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Specific and Artfully Vague Language

Strong communication lies at the heart of a high-performing organisation. In this edition of Performance, we ask a world expert in the field, Chris Parker, to tell us when and how to be specific or artfully vague. When seeking to influence others there are times we need to use specific language and equally, there are times we need to be artfully vague. The skill lies in knowing how and when to use each.

Specific language is the language of precision. Artfully vague language is the opposite; it is language that is deliberately open to personal interpretation.

Specific language

We use specific language when:

  1. Needing to be understood in a single, specific way.
  2. Sharing information.
  3. Recovering information.

1. How do we increase our chances of being understood in a single, specific way? The quick answer is: use the language of the people you are communicating with. Identify the words and phrases they use and give them those back. Precisely.

2. When sharing information remember that facts and figures alone are weak influencers.

Their power comes when they are used to prove the truth in messages that are of obvious relevance to an audience.

Remember, too, that the so-called conscious mind can be easily over-dosed with information. George Miller’s classic paper written originally in 1956 stated that our active short-term memory can hold seven plus or minus two bits of information at any one time. So deliver data in bite-size chunks.

3. Often we need to recover specific information before, and as part of, influencing others. This is necessary because deletions, distortions and generalisations are an inevitable part of our communication.

Deletions, distortions and generalisations

When explaining or recounting a situation we not only delete some information, leaving out certain details and paying selective attention to others, we also distort some aspects whether we mean to or not, because we are always sharing our interpretation. We generalise whenever we take one aspect of an experience or type and uses it to represent everything that is connected to that experience or type.

We hear a deletion, a distortion and a generalisation when a soccer player says,

‘Penalty kicks really stress me. I know fans expect me to miss.’

In the first sentence important information has been deleted. The specific questions, ‘What is it about taking a penalty kick that stresses you?’ and ‘How do you feel and behave when you are stressed?’ would help to retrieve this and provide the foundation for the rest of the communication.

In the second sentence the player engages in some hugely inappropriate and damaging mindreading. They cannot, of course, know what all the fans are expecting, because they haven’t carried out the required survey. They are, therefore, distorting the experience and that in turn creates a generalisation. Questions such as, ‘How do you know what the fans are expecting?’ and ‘Every fan expects you to miss?’ would lead the way into unlocking the player’s misguided perception.

The purpose of specific language, then, is to create a precise understanding, one that often leads to the establishment of an agreement or a progression we deem valuable.

However, whilst specificity is essential, it is supported by the emotional compulsion – the meanings and feelings – created by the skilled use of artfully vague language.

Artfully vague language

This is language filled with deliberate deletions, distortions and generalisations. Artfully vague language offers context with limited content. It leaves out information.

We use artfully vague language when encouraging the recipient to:

  1. Go ‘inwards’, to fill in the gaps, to choose an appropriate experience and learn from it in new ways.
  2. Access the resources of their subconscious.
  3. Feel an emotional response.

If you want to read an outstanding example of artfully vague language, supported occasionally by relevant facts, read Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech delivered in Washington in 1963. Notice all the deletions, distortions and generalisations, and the use of metaphors, imagery and emotive language. Notice how it encourages his listeners to go ‘inward’ and relate his words to their own lives.

It was – and still is – hugely motivational.

Artfully vague language then: the language of the ultimate team-talk.

I wonder what artfully vague language you would use to motivate our stressed footballer?

Finally:

Specific and artfully vague language are most useful when they are well-sequenced parts of a compelling narrative. But that’s another story…

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