You Will Be Misunderstood — On Public Speaking, What Audiences Hear, and Making Your Speech Less Prone to Misunderstanding

At it’s heart, public speaking is communication, and speakers are at heart communicators. Great speakers, unsurprisingly, tend to and have to be great communicators. This much should be self-evident to everyone who has ever thought about public speaking or heard a great speech. However, what is sometimes lost in this stating of the bleeding obvious, is just how much might be lost even in the best of communication, from the best of communicators.

Beginning speakers are often worried about whether their audience will “get it”, i.e. whether the audience will fully grasp the points the speaker tries to make and the finer details of his or her message. This is why they over-rehearse, and why they often have overladen presentation slides. More experienced speakers do not wonder about whether some in the audience will misunderstand them. On the contrary:

Experienced speakers expect to be misunderstood (at least partly).

In 1978, the renowned Finnish professor of communication, Osmo Wiio, stated a set of laws for how communication works, and usually doesn’t, in order to temper people’s trust in the power of communication. There were seven laws in all, but it is the first three of which are particularly pertinent here. They are, in my translation:

  1. Communication always fails, except by accident.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in different ways, it will be interpreted in the way that can cause the most damage.
  3. There will always be someone who knows better than you what you’ve meant with your message.

These laws were laid out partly in jest, but they contain an important kernel of truth. Failures in communication are far more common than we tend to realize, and if there is a chance something will be mis-interpreted, odds are that it will. We of course know this from political discourse, and look in amusement when corporate communication flounders in the face of interpretation, but this is a central matter to speakers as well.

Now, audiences do not try to misunderstand you, but they will. Not all of them, not all of the time, but a speaker who wishes to be successful needs to be aware of how speaking events are spaces where your message can easily be warped, sometimes beyond recognition.

Audiences don’t listen, they experience

The reasons for this should be obvious. When you, for instance, are delivering a keynote, it is not merely a case of delivering a clearly set out message to people who are prepared to hear exactly that message and nothing else. Instead, a keynote is a space of drama, of emotion, of surprises and excitement. The audience will usually have only the barest idea regarding what you’re going to be speaking about, and at the time you take to stage, the audience may be in any number of states. The speakers before you may have been boring, and now the audience is half-asleep, or the speaker preceding you may have been wonderful and thought-provoking, and the audience is now thinking mainly about his or her speech.

Once you start speaking, other things come in that can throw an audience. You may be very charming, to the point where parts of the audience is listening more to the sound of your voice than to what you’re actually saying. You may be a highly kinetic speaker, nigh-on hypnotizing the audience with your arm-movements and Fred Astaire-like footwork. Or you may be a very still and soft-spoken speaker, lulling the audience to a restful calm. Note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t be charming, or energetic, or a calming presence. Depending on what kind of person and speaker you are, all of these can be great styles. But they all come with a price, and that price is attention to the message, and the misunderstandings that stem from this. It’s simply how things are.

As a result, every experienced speaker can tell stories about how they, for whatever reason, ended up misunderstood or even understood as arguing for the polar opposite of what they’d talked about. My own preferred story stems from a large corporate conference, where I’d given the opening keynote. I felt it had worked rather well, and the CEO was very appreciative. I hung around afterwards, listened to a few other speeches, and then joined in the lunch buffet. As I was walking around with my plate of salad and various meats, I walked straight into a heated argument. Two men, who both worked at the host company, were already raising their voices at each other. It seemed they had very different opinions regarding the key way to make an organisation more creative, and in addition they both agreed that I was right about this. Both had heard the exact same speech, but came away from it with diametrically opposed ideas regarding the central problem, and were now quite thrilled to see me, as both assumed that I would side with them. With a sense of dread I asked both to recap their core take-away, which they did, placing me in the somewhat awkward position of having to tell both of them that they’d misunderstood what I was trying to say. Thankfully, they did not gang up on me, but we instead had a fruitful conversation about the difficulties of creating a creative organisation, and I promised to take both of their interpretations on board in upcoming speeches — which I gladly did, as both had a point. Creativity is tricky that way.

