate to. This life lesson has been an invaluable tool on numerous occasions, ever since I first learned it that evening at my kitchen table.
Whether I am explaining to a new nurse how I want something done or trying to inspire an audience to live happier, more fulfilling lives, I always try to remember to be sure to speak the language of whoever I am speaking to. This ability to translate information from your way of thinking to that of whoever you are speaking with is one of the most important aspects of being an effective communicator. What “language” do you speak? Take some time today to really think about how you process information, what your internal dialogue is like, and what types of things make sense to you without much effort. Once you know your own way of thinking, you will be halfway to your goal of being a better communicator. Anytime you are communicating with someone try to be aware of how they see things, and speak their language. If you put in the time to develop this skill, and turn yourself into a living, breathing Rosetta Stone, you will improve your relationships, be more successful, and bring more happiness to your life and the lives of others.