The Car Buying Theory of Communication

A decent sized part of my job most weeks involves writing. I’m often teaching writing, editing writing, or helping others develop strategies for communication that involves writing. A common question from most people, whether spoken or implied, is, will my argument succeed?

People hope to be correct. They hope to convince everyone with whom they communicate. And of course this never fully happens. Of course our arguments fail, at least a little, when they meet real ears, real minds, real hearts. A word is out of place, or worse, offends. A phrase is overly complicated and leaves a jumbled mess in the listener’s mind. Sound and meaning clash. On the diamond of language, there are so many ways to swing and miss. (For example, that last sentence. Its wrongness began when I didn’t specify that I was talking about a baseball diamond. As a reader, your mind likely went one way — perhaps toward marriage or at least toward jewels — until the image of swinging and missing jerked you back, like a curmudgeonly dog owner, toward my intended meaning.)

I call this process — of failure — the car buying theory of communication. The second you drive a new car off the lot, it loses value. The second you press send on an email, the second you begin speaking at a microphone, the second you publish a book, your intended communication begins to degrade.

But you’ve read Refreshing Wednesday before (all six of you), so you know there’s a silver lining, an invitation, call it a silver invitation because it’s Friday and the sun’s out. At the point of failure, at the point of the degradation of your communication, your opportunity as a communicator begins.

Talk and you’re going to learn about what people don’t understand. Write and you’re going to learn about what people fear. Propose and you’re going to learn about what people would prefer to ignore or the ways they are absolute geniuses at avoiding change or discomfort. Speak and you’re going to learn about people, in general, and your audience, in particular. Communicate and, best of all, you’re going to set the stage for something more important than your own outbound marketing, your own pushed notification, your own needs, your own knowledge. You’re going to set the stage for listening and learning.

The car loses value once you drive it from the lot, sure, but you get to drive it. You get to experience what it feels like to have actual wind in your actual hair. To move with someone from point A to point B to point C. These are good things, deeply human things.

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