As a teacher, I was always determined to make it clear that I always mean what I say. For example, if I set a deadline for homework and someone didn’t hand it in, I wouldn’t mark it. You only need to do that once for the message to get home.
I have also tried my best to say what I mean, and I think on the whole I succeed. But it really is astonishing how sometimes a statement gets completely misunderstood or misquoted.
For example, when I was working for an official body called The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, I once said in a talk I gave:
“Well, my own opinion on this matter is X, but that’s not the official QCA view because the QCA doesn’t have a view. That’s just my personal opinion.”
That was a mistake which I didn’t repeat in subsequent presentations. I know it was a istake because one of the questions afterwards was:
“If the QCA thinks we should do X…”.
I interrupted, something I almost never do:
“No, the QCA doesn’t say you should do X. I said in my personal opinion X would be a good idea, but that was me speaking as Terry Freedman, not as the QCA.”
In another presentation, I explained that because of the way cryptic crossword compilers interpret everything quite literally, and take liberties with the language too, the answer to the clue Farm Butter (4) would be goat (that is, something that butts on a farm). At the end of the presentation someone in the audience said:
“You’ve explained how the clue ‘Farm Butter’ works, but you didn’t tell us the answer.”
I had an experience recently in which a member of the audience took umbrage at something I hadn’t said. As part of my talk I said:
“Now, you might think from this that the research is therefore not the worth the paper it has been written on, but that would be an incorrect conclusion because…”
Afterwards, someone from the organisation expressed dismay that I’d said their research wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Oh well.
I’m not sure what the answer is. I console myself with the thought that I must make myself reasonably clear on the whole, because I cannot think of any more examples of this happening. Nevertheless, I think there are a few useful lessons to be learnt from such experiences:
If you’re representing an organisation, don’t give your own views, even if (or especially if) you disagree with the official line. Apart from the fact that your view could be mistaken for the official one, it’s worth bearing in mind that the people who invited you to speak were not inviting you, but a representative of the organisation you work for.
With regard to the crossword example, I suppose the best preventative measure is to adopt the approach encapsulated in the following traditional definition of teaching:
First I tells them what I’m gonna tell them.
Then I tells them.
Then I tells them what I’ve told them.
As for the last example I cited, I suppose I should have produced a slide listing all the reasons the research was valid.
Still, at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to prevent your comments being misconstrued, especially when people are overworked, tired and stressed. All we can do as trainers and presenters is to do our utmost to be as clear and precise as possible.