Matter Chatter

How do you say that in Ayapaneco?

I read an article a few weeks ago that gave an account of the last two living speakers of Ayapaneco who won’t speak to each other. Because of their refusal, when they die, their language will too. As a proud four-year student of the most famous of dead languages (Latin) the story caught my eye and took hold in my mind.

The death of a language is fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing (I happen to be – can you imagine that there are 6000 languages currently spoken in the world, and that 3000 will die out in the next century?), but beyond that, the story made me think about human communication in general. When it works, why does it? Is it something we can control by saying something a different way?

Since communication is the cornerstone of public relations (and of human interaction, but let’s not go all Philosophy 101 here), you can understand my interest.

In public relations, it’s our job to communicate our clients’ stories to any number of key audiences; bloggers, traditional media, analysts, customers. Sometimes our attempt to engage the right audience works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’d argue that 100% of the time, when it works, it’s because we’ve made sure we understand the person we’re talking with– who they write for, what they tend to use in their stories, whether they prefer to hear about speeds and feeds, or business benefits – before we try to tell them a story. So our job isn’t done when we’ve worked with our clients to find their most compelling story. We have to uncover the story, but also find the places where the story intersects with the interests of the people with whom we share it.

That challenge isn’t restricted to PR. It exists in the simplest of interactions…the sort I see at my other job, where the people I work with are just learning the intricacies of human communications.

My beautiful littlest boy, Will, is four, and communicates clearly, with an emperor’s attitude that has earned him the nickname “Napoleon” in our house. His older siblings are not always interested in his imperious requests for their participation in the game of his choice. Undaunted by their apathy, Will perseveres in his requests without changing his script, until – rejected repeatedly – he reaches a point of extreme frustration and bursts into angry tears accompanied by some variation of the bellowed complaint that “THOSE MEANIES AREN’T LISTENING TO ME!” Lately though, Will is learning that if he asks first to play a game the older children like to play, he’s more likely to persuade them to play his game afterwards.

The lesson Will is learning, and that I re-learn every day, is that everybody has their own language, their own history, their own motivations, and their own reasons for opening up to communication, to a request, to a story. Part of our challenge as PR professionals is trying to understand what language the other person speaks, and then communicating in it, shaping our clients’ stories into the place where interest and key messages can intersect.

Language matters. But the core of communications is the honest attempt to understand and then to speak. And that’s true whether you want your big brother and sister to play tag with you, or you’re aiming for a great story in the Wall Street Journal, or looking to hit a new fan/follower high on Facebook or Twitter.