When it comes to written or spoken communication, there is an essential principle. It was something I learned from Mrs. Moroni.

Mrs. Moroni was my senior English teacher at J. J. Pearce High School in Richardson, TX. She taught English literature, not exactly the favorite topic of people with senioritis tapping their foot waiting for graduation.

Yet, there was a day in English Literature class that changed how I approached the next 40-plus years of my life.

One morning, as we sleepily filed into class, she told us to put everything away but one blank sheet of paper and a pen. You could feel in the inner groaning. A test, really?

Instead, she started giving instructions. She was going to put something on our desks. We could only smell the object. When we were given the signal, we had to describe what on our desk and fill that sheet of paper. The only thing we could not do was say what we thought it was. Only description.

She made her way around the room putting small paper pill cups with a cotton ball soaked in a pungent substance. Once everyone got their cup, the experience began.

We lifted it to our noses and started sniffing.

Then came the hard part–putting down on paper what it smelled like, not what it was,

In the end, I wrote a page about what I smelled. Then, she revealed what it was. A cotton ball soaked in beer.

She was teaching the principle that builds bridges to understanding.

Be specific!

When you talk or write about something, be specific. Make the audience see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, and feel it. Without that layer of specific description, vivid colors turn gray.

Markus Zusak wrote a compelling book made into a movie. The Book Thief describes a young orphan named Liesel who gets assigned to a poor German family in the midst of World War II. She experiences the book burnings of the Nazis and the oppression of the times.

The family hides a young Jewish man in the basement. He cannot leave the basement lest he is found. He asks Liesel what the weather is outside. She says it is cloudy.

He complains, “don’t tell me it is cloudy. Paint the picture for me. What is the texture of the clouds, the movement?” In the process, Liesel uses words to paint a portrait of an outside world he cannot see.

Without specifics, people tune out and eyes glaze over. Senses dull and minds wander. Worse than that, they don’t understand. A good communicator aims for those listening to understand at the deepest possible level.

For instance, you could say, “she went to South America.” Or you could say, “she set sail from the Panama Canal. She saw the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, bought fruit in the market in Montevideo. She saw the great cities of a different world–Lima, Peru, gazed at the snow-capped mountains rimming Santiago, Chile. She sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, just a few hundred miles from Antarctica.”

Which takes you to South America with her?

Becoming a Marching Soldier Rather Than Wandering Gypsy

How do you paint a picture others can see? Some are wandering gypsies, taking their wagons of ideas down any roads. If you want to interest others and help them “get it,” you have to be a soldier marching to war.

But that takes some preparation.

First, read…a lot. The more you read, the more you can see. Great authors use this technique to put you in locations you may never see. Experience them.

I have been blessed to read so many people who have brought a different world to life for me. Authors like John Berendt, Mitchell Zuckoff, and Anne Lamott all put me in their cars and drove me to distant lands and times.

Second, be a noticer.

Technology, while helping many things, is a thief of attention. Pay attention to the details of your life. When you go to a coffee shop, notice the colors, the people, and aromas. What are the people like? What do their faces reveal about their emotions or conversations?

If nothing else, just for practice, do the “beer ball in the cup” experience while people-watching.

Finally, don’t be a thesaurus filled with funny words. Stick with what you see. Use colors precisely.

As a boy, going to school meant school supplies and one of the staples was Crayolas. I loved to get the 64 crayon box because he had so many colors. I loved the descriptions. It wasn’t green. It was lime green or summer grass green. Yellows were bananas or sunshine.

Find that kind of description, something you encounter and know, not some expensive words that hide meaning.

Even if you don’t speak or write, we have conversations in which we can help another enter a world they have never seen by simply putting more vivid detail into our conversations.

Remember, pick up the cup and sniff. Now, tell me what it smells like. All of life is found in that cup to be shared with others.