Each speaker who wishes to develop in his or her craft, thus needs to pay attention not only to the message that one wishes to convey, but also to the ways in which a message can be lost in translation. For every keynote is an act of translation. Every time a speaker goes on stage, there is a tremendous amount of ideas, experiences, anecdotes, lessons, wisdom, observations, and just things one has been thinking about that the speaker wishes to impart to the audience. The speaker knows that this is an impossible mission, so you pare down, structure, pick some things over others, and to a greater or lesser degree improvise on stage. In other words, you translate a fuzzy set of information into a (hopefully) coherent and self-contained whole. This will involve simplifying things, dropping various alternatives, downplaying contradictions and other forms of massaging the raw data. To some, this might sound like faking it, or even unethical behavior, but the fact is that these kinds of processes are present in all forms of communication. Even when telling someone what we did last night, our story will be a cleaned up and edited one, with various omissions and shortcuts. Thinking that a speaker, who often has years if not decades of experience in the background, would not do the same would naïve.

Communication is translation, and communicating through public speaking is no exception.

By the time your message comes to the audience, it has thus been translated at least once, and is about to be translated once again. This, as your translation of your experience and knowledge into one speech, possibly no longer than 30 minutes (although often longer in the case of keynotes), will now be interpreted by the audience, who will fit your message as well as the body language and presentation materials that accompany it into their own frame of reference. Your job as a speaker is not to eradicate this, but to be aware of it and work with it.

Understanding Misunderstanding

A key skill for a speaker is thus to have an understanding for where audiences are most likely to have various interpretations of your message, and to grasp what might happen in such situations. We can talk of at least three kinds of interpretative incidents that lead to a speakers message being distorted: exaggeration, reframing, and over-interpretation.

With exaggeration I refer to cases where the audience, or parts of it, take one of your points, quite possibly an exaggerated one to begin with, and then either take this literally or exaggerate this even further. For instance, I sometimes make a few tongue-in-cheek comments about gender and creativity in my keynotes, and I do not always qualify these by pointing out that they are to be understood as playful generalizations. I have thus had to explain myself afterwards to irate men (actually always men), who have assumed that I meant that men always and in every case shoot down ideas from women. Now, I’ve never said such a thing, but if an audience members misses the lead-in, the wink afterwards, and starts mulling a single statement taken out of context, such an interpretation may become possible. Your very position as a speaker — on stage, in the limelight — is such that your every word and move will seem more stark in contrast, more pronounced, more closely observed, and our innate tendency for exaggerating messages will do the rest.

Reframing, on its part, refers to the tendency of audiences to put your message into their own context and their own life-story. As so many other speakers, I’ve heard a variation of the phrase “It’s like you’re talking about my workplace/organization/experience!” more times than I can count, and audience members are often quite keen to tell you about just how well your message fit their own experience. Often this is a nice and good thing, as we speakers do try to speak about general and universal themes, but this too can lead to misinterpretations. Consider, for instance, global keynotes. I’ve seen any number of US speakers come to speak in Europe (or shared a stage with them in Asia), where these have presented their message without any real understanding of the cultural difference in their audiences. As a result, many of these may think they have communicated a clear message, not understanding that their advice may mean something entirely different in the given context — I can from personal experience state that certain Asian cultures interpret exhortations to break rules in the name of creativity in a very different way from an e.g. German audience.

Our third category, over-interpretation, could be understood as a combination of the first two. What I refer to with his are cases in which members of the audience become overly reliant on their capacity to understand the speaker, and at times feel they have a special insight into the same. Here, the speakers every gesture, every eye-movement, every intonation might be seen as carrying a deep meaning, one best interpreted by the audience member in question. Thus, a speaker might be speaking about the importance of team-work, but the audience-member interprets the intonation as being sarcastic, an eyebrow raise as “I just have to say this, but you and I both know better…”. Now, you might think that this sounds like a very strange response, or even that I’m being paranoid speaking of such things, but as most experienced speakers know, there is literally no limit to the potential for misunderstanding in the audience, particularly among individuals. Thankfully, you rarely run into the issue where a wider swath of the audience over-interprets, although you may experience cases where a specific joke or specific facial expression may be over-interpreted by several members of the audience.

Now, these are not discrete incidents, and during a keynote, you may come across several of these in different parts of the room, as well as combinations of them, without this necessarily meaning that your speech has been a failure. In addition, there are other ways to be misunderstood, ranging from people mishearing (missing a “not” can make your speech very, very different) to people literally misinterpreting a word in their head, from people assuming you’re talking about something completely different to people not knowing how a metaphor works.

What you need to understand, though, is that this is part of the job. Misunderstandings will happen, you can never fully guard against them, but you can try to mitigate the situation.

