‘Wheelbarrow’ words avoid ambiguity

This is a guest  post by Norman Wei.

Misunderstanding through miscommunication is one of the most pervasive problems in business. It can happen between buyers and sellers, stores and customers, bosses and subordinates. Fortunately, there are specific ways you can minimize miscommunication.

In business, you want to strive for high-quality information. In general, if a word can be interpreted differently by different people, it is of low quality. It is a fuzzy word. Communication problems arise when people assume incorrectly that other people view those fuzzy words the same way they do.

For example, the word “productivity” is of low quality because we all have our own idea of what productivity means based on our personal experiences. A salesperson may gauge productivity by the number of orders taken. An accountant may consider the number of shipments to be a better indicator.

Terms such as “Machine #2 on production line 5 in building 6” would be considered very high-quality information, because everyone knows what it refers to. There is no ambiguity.

Let’s say somebody tells you that a particular person is dishonest. The word “dishonest” covers a wide range of possible behaviors. Did he tell a little white lie? Or did he steal money from the cash register? Certain behavior is considered by some to be dishonest, while others may not feel the same way. The way we interpret conversations and written words is defined entirely by our own unique road map, our experiences.

A better way to communicate the “dishonesty” of that person is to describe his behavior in concrete terms. If someone tells us that the “dishonest” person took $40 that didn’t belong to him, we all visualize the same thing.

Here’s a conversation between a manager and his subordinate:

Subordinate: “We are low on our cash flow.”

Manager: “How low?”

Subordinate: “Lower than last year.”

Manager: “Really? By how much?”

Subordinate: “We are 20% off.”

Manager: “And that will be how much in dollars

Subordinate: “We are short $40,000.”

The manager now has a concrete idea of the magnitude of the cash flow problem.

Those examples describe the process of using “wheelbarrow” words: words that can be put in a mental wheelbarrow. Once you use a wheelbarrow word, your listener will be able to visualize your conversation in specific, concrete terms. We can now visualize the $40 and the $40,000 in our mental wheelbarrow.

Wheelbarrow words are especially useful when marketing professional services. For example, a contractor describes his firm as offering “full and comprehensive” demolition service. That description is vague and does not give his potential clients any idea as to the exact scope and range of his capability.

It would be much better for the contractor to describe his capability as follows: “We have 24 bulldozers, 17 front-end loaders, three cranes and a wrecking ball that can take down a four-story building. We maintain a staff of 15 engineers and technicians who are on call to service our customers.” That description is more effective because his potential customers can visualize the equipment and staff sitting in a mental wheelbarrow.

If you make an effort in communicating—orally and in writing—in wheelbarrow words, you will drastically reduce the possibility of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Norman Wei is a consultant, public speaker and author based in Cape Coral, Fla. He has recently published a book titled Presentations That Work. Learn more at www.normanwei.com.


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