Magazine article Communication World

An Interview with a Consummate Word Meister

Magazine article Communication World

An Interview with a Consummate Word Meister

Article excerpt

Charles Cleveland, Ph.D., president of Communication Development Company (CDC), Des Moines, Iowa, which specializes in analysis of everyday language to help clients develop communication behaviors that are comfortable to their employees or result in increased customer satisfaction. CDC works in 19 languages worldwide and uses the study of signs and symbols and nonverbal communication in situations that satisfy - and situations that don't satisfy - a constituency.

GG: Please explain what your company does - and the process you have developed for measuring language patterns to determine their effect on the communication process.

CLEVELAND: Overall, this company does three things. It determines what is meaningful to people, what is motivating, and how people think things through to make a decision to engage in one behavior versus another. To determine what is meaningful, we have developed a set of processes and developed knowledge in a field called semiotics, the study of how people use language.

Semiotics is different from linguistics in that linguistics is primarily the study of how language is properly formed, how you properly form a sentence.

When you study how people talk, as opposed even to how they write, you begin to realize that language is not quite according to the book.

GG: Could you give an example of how you analyze language?

CLEVELAND: Take a lawyer standing in front of a jury who says, "I represent the XYZ Corporation and we began marketing that product to the public in 1964." Now he might be pretty sure what he meant to communicate, but just to make sure, let's say he looked every one of those words up in an English dictionary that says a corporation is a legal entity having a set of goals and purpose and a group of people to move it toward its goals and purpose.

Given that definition, I would argue that he used the word "corporation" just the way he should have. However, the question is: What counts? What he thought he said? What the dictionary said he said? What a jury took him to mean?

I think we would all agree that what the jury takes as the meaning is the meaning that counts.

When we looked at the word "corporation," the word the lawyer had used, in this context, we found that a corporation was perceived as a large, unfeeling, cold, inhuman, uncaring entity.

And we found that the perception of the word "marketing," was "to position or to manipulate."

So in essence, what the jury heard was, "I represent a large, unfeeling, cold, inhuman, uncaring entity that began manipulating the public in 1964."

GG: Now that we understand that words affect perception, how can one use language to actually affect a desired response, or even behavior - the way a person thinks?

CLEVELAND: The first thing we wanted to do was deal with meaning - because an audience will be receiving meaning.

When a person talks, he or she indicates certain subjects, verbs and direct objects. By analyzing these, you can actually measure the level of motivation.

Third, we can look at the decision-making process. If I say to you, "If it rains, I'll take an umbrella," I have told you what my decision-making criteria or decision-making processes are.

And, in fact, one of the key words is the word "if." If I do computer retrieval of text, and I go after all the "ifs," I can begin to see how a person makes a decision, and I can get at the decision-making processes.

We have a series of computer tools that we use to organize what people talk about; we can then determine the meaning, the motivation and the way in which those people make decisions.

Now, let's go to a work-place example that involves downsizing and layoffs and delivering the bad news.

For instance, you have just been given the assignment to tell some 250 people that their next of kin was on TWA Flight 800 - not exactly an enjoyable task. So how do you do it? …

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