I was in Canberra yesterday, and when I arrived back at Sydney airport in the evening, I went down to the station to catch the train to the city. A woman with a red suitcase, after puzzling at the monitor, sat down next to me on the bench on the platform.
“Am I in the right place to get to Central Station?” she asked.
“Yes you are,” I said, “and any train from this platform will take you there.”
“Any train. OK, good."
After a pause I added, “Are you just visiting Sydney?”
“Yes, I’m here for a two-day course. And this is a big trip for me. I’m from North Queensland. I’ve never done anything like this. I took the train in Brisbane once, but that's it.”
Just then a train going in the other direction stopped at the opposite platform. “Oh, it has two levels,” she said. “Do they all have two levels? I hope our train is closer than that because I can’t jump that far. Are you going to Central? I’m supposed to get off at Central Station and go to Platform 18 to get to Parramatta.”
I told her that I was going on to Wynyard, but that Central was the third stop and I would let her know when to get off. I explained that to get to Platform 18 she would need to follow the crowd down some stairs, look for the sign for Platform 18, and then go up some stairs to the platform for her train to Parramatta. She repeated everything I said, in order to fix it in her memory.
We’d been sitting on the platform for seven minutes, and our train arrived on schedule. “This is it,” I said.
“Wow, that was quick! You don’t get any time to just chill out, do you?”
Once we were on the train, I explained again what she would need to do at Central, and she repeated it again.
“I’m Patricia,” I said.
“Welcome to Sydney, Debbie.”
I gave careful, detailed instructions because I remember exactly what it was like to be bewildered by how to get around in a big city.
I grew up in a small American town north of Pittsburgh, population 8,000. There wasn’t any public transportation in Grove City, except for the big yellow school bus that used to pick me up at the end of my driveway and drop me off at the school entrance, and that wasn’t very complicated to use.
When I was 20, I went to London on my first overseas trip with my brother, Thom, who was 25. I had never left home before at all, except on family vacations to the beach. I thought Thom very worldly because he had gone to university in Atlanta, but even so neither of us had any experience with public transportation.
It took us an entire day in London to figure out how to use the Tube to get where we wanted to go. We kept getting on the wrong train and winding up somewhere we didn’t want to be. We must have looked ridiculous to the London commuters. A few days later when we hired a car and headed North, roundabouts presented a new challenge. We’d never seen one before and didn’t know what to do. We went around the first one a couple of times before we figured it out.
So I could empathise with Debbie's sense of wonder and with her anxiety about something she wasn't familiar with.
When we try to communicate at work, we often forget that although we’re natives to the language and processes we use, other people may have no idea what were talking about because they don’t have the same experience with it. We rattle off terms and acronyms as if they mean something, when they don’t. Every organisation, and every functional area within that organisation, has language of its own. So does every area of interest or expertise, such as project management or data science.
The best communicators are able to put themselves in the place of someone who has never been there. Richard Saul Wurman, information architect and author of Information Anxiety, says, “The only way to communicate is to understand what it’s like not to understand.”
The next time you’re giving information to someone about your project, your department, your organisation, or your subject area, try to put yourself in the place of Debbie from Far North Queensland who’s never been to Sydney or used the train system.