Communication Breakdown: Tips on Doing it Better

September-October 2010

ARBORISTS COME IN MANY FLAVOURS, including crew bosses, technical educators, salespeople, managers, consultants, researchers, bylaw officers and more. Our work involves communication with others every day and many of us will, at one time or another, talk publicly about aspects of our work or, more usually, trees.

Subject matter can vary greatly: the local Communities in Bloom committee asks for a talk on native tree species; a naturalist club would like a guided walk through the tree communities that occur in a newly-acquired heritage trust property; council wants an update on the EAB situation in town and what’s being done about it; and your staff need to be trained in TreeAzin use. We’ve all attended talks given by others and we’ve all experienced our share of good and not-so-good public speakers. Regardless of whether you’re in a customer’s yard, in front of a group, or on the phone, your ability to communicate effectively is of paramount importance. In this article, I’d like to share with you some of the common tricks that separate the dynamic from the lacklustre speaker.

What’s the best way to make arboricultural jargon and our profession’s many technical concepts understood by others? In one form or another, we are frequently faced with this communication challenge. For enlightenment, we need look no further than a specialized field of communications called thematic or heritage interpretation. Its techniques are an invaluable arsenal to anyone needing to spruce up their written and verbal communication skills. Good “interp” is more than teaching or lecturing or mere spewing of factoids. Ultimately, it aims to facilitate understanding. The potency of “interp-style” communication is that experiences and information, when presented and shared effectively, disseminate knowledge and encourage understanding, which in turn fosters appreciation.

Cardinal Rules
1) Know your material. We get asked to make recommendations for tree care. It is expected that we will be relying upon our expert knowledge and professional experience. One’s credibility is always on the line. You’ve simply got to really know what you’re talking about. And that boosts confidence which is, by the way, an excellent antidote for nervous speaking.

2) Know your audience. Knowing anything about the demographics, awareness and motivations of your audience, even if you’re only chatting with one person, can help you choose more effective or appropriate communication techniques and language.

Body language notwithstanding, we communicate with each other via the written or spoken word.

The Written Word

Make logical sense
You can’t go wrong using or adapting the classic format: 1) introduction, 2) body and 3) conclusion. Regardless of how you organize your material, the point is to have a unifying theme and some reasoned train of thought about it.

Make linguistic sense
Ensure that all spelling and grammar is correct. Your reader will likely forgive only so much before your credibility starts going south.

Make multi-linguistic sense
If you’re planning on offering a multilingual version of certain published material, you may well need to adjust the length of your English version. For example, French seems to require about 30% more words than English to say the same thing. On a 4-panel brochure, you wouldn’t want the English content to fill much more than 3 panels.

High school comprehensible
According to Cardinal Rule #2, you should tailor written material to your particular target audience, but a lot of writing only happens once and must reach a broad spectrum of potential readers (e.g. promotional materials, websites or community newspaper articles). One widely accepted guideline is to write a “general audience” piece to the Grade 10 level.

Be creative
For a good example of interpretive writing, we need look no further than ISA’s own magazine and the ongoing chronicles of Dr. Dendro. Couched in a light narrative that is replete with sidekicks, wordplay and original artwork, a conscious effort is made to both entertain and educate the reader. Each episode’s “villain” could as easily be discussed in a straightforward, dry, technical write-up, but it’s the injection of creativity that endeavours to make the salient information easier to grasp.

Don’t be creative
Sometimes, such as when preparing an Arborist Report, a straightforward, dry, technical write-up is exactly what you’ll want to produce. The content’s thoroughness and accuracy are arguably more important than its ease of comprehensibility.

The Spoken Word

Mouth exercises
I tell my guitar students that all musicians are athletes – they just use very particular muscles. The same goes for professional talkers and, of course, all athletes need warm-up exercises. So practice some of your dialogue beforehand, or even limber up with tongue twisters. Make a conscious effort to slightly exaggerate the mouth movements you need to make to pronounce particular words. You’ll be surprised at how the clarity and quality of your speech improves.

Peaks & valleys
Don’t be monotonous. When speaking, vary your speed and volume a bit to help maintain interest. Often this trick will also communicate your enthusiasm for your subject matter simply because you are being more animated when you’re talking.

Videotape a rehearsal
A self-critique is the best way to tweak a presentation, especially if you’re likely to be giving it multiple times. It’s also the best way to improve your self-awareness of how you come across to other people, allowing you to spot any unconscious body or speech mannerisms you have that broadcast nervousness or are simply distracting.

