A few years ago, I participated in an event that brought together business leaders from across the Midwest with military leaders from the Kansas City area. The topic of discussion was, well… leadership. Surprisingly enough, leadership everywhere tends to share the same challenges and opportunities, risks and rewards. So, when one of the colonels in attendance stood to take his turn at the lectern, I wasn’t too concerned.

The audience was what would normally consider “friendly.” Some of them had military experience, and some of them worked closely with the military. But, generally speaking, for most in attendance, this was their first time engaging with the uniformed services. The colonel’s comments started innocuously enough, then he turned a corner and started speaking about the virtues of mission command. Eventually, one business leader interrupted and asked him to explain the meaning of mission command. The unnecessary complexity of the resulting explanation just further confused the audience. When he finally stopped talking, the collective sigh from the audience spoke volumes. Somewhere between the acronyms and the military jargon, he’d completely lost the audience.

This isn’t an unusual phenomenon, and it’s certainly not something unique to the military. I wish all the attorneys in the world spoke as clearly as they do in John Grisham novels, but they don’t. I avoid conversations about medicine with my sister – who is a remarkable physician – because I end up needing a medical dictionary to decipher what she’s saying. Even the guy in our mail room has his own language (it’s usually focused on the finer points of copy machine operation). But, for some reason, most people seem to focus on the uniformed services when complaining about challenges in communicating. The solution? You don’t need a Universal Translator, just a little common sense.   

  1. Know your audience. No two audiences are the same. Don’t be guilty of delivering the same bland message to every audience you engage. Each audience has its own unique characteristics, its own peculiarities. Engaging an audience without taking the time to understand it is a lot like throwing Jell-O against a wall and watching to see if it sticks.
  2. Make a connection. Whenever I speak, I always open with a technique that draws a connection with the audience. I might share an earlier conversation I had with an audience member or maybe talk about some personal connection I have with the group itself. This is especially important when you’re speaking to an audience where the connections are even more tenuous. An audience that connects with you is far more likely to listen to you.
  3. Be direct. Whether you use the Three Bs (be brief, be brilliant, be gone) or the Three Ms of Messaging (be memorable, meaningful, and miniature), the intent is the same: be direct and concise. If you really want to leave an impression with your audience, package your message tightly in way that makes it memorable.
  4. Use the Rule of Threes. In the same vein, research shows that communicating three key points remains the most effective way to ensure your audience tunes into your message. That’s even more important when you’re engaging with a non-military audience that may have a hard enough time grasping your message. Distill your message into three key points and drive them home. Your audience will thank you. 
  5. Tell a story. A good story helps you to be more relatable to your audience. On the plus side, the Profession of Arms tends to produce more than its fair share of stories. However, not all of those stories are suitable for a non-military audience. I learned a valuable lesson in humility the day my pistol slipped out of my holster and sank to the bottom of a barrel full of human waste. That story – as funny as it is to share over a beer with buddies – is not that relatable to a civilian audience. A well-chosen story that tightens your connection to the audience will make you more relatable. The wrong story might just do the opposite.  
  6. Keep it simple (stupid). Whenever you speak to an audience outside your professional “tribe”, keep your message simple. That doesn’t mean slow and loud; it means clear and basic. Recognize that your audience might not share the same technical taxonomy and use common language. The people of the Rotary Club will thank you, even after you explain the exciting opportunities presented by Multi-Domain Operations. 
  7. Avoid the acronym soup. This is the most common trap we fall into when engaging a non-military audience. So much so that it’s achieved urban myth status. We have acronyms for our acronyms. What’s worse, we even do it to ourselves. Spend more than five minutes in any G-6 office and your eyes will roll into the back of your head. Don’t do that to your audience. For their sake as much as your own.
  8. Bypass the mil-speak. If there were seven deadly sins for communicating to a non-military audience, mil-speak would fall in right behind acronym soup. Every profession has its own jargon, and ours is no different. If you’re telling a story, it’s easy to stumble down this path. Don’t. Spare your audience the pain of trying to differentiate a fobbit from a geardo, or a woobie from a blanket party. Stick to commonly understood language and terms. 
  9. Use a metaphor. There are time when you’re going to hit the brick wall no matter how much you prepare. You’re sharing an anecdote and realize that your audience might not understand or connect with your story. Metaphors and analogies are the glue that binds us with our audience. So, while a civilian audience might not understand the importance of a jumpmaster personnel inspection, most have a good idea of what happens when you leave for vacation without making sure your Aunt Edna is properly secured to the roof of your car. 
  10. Be memorable (for the right reasons). 30 years ago, I stood in a formation on a parade field during a division change of command while a four-star general shared a pointless Vietnam war story that lasted for over an hour. To this day, I remember that speech like it was yesterday. It was summer. We were in the South. And it was miserable. People dropped like flies. Mosquitoes were everywhere. But it was memorable. For all the wrong reasons. Whatever you do, leave a lasting, positive impression on your audience. Let them remember you for the right reasons.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.