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The Secret to Getting Your Mother to Understand Every [Bleeping] Thing You’re Saying

Former senior justice department leader and federal prosecutor, Elliot Williams, shares the secret to public speaking: making sure your mom can understand you.

Former senior justice department leader and federal prosecutor, Elliot Williams, shares the secret to public speaking: making sure your mom can understand you.

When I worked as a young lawyer in the U.S. Senate, a colleague of mine told me a story about a just brutal expletive-laden tongue-lashing he had gotten from his boss on his first day on the job (Senators can sometimes be less, er, charming in private than they are when out on the hustings.)

It was over a speech my friend had written for the Senator, who thought the text was confusing, full of government-speak, and wasn’t accessible. “This makes no ^%$?!@ sense. WOULD YOUR MOTHER ?!@*&%^ UNDERSTAND THIS?!?” the Senator shouted, waving the memo.

[You know, when you think about it, there really is no good way to answer that question.]

Then the Senator said to my friend something that has stuck with me to this day: “when you write for me, you are allowed to use one %$#@!*& acronym: F…B…I,” punctuating the three letters deliberately.

The Senator was really onto something. Not because of anything special about the FBI, but because of an important fact about virtually every audience in America: the professional world is full of jargon, and most audiences don’t understand it. 

Pop quiz! What do the following terms mean: EBITDA, OSHA, NSAID? Those three, “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation,” “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” and “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug,” are all everyday, basic terms to people who work in finance, government, or medicine, respectively, but may be confusing—or even alienating—to others who don’t.

This issue comes up daily for me when explaining legal issues to television viewers. By way of example, in ways both seen and unseen, we’re all protected every day by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. What’s easier to understand: the words “the Takings Clause,” or “the rule that says the government can’t bulldoze your backyard and run a highway through it without paying you?” Both say, in effect, the same thing.

An audience can be anyone you’re communicating with: friends or loved ones, peers, or professional colleagues. Before opening your mouth—whether in a casual conversation, or formal prepared remarks before an audience you don’t know, it’s always worth stopping first and thinking about whether your audience really will understand every word you’re saying. You’d be surprised; more often than not, they don’t.

Is there an explanatory word, phrase, or clause, you can use to help make what you’re saying make more sense? Are there acronyms that could be spelled out? Are there phrases you could frame a little differently?

Keeping all of those questions in mind will be the one way to ensure that your mother knows what the #$%&@? you’re saying. You’d make the Senator proud.

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