Things I’ve learned about effective communication from my toddler

Whether I was editing a blog post, reviewing a presentation or tweaking a video script, my coworkers have regularly heard me ask this question: how would you explain this to a 4-year-old? I proposed it as a theoretical exercise to help the writer to focus his/her thoughts and to encourage him/her to use simple, non-jargon words.

These days I have an actual (and very verbal) 4-year-old named Ella at home, so I decided to put this piece of advice literally to the test. Here’s what I’ve learned from her:

Keep it simple, but don’t dumb it down.

I thought our pediatrician was pure genius when she told Ella to “eat the rainbow” at every meal. As she spoke, Ella’s eyes lit up and her gaze focused on every word coming from our doctor’s mouth. Meanwhile, my brain went giddy as I began to envision family meals as a bounty of colorful dishes from every cuisine. Unfortunately, the “rainbow” advice lasted for less than a single meal. After making her way through a meal of seven beautiful hues, Ella declared, “Eating the rainbow is yucky!” So while our pediatrician’s advice had piqued her interest, it didn’t deliver any results.

A few weeks passed (during which Ella followed a strict diet of noodles and quesadillas) and we had some friends over for dinner. The adults started talking about superfoods, fad diets and how foods affected different parts of our bodies. It seemed to catch Ella’s interest and she asked to learn more. I gave her a few examples: milk makes our bones really happy and eggs make our muscles really really strong. To our delight, this got her very motivated to eat more balanced meals. When she was done eating, she’d ask us to look at her teeth or feel her arm muscles to see if the relevant foods were taking effect. Even today, she often asks for milk by telling me, “My bones are really thirsty today!”

Be concise. Think in terms of words, not sentences.

When Ella was small enough to be toted around in a baby carrier, we regularly went on family hikes. It was the perfect activity for us: we could get some exercise while enjoying the beauty outside and those same peaceful surroundings would help lull her to sleep. These days, a quiet hike does not compete well against other stimulating activities like singing along with her karoake microphone or watching Paw Patrol.

One day while on vacation in the Sierras, both Ella’s and my 1-year-old’s eyes were glued to the TV screen where Elmo’s World was playing. I had been trying to mobilize them for a hike all morning, so I turned off the TV and without really thinking about it, I said, “Let’s go on a bear hunt.”

I haven’t seen my kids put on their socks and shoes more quickly than they did that morning. With just two words, I introduced the thrill of adventure and made a familiar activity seem exciting again.

Embrace the “why’s”.

My husband likes to joke that I epitomize Maslow’s hierarchy because I get pretty darn cranky [read: grouchy] when I’m hungry or tired in the slightest. While I often find it tedious and annoying to answer every “why” question, I have found that it frequently takes you step-by-step up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and can reveal some important human truths. You may also discover something really special while following this train of thought. Consider these recent conversations I’ve had with Ella:

[When I’m juggling both kids in the morning and trying to get ready myself]
Why do you wear makeup? Because it makes me look nicer.
Why? Because it covers up the dark patches under my eyes that I get when I’m tired.
Why do you want to cover them? Because I want to look alert at work.
Why? Because I meet with a lot of people, including strangers, throughout my day, and it makes me feel more confident in myself.
[When I’m frustrated with hearing too many opinions at work]
Why do you do projects with so many people? Because it’s more fun when you do something with another person.
Why? Because they have ideas that you may not have.
Why? Because they have different experiences and talents.
Why? Because people are all different and that’s what makes us special.

If it wasn’t for the fact that she still uses safety scissors and loves running around the house stark naked, I would consider Ella to be Yoda to my Luke. I recognize not all of you have a 4-year-old-in-residence, but next time you need to write anything — an email, a presentation or a social media post — I have one I’d be willing to rent out.