How to Benefit from Interpretational Learning

Let’s face it, if you're not always working to keep the lines of communication clear between you and your audience, you risk missing opportunities or overlooking subtleties that could help you communicate more effectively. Specifically, understanding how your audience interprets your message is paramount to its success (or failure).  

Michael Schrage is a research fellow at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business, author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas. In a recent discussion he recounted a great example of how interpretational learning allowed him to improve communications. He recalls, “I'd been asked to run an innovation workshop for Procter & Gamble's R&D group because of a book I had written. While chatting with my managerial host, I noticed a neatly-typed, three-page memo about my work attached to the invitation he had sent to his colleagues – I asked to read it.” 

Michael then explained his reaction, after reading the memo, “My host had effectively translated my book's central insights into P&G-ese. This went beyond edit or synthesis; he rewrote my words, phrases and recommendations in P&G research community language.” This was a monumental development – Michael had the opportunity to see how his audience (P&G) interacted with and ultimately interpreted his words. Though he didn't necessarily agree with how everything was translated – he did get a fascinating glimpse into P&G's innovation aspirations. Immediately grasping that P&G's innovation vocabulary was far more important to his effectiveness than his own. He realized that in order to most effectively communicate with his audience, not only would he need to make an effort to talk differently, but he would now have to listen differently as well. 

So, You've Heard it All Before…But Were You Listening? 

At the risk of sounding clichéd – better understanding your audience – specifically how to talk to them – begins with listening to them. Knowing the dynamics of their relationship with the information they interact with on a daily basis – requires you to get to know the nuances and common vernacular associated with it. For Michael, being able better understand how his audience digests and regurgitates information for their own consumption, meant he was able to craft a workshop that more effectively delivered his message to them – in their own words.

Now you don't have to work with Proctor & Gamble or attend MIT to benefit from translational learning – anyone can incorporate it into their process. It can be as simple as having a colleague interpret your proposed communication. Albeit the best situation grants you access to the client’s brain. The only criteria in choosing your test subject should be unfamiliarity to the specific intentions of your communication, and their (demographic) relevance as a target audience.  

Ask the Right Questions 

Begin by asking them, “How would you explain this (message) to your colleagues, your boss or a customer?” Make an effort to avoid asking things like, “Could you explain this back to me?” or similarly focused questions. This exercise is less about how any given individual comprehends the idea or technique, than how they would translate it into their own lexicon. Their interpretation of your message will allow you to look at your idea more objectively by understanding how the subject would teach or talk to a like-minded audience. Hearing what your audience hears in their own words, instead of just hearing what you're saying, can drastically help you sharpen and pinpoint the motivational crux of your concept.

Clearing the Path to Improved Communication 

By employing this simple act, you are able to refine communicational issues that may impede clarity, like humor, cultural references or any other vague thoughts. With this in mind, don't feel it necessary to redo your entire communication platform just because one person could not grasp a particular aspect. Remember the obvious – two heads are better than one – and along that line of logic – three are better than two. So if you can, repeat this exercise with a few test subjects, then average their responses to determine which points are universally misunderstood and which are isolated misapprehensions.  

There are always going to be barriers when it comes to communication. Becoming a successful communicator means that you must be constantly receptive to your listeners in order to help navigate through potential issues. Relying on mere felicity or probability just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Your luck will eventually run out and you'll be left trying to pick up the pieces of a broken message, or even worse, a broken relationship.   

Some of the Best Things in Life are Free – Like Free Advice 

Interpretational learning isn't some new technology or magic solution; it's just one more tool in the belt. When used appropriately as an adjunct to your existing recipe for effective communication, it promises to serve up a potent elixir that is easily digested by your audience.

So if you're still wondering how you can benefit from it, think of it like this: if you aren't currently taking steps to make interpretational learning part of your process, then you risk losing touch with your audience.  Talking without listening is no way to do business.  You have one mouth and two ears, so be sure to keep those proportions in balance.

Jerry GrymekHow to Benefit from Interpretational Learning