How to Cure “Message Masquerade”

Translating Info for the Eye into Meaning for the Ear

In our previous blogs we talked about “Message Masquerade,” which occurs when facts, data and other information is written for the eye, not the ear.

Recently one of my clients was handed a two-page, single-spaced bulleted list of data points, and was told to learn his “messages” for an upcoming communications opportunity. He was distraught and I couldn’t blame him. 

We worked to create compelling words he could actually say, by pulling out the essence, the meaning of the information. We edited the document down to one page by grouping the facts and data under headlines and deleting facts that didn’t specifically support the headlines.

“Headlining” is simply giving your conclusion first – basically, the old “tell them what you are going to tell them.” And grouping facts under headlines helps the speaker remember them, as does having fewer facts to remember.

We also made the language less complex, the sentences shorter and the words simpler, more conversational, like people normally talk.  

Once we made these changes, my client was able to practice the messages, learn them and deliver them with ease. He was relieved, his audience was impressed – and so was his boss.  

Translating messages for the ear no only helps the speaker, but it's also a blessing to the audience as well. This approach is based on the science of how people listen, learn, and remember information.

Here are a few more of the neuroscience-based techniques we use:

  • "Chunking" information - presenting it in bite-sized pieces – has been shown to help the human brain more easily absorb spoken information, aiding comprehension and recall.

  • Using examples, analogies or simple stories with specific, visual details is useful in both written and verbal communication. These elements help people connect emotionally with the information, which increases understanding.

  • Repeating information in different, creative ways aids recall as well.

  • And finally, context – putting meaning before details, the "why" before the "what" – helps audiences more readily absorb – and recall – complicated information.

Headlining is one example of employing context; another is framing a conversation with a simple "elevator speech" before diving into the data.

Note that readers commonly provide this context for themselves by scanning the summary or abstract before the article, but listeners don't have that luxury.

"Normally if we don't know the gist, or meaning of information, we are unlikely to pay attention to its details, " wrote John Medina, author of Brain Rules, one of the best books around on brain science for the layman. "The brain selects meaning-laden information for further processing and leaves the rest alone."

The good news is that your current messages may be great, just not finished. They may need to be translated for the ear. So here are some tips to do that.

Listen to normal conversation, to its patterns and rhythm. Note the shorter, less complex words and sentences. 

Review your messages. Can facts be grouped under headlines? Can sentences be broken into shorter ones? What are the "bottom line" points you need to communicate?

Think about talking to a friend or colleague. How would you explain the situation, issue, or product to them?

Say it out loud. Record yourself and listen to the recording. When you sound natural and conversational, type them up.

Test the messages with colleagues. Are we still compliant with necessary rules and regulations? Do they find the messages convincing?

Edit, edit, edit until you get the messages ready for prime time.

It will take some work, but if you care about your audience really hearing you and being motivated to take the action you want – then you need to take the time to translate your written messages into ones for the ear.

As Dartmouth Professor James Winans, considered the father of modern public speaking, famously said, "A speech is not just an essay standing on its hind legs."

And spoken messages aren't just bullet points put to music. Writing them for deliverability – and listenability – is an art, backed by the science of how people listen, learn, and remember.

Penny Daniels is a communications consultant, content developer and coach and a co-founder of 3D Communications and its subsidiary, 3D Executive Communications, which helps companies, teams and executives prepare for high-stakes meetings, media interviews and other verbal communications opportunities. She is a former television news anchor and reporter in New York, Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C.

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Penny Daniels

For nearly two decades, Penny has coached executives in complex industries like healthcare, technology, and defense to communicate as leaders in urgent, high-pressure environments.

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