‘Do you know what I mean?’

How many times have you heard this question being asked by someone just after they’ve tried to explain something to you?

Invariably they ask the question because whatever they’ve said did not make sense to them.

It makes sense to you; will you be able to make it make sense to them?

In your mind the question should be: ‘has what I’ve said made sense to you because it didn’t sound like it did to me?’

I don’t doubt that we’re all guilty of thinking that what we just said did not sound right; that anyone listening to the conversation must have failed to glean the full meaning.

This is true in all kinds of settings, from a casual conversation to a formal presentation to a live performance in front of an audience.

What you say about what you know

The meaning intended by the speaker or performer1 can be difficult to capture when communicating ideas orally.

When I get up to speak in front of an audience, a crucial part of my brain turns off if my performance is unprepared in its content and delivery.

Fortunately this switch is not flicked off when I prepare:

  • the ideas I want to deliver
  • the meaning I want to attribute to those ideas
  • the response I want from the audience to my ideas.

How is this done?

You as the performer (speaker) must connect each individual member of your audience to the ideas in your head. You do this by attaching oral words to each idea.

What your audience see – the image in their minds – is the meaning they attribute to what you have just said; to what they have just heard.

An astute performer (speaker) will know immediately when a divergence2 has taken place between what is in their head and what they are saying to their audience. That moment when as a performer (speaker) you know you’ve not fully captured and expressed the ideas in your head.

You turn, and face your audience;
you glance out over the sea of upturned faces fresh with anticipation:
You’re distracted…;
It makes sense to you; will you be able to make it make sense to them?
Doubt plays with the edge of your notes: Notes that [now]
lie faceless – in your hands.

In a split second the scene unfolding in front of you has changed. A gaping chasm begins to emerge between what you know and what you’re saying. It’s surreal; you have become the audience to the voice now echoing loudly in your ears. What you’re hearing doesn’t sound right; it doesn’t make sense to you.

Oral communication is unique in the way sense and meaning are3 created about ideas being expressed.

What we mean to say when we communicate ideas orally can sometimes be different from what we actually say. Unfortunately all this impacts the outcome – what the audience take away with them.

Communicating ideas orally can be challenging

Success depends entirely on the meaning created in the minds of the audience.

In oral communication this meaning depends entirely on the relationship the performer (speaker) has with the ideas being communicated and the relationship the audience has with the performer (speaker) and their ideas. And pivotal to this relationality is knowing as a performer (speaker) that you have manifestly4 captured and expressed the ideas in your head.

Oral communication is a complex conjunction of relationships, each occurring- individually, collectively and concurrently – upon which meaning is predicated5.

So if you hear yourself asking the question: ‘do you know what I mean?’ then you might also want to ask: ‘do I know what I mean?’ Have I captured in words the meaning I intended to attribute to the ideas I am trying to express?’

Communicating ideas orally – what we mean to say about what we know


  1. Speaker/Performer –They are inter-changeable. However any time you get up to speak in front of an audience you are performing, so in essence you are a performer. I will use performer throughout this article.
  2. Divergence – movement in different directions from the same point so that the intervening distance continually increases. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED)
  3. In this article I am arguing that sense and meaning are two distinct ideas.
  4. Manifest[ly] – clearly revealed to the eye, mind, or judgement; open to view or comprehension; obvious, SOED
  5. Predicated – affirm or postulate on the basis of; base or found on. SOED (the one leading to the other

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