Continuing the 31 day series on communication, today we will explore a process called the “S.T.E.P.” system. Dr. Jeff Myers, in his book, Secrets of Great Communicators, explains that he learned this method from Dr. Lee Polk, professor of speech at Baylor University.

S.T.E.P. is an acronym which stands for “State, Translate, Exemplify, Prove”.

Today we will consider the first and second steps. The first step is called “State”.  State means to simply state your issue or problem very clearly to the audience.

“Translate” simply means to transfer your understanding of the topic to your audience.  This is often through definitions- defining the key terms of your point.

This is a critical step in communication, and can be easily overlooked. Do not assume your audience understands the definition the same way you do.

Again, I can draw an analogy from Team Policy Debate.  A team that is arguing on the affirmative side of a topic is responsible for writing a case for a reform of some sort related to the debate topic for that year. For example, a couple of years ago, the debate resolution was this: “The United States should significantly reform its policies toward one or more countries in the Middle East.”

At face value and first glance, that resolution may seem straightforward. But upon further research, we find that there are varying definitions of what categorizes the Middle East. Some definitions include Afghanistan, for example, and others do not. Is any definition the “official” one? Are some definitions more credible than others? What defines a “country”? Is Palestine a “country”? Is “arming the Kurdish people” a reform toward a particular “country”, or to a particular people group? What if the Kurds are in Iraq and it could be shown that arming them could have a huge impact on defeating ISIS, which then has an impact in Iraq, an undisputed “country”? Does that fit with the resolution of reforming a policy toward a country in the Middle East?

Much would  depend on the definitions. That particular year, most teams did include a definition of the Middle East in their affirmative case. If they did not, and their case hinged on a definition, they could get stuck in a debate about definitions, rather than the specific policy they were proposing.

Another word that may seem innocuous at first is “toward”. What does “toward” mean? Does it mean directly related to? Directly affecting? Or leaning in that direction? In the example of arming the Kurds, for example, a team could argue the policy is reforming a policy “toward” a particular country in the Middle East, specifically Iraq, though it is directly giving aid to a people group, not to the country of Iraq itself.

Very often, too, the word “significantly” is also defined. Why? Don’t we all understand the meaning of “significantly”? Policies differ in their significance and our perceptions of their significance. Furthermore, there is quantitative significance, and qualitative significance. We can measure numbers, such as the economic costs and benefits of a particular policy, and that could translate into quantitative significance. But, we cannot measure in numbers the effects of reducing human rights abuses. Supposing the actual number of human rights abuse cases is relatively few, who will disagree with the idea that human rights abuses are deplorable and are significant, even if they occur to a small number of people in relation to a country at large?  These are the kinds of questions debate students must process and answer and be able to defend or attack.Because definitions are a main component of a policy case, some debaters will even carry a pocket dictionary in their debate boxes (or have a pre-written brief of key definitions).

To illustrate this point further, define the following terms:

  • The traditional family
  • The United States
  • Media
  • Republican Party

Is it abundantly clear what these terms mean? Is a traditional family one with both a male and female parent and two kids and a dog, or does it represent a family unit with traditional values? What is your definition? What does “traditional” mean?

What about defining the United States? Is it a geographical definition? A political one? Or a demographic one? You will need to decide. All could be correct, but which definition is the one you need to convey to your audience?

Does “media” refer to the traditional media that many who are above the age of 30 grew up with, such as newspapers, TV, radio? Or does it also include newer forms of media, such as the internet? Does it also include “social media”?

And, finally, as of today in October, 2016, what is the definition of the Republican Party? With the uniqueness of the presidential election this year, this is a term whose meaning has been discussed and debated in the “media”.

The point is that defining key terms and explaining them very clearly is an extremely important step. The definition “defines” the parameters of your message. If the terms are not spelled out clearly, or a communicator assumes the audience implicitly understands the definition, there could be an unfortunate misunderstanding at the end. Such a scenario can be avoided by providing clear definitions to key terms.

Socrates said,

“If you wish to debate with me, you must first define your terms.”

You may not be debating, but you may be explaining, narrating, or opining. In any case, defining your key terms is a critical second step in “transferring” or “translating” the idea of your message to your audience.

Tune in tomorrow for the next step: exemplify.

Question for you: How much do you think about definitions in your communication? 

*This is day 16 of a 31 day series on Communication Tips for Writers and Speakers, part of a 31 day writing challenge.