Mitigating Misunderstandings

What follows is thus not a complete checklist that will guarantee that you won’t be misunderstood, as such a list does not exist. Instead, this is a limited list of things to keep in mind when planning or delivering a keynote, which can at least lessen the instances of misinterpretation. It’s not a complete list, nor is anything on it rocket science, but thinking about these points will help you hone your speaking skills and your way of engaging with an audience that will, still, occasionally misunderstand you.

Know your audience, and their background. Several years ago I was listening in to Malcolm Gladwell giving a presentation to an audience of industrialists and businessmen from northern England. The audience was, due to the nature of the event and the place it was held in, somewhat older, and many in it were salt-of-the-earth characters whose main education had been in the school of hard knocks. Gladwell comes on stage, straight from his flight, and starts in on a story about the rock band Fleetwood Mac, and particularly their record-breaking album Rumours. In particular, he joyfully refers to how everyone probably remembers listening to this album whilst smoking a joint in their dorm room. This is a line of faux camaraderie that probably works wonders for Gladwell when he is speaking in the US, but in this particular room the joke fell utterly flat. Not only had very few of the people in the room had a “dorm room” (in the UK the term would be “halls of residence”), but the tradition of toking up whilst listening to soft rock was probably not the most best-known one in the audience (who, truth be told, looked more likely to enjoy a pint than a spliff). Every speaker knows that you’re supposed to know your audience, and to engineer your message for the specific audience you’re speaking to, but this often still gets forgotten. Speakers using the same speech template again and again may discover that it doesn’t take a huge change in audience background for a presentation to be understood in a wholly different way.

Clarify, clarify, clarify. There is an old piece of advice, attributed to Dale Carnegie, that might seem a bit hackneyed by now, but which still rings true:

“Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”

If you feel that there are parts of your message that are extra important for the audience to understand, do not be shy about repeating them and do not be shy about expressing them in an explicit manner. Some speakers assume that audiences will understand winks and nudges, implied messages and coy allusions, but this is a dangerous assumption. Your task when on stage is not to be subtle and coy, but to impart a message. Don’t just imply things, state them outright.

Never use a long word where a short one will do. This is of course one of George Orwell’s six rules for effective writing, and it is good advice indeed. A lot of misunderstandings in speaking stem from something as simple and basic as using fancy words where simple ones suffice. The more complex your language, the greater the likelihood that at least someone won’t get even the words you’re using, let alone the message you’re trying to convey with them. This goes for technical jargon, such as when a entrepreneurship speaker delights in using the latest buzzwords in the field, as well as for overly fanciful language, a sin I have to admit that I’m occasionally guilty of. This goes double when speaking for an audience which does not have e.g. English as a first language.

Be careful when deploying sarcasm and irony. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, humor is a difficult keynoting tool. I love sarcasm and irony, but I’ve learnt that they can backfire in a spectacular fashion. The thing with irony is that it basically functions by you saying one thing, but meaning another. It can be very efficient when everyone listening understand the rules of this particular language-game, but it doesn’t take many in the audience who interpret your sarcasm and irony as factual statements for you to have a train wreck of a keynote on your hands. In fact, although most speaking guides speak very warmly about using humor to spice up your speaking, and only warn against talking about sex, religion or politics, the truth is that humor is always one of the most easily misunderstood parts of a speech. So much so that I’ve taken to explicitly state, mid-keynote, that I’m joking about something if I feel that there is too great a risk for misunderstanding. Sure, it breaks the flow a little, but that’s preferable to people thinking a little joke was in fact a harsh put-down.

Mind your body language. As stated early on in this text, you as a speaker literally do not know exactly what your audience will pay attention to as you’re speaking. Some will listen intently, others will pay more attention to how you hold your hands. Now, this does not mean you should minimise your body language, but it does mean that you need to be mindful about it. If you’re making a point that might be interpreted as arrogant or patronizing, it is important that you do not amplify the potential for this interpretation by adopting an aloof position or using your hands in a way that might be seen as a brush-off (if you are trying to be arrogant, however, go right ahead — I’m not one to judge). In a similar way, if you’re making a joke that might be interpreted as being risqué or even a tad misogynist, leering or winking whilst doing so might be the difference between getting away with it or getting slapped (and with some right).

In the end, you will of course anyway be misunderstood by someone, somehow. And this leads us to our very final point:

Learn to live with audience misunderstandings. They are a part of life, and sometimes the misunderstandings can even enrich your speech. They can get people talking, they can get people engaged, and they are part and parcel of communication. Trying to eradicate them outright is a fool’s errand, and will not improve your speaking.

Taking misunderstandings in stride, and trying to mitigate them rather than eliminating them, will.
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