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Lost in translation



At some point in our career, we’ve all received a brief that’s vague at best and incomprehensible at worst. Often full of jargon, not thought through, completely unrealistic, or a mixture of all three – a poor brief is the bane of an internal communicator’s life. 

So how do we diplomatically wade through the nonsense to get to the heart of what’s required (or isn’t required as is often the case!)? 

Here are our top tips…

Repeat it back

When someone is explaining something complex, a great skill to hone is the ability to repeat it back to them in a simpler, shorter way to check you have understood it correctly. 

You don’t have to do it there in the moment - take the brief, mull it over and then go back to the person later face-to-face or in email. There’s often an expectation you need to have the answers on the spot and you don’t – it’s perfectly ok to go away and think before coming to any conclusions. 

And if it turns out you haven’t understood the brief correctly, ask them to explain it again in layman’s terms – remind them that everyone from the CEO down to the intern should be able to understand it, so if you don’t, chances are others won’t either. 

Challenge ambiguity

If someone struggles to articulate something simply and clearly without using business jargon, they probably don’t understand it fully themselves, or it isn’t particularly thought through. Don’t be afraid to diplomatically call them out on it – it’s an opportunity to help them refine their messaging or come to the realisation that it’s not something that needs communicating at all. Act as a true trusted adviser – it’s where we add the most value. 

Take a walk in their shoes

It can be hard to admit that you can’t articulate something properly, especially if it’s your boss’ idea, you don’t quite get it and they’ve given you a hard deadline to get it done. Remember that everyone is under different pressures and have different relationships with their managers and don’t always feel comfortable pushing back. It’s much easier to push the problem on to you.

It's also worth remembering that people often use jargon to make the language they’re using exclusive or inaccessible. It’s often not conscious, but more from a sense of pride in what they do and an insecurity that if others understand their role intricately, it may place less importance on them or even do them out of a job in the long-term. 

Understanding why someone is briefing you poorly can help you to be sensitive to their needs and insecurities, advise them on how to elicit further information from the powers that be and provide them with examples that demonstrate the benefits of being open and sharing learnings and successes. 

Make it easy for them

Are there tools and templates available to help people think through their ideas and consider what you might need to know?

Have you communicated what a good brief looks like? 

David Wraith recently blogged about the weird science of communication and he made the great point that the more you know something the less we are able to imagine what it’s like to not know it. 

It’s a trap internal communicators can easily fall in to – we do this day in and day out and can reel off all the things we need to know before starting any kind of communication. But the majority of people in an organisation will have no idea. So maybe the first step in receiving a good brief is setting out what one looks like in the first place. 

Ask the right questions

When receiving a verbal brief there are some key questions you can ask to ensure you get the key bits of information you need: Why are you communicating this? Why should people care? What do you want them to think/feel/do as a result? How does it relate to the business strategy? What are you trying to achieve? What does success look like? How will you measure that? 

Visual communications can be really hard to articulate so when it comes to creative briefs ask them to give you examples of things they do and don’t like to give you a steer.

The burden of success is not on you

Even if you point out that a brief doesn’t make sense or isn’t thorough enough, sometimes you will be ignored. There is often an assumption that because you are responsible for communicating something, that its success hinges solely on you. Not only is that unfair, but it’s unrealistic. 

There’s only so much you can do with a bad brief – as long as you’ve put across your concerns clearly and spelled out the risks of doing it this way your integrity can stay intact. With more and more organisations using collaboration platforms you can’t stop people communicating badly if they are determined to – all you can do is advise.


Being good at translating what people really mean takes practise – over time you’ll start to spot the tell-tale signs that someone isn’t going to brief you fully and you’ll know how to manage it. It’s also about confidence. Confidence to challenge peers and leaders, knowing that while it may not be an easy conversation, it will yield far more valuable results. 

Ultimately, communication is as much listening and understanding as it is conveying, so the art of translation is a skill all internal comms pros should ensure they’ve added to their ever expanding comms tool belt.


By Helen Deverell for Alive!


Wednesday, June 14, 2017


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