Consider this page to be perpetually incomplete. Perhaps there is just an outline here waiting to be fleshed out. There’s always more to add, but it was lasted updated on: [8/11/2020]

For my purposes here, “communication” means saying something with the intention of conveying something.

To convey something successfully and have your audience understand it requires that you understand your audience, and how they will interpret your words (all of this and more was said long ago).

For example, if you want to explain what your political views are and you say “I’m a capitalist”, or “I’m a socialist”, or “I’m a neoliberal”, or whatever, you are almost guaranteed to be misunderstood. Why? Because most people will not have the same definition of those words in their head as you do when you say them, if they have any definition at all. You will not be communicating what you want.

Successful communication is only possible when you and your audience share a common vocabulary (a middle of a Venn Diagram). You can create this with definitions if you need to, and often you need to.

In communication, the more abstract a concept, the harder it is to communicate. Why? Because more abstract concepts require more background knowledge to grasp. Explaining arithmetic is easier than explaining calculus. Without getting really into the weeds, this idea can be fully illustrated by watching any video in the Wired series “5 levels.”

In this series, an expert explains a concept in their field at five separate levels of abstraction/complexity.

Wired has a whole series of videos where they demonstrate the idea that communication requires understanding what your audience knows.

Big Labels

This leads me to what I call the Big Label problem. A “Big Label” is a highly abstract concept (like “capitalism” or “Christianity”) that requires a lot of background knowledge or much definition to understand in a useful way. It would probably be in level 3+ in any of the Wired videos.

People use Big Labels all the time to describe themselves and others. Most people are probably familiar with this in the case of politics, with words like “capitalist,” and “socialist.”

The problem, though, is that most people don’t possess a 3+ level understanding of the Big Labels they use, and many listeners don’t take the time to confirm what a speaker means if a Big Label comes up. They just use whatever definition is in their head.

If you use a Big Label, you are at high risk of being misunderstood. You should take care to explicitly define what you mean for the sake of a conversation, at the highest level possible given your audience. Sometimes you and your audience share a lot of common knowledge, so you can discuss things at level 3+. But sometimes you don’t, so you need to start lower.

Similarly, if you are speaking with someone and they use a Big Label, you must take care to understand what they really mean. It might not be the same thing that you think. Ask for a definition if you need. This isn’t to be pedantic, and there are better and worse ways of doing this rhetorically.

In the video below, the physicist Richard Feynman demonstrates how explaining what you mean is not as easy as one would think, and how your audience and your own level of sophistication radically alter the success of communication.

The physicist Richard Feynman explains how to explain. It is utterly delightful.

See also: the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept and Context Dropping.