Use props
Props add interest and variety. Think of a specialized tree tool (e.g. diameter tape, resistograph, increment borer, etc.). Now imagine that you want someone else to understand this tool. How would you best communicate that?

a) you describe its appearance and use
b) you show a picture of it and describe its use
c) you describe and/or demonstrate its use
d) you describe and/or demonstrate its use and you pass one around
e) you demonstrate its use and let them try too

Good interpretation teaches that the effectiveness of one’s delivery is enhanced when more of the recipient’s senses are engaged. Only “e” and, to a lesser extent “d”, engage the tactile sense (on top of visual and aural) in your audience. Props let people share more in the experience.

The all-powerful smile
The idea is to relate things to the familiar (i.e. something is like something else). Some examples:
• bark is like skin: it breathes, it cracks, and it scars
• girdling is like strangling: it disrupts the flow of vital fluids
• occluded bark is like frozen hamburger patties with wax paper between: it looks solid but there’s really nothing holding them together
• tree paint is like a Band-Aid: its good at first because it acts as a barrier to infection but, over time, will hinder healing if its not removed and air can get to the wound
• black cherry bark looks like charred cornflakes
• a climbing spur wound is like that of a bayonet

Try these:
• heartwood is like rebar
• a tree is like a big tube
• mulch is like a blanket
• sap is like blood

Repeat questions
Whether indoors or out, when you are asked a question, its often good to repeat it for all to hear before you respond. Use your judgment.

Speaking in the field
When communication takes place outside, there are always environmental considerations.

Stand upwind
Use wind to carry your voice by standing upwind of your audience. Inversely, you should try to be the one who has the sun in their face rather than your audience.

Walk your route beforehand
Whether it’s the walk-around with your crew at a new job site or you’re the leader of a guided walk, its simply a huge advantage to already be familiar with the site.

Teachable moments
Things can be unpredictable in the great outdoors. If you can, be opportunistic and take advantage of unplanned situations, events or comments.

Speaking at a hearing
Your most likely role in a hearing is as an expert witness. I would suggest that one’s approach be similar to a technical write-up. Just be succinct in your wording. You’ll be asked for elaboration if needed.

Speaking on the phone
It’s worth keeping in mind that both parties are operating without the visual cues that are present in a face-to-face conversation. You may well need to dip into your stash of similes when trying to best describe something or answer a question. As mentioned earlier, to improve clarity you should slightly exaggerate the mouth movements you need to make to pronounce particular words. And don’t forget that, intangible as they are, emotional states and character traits travel quite well over the phone (e.g. confidence, enthusiasm, authority, friendliness, nervousness, irritability, a smile).

Pointers for Powerpoint
Microsoft’s Powerpoint software is the near-ubiquitous standard for presentations. A discussion of communication techniques would not be complete without touching on this modern replacement for the “slide show.”

Use common fonts
The PC or Mac you use to design your presentation may be loaded up with all sorts of funky fonts, but resist the urge to use them. Why? Unless you’re lugging the same computer to the site, the computer you use there may not have the particular font face(s) you used and will almost certainly replace them with something else and mess up your formatting. I prefer Times Roman for titles and headings and Arial for lists and other textual content.

Limit the amount of text on any one slide
As a general rule, a slide should support, not replace, what you’re talking about. Notable exceptions include a direct quote, be it Shakespeare or Shigo, or a list.

Reduce image dimensions before importing
Full-size images from most modern digital cameras can be 3000 x 2000 pixels or more, with corresponding file sizes of 4 megabytes (MB, 1 MB = 1000 KB) or larger. Add 50 or so pictures to your presentation and your Powerpoint file has ballooned to over 200 MB! Keep things manageable by reducing the size of your images before you import them. Image sizes of 800 x 600 pixels will be 70-80% smaller and they will look just fine. Of course, you’ll need image editing software or make use of an online service. Sidebar: low res images are fine for Powerpoint presentations and websites/emails but they are not suitable for any print products. Here you need those original high res photos.

Don’t bother with animations
Animations, such as text that slides in from the side of the screen, are supposed to add pizzazz to a presentation. In truth, they are more likely to come off as distracting and irritating.

Use only one transition and background
Powerpoint gives numerous choices for transitioning from one slide to the next, including wipes, scrolls, flips and fades. Pick one. In my opinion, the fade is the most tasteful. Varying your transitions and backgrounds can be distracting.

Credit all image sources and references
This one, typically my last slide, is fairly obvious. If you’re using someone else’s artwork or photos, give appropriate credit or avoid the need by making your own. References are important if you’re quoting someone else’s research or numbers.

With my current work (ensuring compliance with tree protection bylaws), I haven’t yet had to do much in the way of a group presentation, but one part of the job is explaining the stipulations of the local tree bylaws to people. Then they often ask “why,” so now I’m helping people understand the arboricultural reasons for a given stipulation. Similarly, when I’m being an independent consulting arborist, clients often want to understand my reasons for a particular tree care recommendation. I continually rely on my past experience in interpretation to be the most effective communicator I can be.

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