One of the main challenges of being on staff at camp is the degree to which you suddenly have to communicate with so many people. Because you have decided to accept the awesome responsibility for the fun and safety of other people’s children, you are going to find yourself needing to communicate in more detail, more often, and with a greater number of people than perhaps any other job or experience you have had in your life thus far. Being a frontline staff member means communicating not only with your campers individually and in groups, but also with your co-counselors, specialists, unit director, or head counselor — and possibly even with parents. At times, the communication will be simple, like letting your co-counselors know where you will be during rest hour or filling them in on what happened in your cabin or group while they were away. At other times, it will be more complex, like fi guring out a problem with campers struggling to get along or determining just how you and your co-counselors are going to create fun and excitement on a rainy day when you are short staffed. Whatever the communication, the safety and wellbeing of campers can hang in the balance.
So given this critical need to be in touch with so many people, I thought it might be truly helpful to pass along four simple words that I learned from a famous presidential speechwriter that have helped me improve my own communication with others. Before I tell you about those four words, allow me to give you some background.
I live in Boston, and one of the great advantages of this is having the resources of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library about twenty minutes from my house. The library has an ongoing series of visiting speakers who come to talk about both current and historical events. One frequent guest speaker to the library until his death in the fall of 2010 was Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy’s speechwriter. The famous and oft quoted line from Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!” was only one of many lines Mr. Sorenson wrote for President Kennedy.
At the end of a lecture given at the library by Mr. Sorenson just two months before his death, an audience member asked him what he thought the hallmarks of a good speech were. Without hesitating Mr. Sorenson replied that he thought there were four considerations to writing a good speech. The first, he said, was charity. “Be charitable to your audience!” was his advice. He explained that when a speaker acknowledges the contributions, strengths, or positive qualities of the audience, he is not only establishing a rapport and trust with that audience, but is also getting them to listen more intently by complimenting them on the good works they might be doing in their field or in the world at large.
The second consideration, he continued, was clarity. Say what you want to say in simple, accessible, and clear terms. He said the best speeches were those where the messages were clear and directly stated. Being clear with your audience assures that they will walk out of the address with a few well-articulated ideas they can hold onto. The clearer the message, the more likely its chances of being put into practice. As Mr. Sorenson pointed out, a good speech can be entertaining, but to be truly great — to have impact — it has to be memorable. Making your points in a lucid, easily understood manner is one way to produce that effect.
The third quality of a great speech, he contended, was brevity. Audiences, like people in general, he said, appreciate it when you respect their time. Once you have made your points, honor your audience by ending your talk. Doing so allows them to absorb and integrate what it is they have just heard. If you continue to talk, your audience will be forced to listen rather than digest what you have said, making it less likely that they will integrate it into their thinking. Taking up too much time also creates resentment in your audience, which might undo any good your speech might otherwise have accomplished. As the story goes, a reporter remarked to Lincoln about how brief his address at Gettysburg had been, and he replied, “Had I more time I would have made it even shorter!” All good speakers and speechwriters, Mr. Sorenson asserted, know that it is much harder to say something in concise terms than it is to go on and on. His advice was: “Don’t wear out your audience! Doing so reduces your impact.”
The final characteristic of a great speech is levity. Expressing something with humor is like eating sugar to help the medicine go down. People respond to humor not only because it is stimulating and entertaining, but because it also aids in the consideration of serious issues. A lighthearted approach delivered with skill allows us to keep issues of gravity in better perspective.
When I heard Mr. Sorenson say these things, which he undoubtedly did with greater clarity, brevity, and levity than I have in rendering them here, I immediately thought, “These are also the characteristics of great communication with children! I just never put it in such clear terms: charity, clarity, brevity, levity.” I will explain.
When I speak with a child, especially when I want to get them to listen with greater intent, I start with charity. That is, I validate them. I talk about or point out a strength or a positive intention of theirs or frame things in such a way as to understand why they may have been tempted by something or drawn to something, even though that “something” may have just gotten them into trouble! Being “charitable” with a child communicates my positive intention: that I am not here to shame or judge them but to understand them and help them change their behavior. It is a way of establishing safety and trust in the relationship. Without a positive or charitable approach, children are less likely to open up to you. For whatever else we might say about parents today, most parents do a pretty good job of being charitable with their children.
Being charitable is not the same thing as being permissive, however. I am still going to hold a child accountable for what they may have done or make my point about what is appropriate or expected behavior directly, but that is where clarity comes in.
When it comes to clarity, children actually appreciate it when we get right to the point! Saying things clearly to a child also means using language they can easily grasp. Saying things in “adult-speak” (that is, using words that are more complicated than they need to be or language that is vague and rambling) only makes a child feel confused, shamed, or inadequate. It also risks that they never actually truly comprehend what it is you are trying to get across to them. If we use language that makes us feel good but never actually gets the point across, then what have we accomplished? Clarity also requires that we take a clear stand on an issue and place a demand or limit on a child. While some parents today may be good at the “charity” piece, they are not always as good about being firm and clear with their children.
Then there is brevity. Can you remember a time when you had done something wrong as a child and an adult went on and on in their lecture to you, even though you got the “message” after the first two minutes? I think everyone has a story like that. There are three key points to be made about being brief in our communication with children today, as follows:
Once children “get” what we are trying to say, if we continue to talk, we are actually impeding or interrupting them from assimilating the insight or line of reasoning we have just shared with them. The human brain cannot consciously attend to more than one thing at a time. By making children listen to us go on and on, we are preventing them from mulling over or internalizing what we have just said. It’s one or the other — they can’t do both at the same time!
Once we have made our point plain, belaboring our message may make us feel better, but it then becomes a way of humiliating and belittling the child. Creating such feelings in a child may do a great job of making them feel resentful (and in turn, less compliant), but it probably actually works against any hope of them actually taking in what we are saying. We have to make a decision: Is our intention to make a child feel bad or change their behavior?
Because of the popularity of texting, instant messaging, Twitter, e-mail, and other virtual and instantaneous forms of communication, children are used to picking up critical information in very short bits. They may actually be better at teasing out the essential part of what we are saying than we are in saying it! “Brief” is the hallmark of modern communication!
Being brief does not mean we can’t be thorough. It simply means getting to the point quickly and then ending for maximum impact.
Levity, or the ability to keep things light, is a quality that I use in varying degrees depending on the situation. Obviously, if I am speaking with a child about a very serious incident, I am sober in my tone of voice so as to match the gravity of the situation. Overall, however, my intention is to change behavior. Keeping things “light” can mean more than just being humorous. It means being positive, optimistic, or upbeat about a child’s ability to change. “I know you can do this!” is an example of levity. Recent brain research tells us that when we are positive with children, we are more likely to get a positive response from them in return. If our intention is to motivate children to change for the better, then being positive with them about their ability to change is critical.
I have found that these four “guide posts” of communication can be used to varying degrees with most people I communicate with — not just children. Obviously, when speaking with your co-counselors or specialty staff, the more respectful and “charitable” you are about their jobs or talent or abilities, the better they will regard you and what you have to say.
Though there are certainly other aspects of clear, quality communication, I have found that keeping these four simple words in mind when I communicate with others has improved understanding and created stronger agreement and collaboration. Use liberally and have a great summer!
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.
Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.