He was a small man with thick glasses. He walked with a cane taking tiny steps down the aisle of the classroom. The intro we had been provided said he was a “professor emeritus,” code for an old faculty member they were tossing a bone to by giving him a class here and there. His suit bore that out as he could have put both legs in a single leg of his trousers and you could make a slip cover for a small chair out of his tie.
He finally shuffled his way to the front, pulled a thick sheaf of papers from his case, perched his wire frame glasses on his nose and began to read in a monotone voice. My brain shifted into neutral searching for something I could use to get me through this hour.
He peered at us over his glasses with bright eyes that we had failed to correctly assess until he was sure he had lost every one of us. Suddenly his cane slammed down on the desk in front of me and I was shocked to find him standing beside me. He got in my face and demanded I answer a question none of had heard. He continued to prowl the room, voice no longer meek and quiet but powerful and in no need of the microphone on the podium. He commanded the room.
He had shown us the worst, and now he began to show us the best.
It was the greatest course on communication I ever took. And in it was a nugget that continues to affect me to this day. “You have a little box full of index cards,” he said. (This was back in the 60’s) “In that box written on the cards is your family history, your faith, your education, your personal preferences, likes and dislikes. The sum total of your existence to this date is noted on those cards.”
The man who was no longer a professor emeritus but who had transformed into an Irish leprechaun continued. “What is important for you to know is that everyone you will meet has their own box of cards, only guess what? They don’t have the same things written on their cards. They have totally different experiences, education and background written on the ones they have. You will construct a message from the contents of your box, but they will TRANSLATE that message according to the cards in their own box. The key to successful communication is to use cards that will make the message and the translation as similar as possible.”
Fifty years ago and I maintain that the message I heard that day is still as applicable today as it was then, particularly for speakers . . . and writers. We have to know who our target audience is and what cards are likely to be in their box. How do we make our communication or our writing mesh as well as possible, considering what we have to work with?
What’s in our box?