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The Power of Language

“Mama, yo quiero aqua”

My anglophone mother remembers the surprise she felt when I toddled up to her and said those words. Those were the days before Canadian Sesame Street switched to French as a second language.

When it did, I was quick to pick up on that too, and ended up enrolled in French kindergarten by the time I was four.

In high school I balanced French, Spanish and German with my full course-load, and I continued those when I spent a year abroad in Belgium. Of course over there it was no big deal to have a second, third and fourth language under your belt.

I loved the idea of communicating concepts in different ways. It was a superpower that unlocked different ways to view the world! Different dimensions!

After getting a degree in languages and linguistics, my interest turned to another language set.

HTML. CSS. JS. Java. C++. C#.

As anyone who’s picked up multiple languages can tell you, once you’ve stretched your brain with one, the follow-on languages come a lot easier. You start to learn the areas of possible variation, and just ‘fill in the blank’ as to how a given language addresses the variation.

From natural languages to computer languages, it was always about figuring out the situation and applying rules to come to the optimal way to communicate intent.

Yesterday I got into a twitter exchange about the value of business school, which eventually turned into a discussion of “the language of business”

I’ve told the story before. The innovation team I was on at LexisNexis was shut down because we didn’t articulate our value. That’s why it was so critical for me to focus on outcomes when I established my department at ReadyTalk.

That’s why I bring up boring topics like Innovation Accounting.

We can all know that having a good CX ‘feels right’ but we need to learn how to communicate so that others across the organization can understand the value.

We have to learn to speak their language.

Because how someone speaks tells you how they think.

Customer Researchers and Innovators: Power Up Your Empathy Devices!

If we’re customer-focused and want to innovate, we need to be in touch with who we’re serving.

Stakeholders are people too. We need to understand their struggles and challenges, and design a solution for them too.

A few months ago I picked up Tom Greever’s “Articulating Design Decisions.” It offers some great guidance on how to communicate with stakeholders; handling objections and taking and incorporating feedback.

We’re out of high school. “Being right” doesn’t mean much. “Getting people to understand your perspective (and do something with it)” is something else altogether.

We all know the joke about the Americans who just shout loudly at foreigners, thinking volume will overcome the language barrier.

It doesn’t. And neither will sharing articles or accolades in a language that’s foreign to your stakeholders. You can be excited about ‘engagement levels’ or ‘unarticulated needs’, but you need to translate that into something that makes sense — and is important to — those around you.

Not everyone needs to go to business school. But if you want to be effective in how you communicate with those you work with, you’d be well-off to put a little bit of effort into trying to understand what’s important to them.

When we were each figuring out our very first language, we had to grasp concepts before we could assign labels to them. We categorized things. We started to get a sense of how things fit together.

Heck, Google is starting to do it now. Kinda.

And just like French isn’t inherently better or worse than English or Spanish or Japanese, we shouldn’t waste time wondering if it’s worth trying to learn “the language of business”.

Learning another person’s perspective makes us better people. It helps us get another view on the world. And maybe, just maybe, we can learn from them too.

Sure, languages may come easier to some of us than others.

But if you expect someone to buy into what you say, shouldn’t they expect you to be able to understand and articulate why it’d be important to them?

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Andrea Hill is the principal consultant at Frameplay. Frameplay is an innovation consultancy that helps companies become more customer-focused and thrive in a rapidly changing world. Learn more at frameplay.co

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Andrea F Hill

Sr UX Specialist with Canada Revenue Agency, former web dev and product person. 🔎 Lifelong learner. Unapologetic introvert. Plant-powered marathoner. Cat mom.