In communication, simpler equals better
If not for communication, life beyond single-cell organisms (that’s us) wouldn’t exist. An innate ability of ours, it’s also an area in which we frequently overestimate our skill – which means there is much to be gained from improving the noise-to-signal ratio.
We convey too little – or too much
Delivering a message at any given occasion is more akin to an art than it is to science. Not only does this depend on the complexity of the message, but also the circumstances under which it will be conveyed as well as the constitution of one’s audience. Are we discussing astrophysics or the benefits of Adamantium? Do your listeners possess the same level of understanding for the subject? How much humour can you get away with?
Great orators distill their messages in such a manner that they are comprehensible to anyone with an interest in the matter at hand, and frequently use wit, empathy and engagement in order to increase the likelyhood of it standing out in a sea of information – and be repeated by others without distortion.
One of the most frequent pitfalls, however, is to communicate more – or even less – than necessary. Either of these can leave your audience frustrated – regardless of whether you are communicating orally or in writing.
So, how do you get it just right?
Detail does not equal comprehension
Have you noticed how particularly competent people tend to convey a message with so much detail that your brain simply surrenders? Quick, answer yes or no to the following question without thinking about it – are you guilty of this, too? If you hesitated, you just demonstrated that an insufficient amount of your attention is focused on the critical role proper communication plays in achieving your goals.
This is also evident in large organizations, where information flows across levels of management. I call it organizitis. Here, there is an expectance of apparent substance – and preferably visual as such – to demonstrate to superiors that a decent understanding of the topic at hand is… well, at hand. Statistics. Prose. Facts.
The results? Everyone is communicating a whole lot of nothing, thus misappropriating the participants’ energy, time and attention – as opposed to applying a simple, focused message around which progress can be built.
Consider, if you will, these two phrases and which appeals the most to you:
“Yes we can.” -B. Obama
“There is a very high likelyhood that we will succeed in our endeavour to infuse hope and bring forth change to all parts of American politics.” -B. Ollocks
Additional information is what humans resort to when the recipient of a message does not appear to neither understand or appreciate it in what we, the transmitter, deem the appropriate fashion. We also do this when we are insufficiently prepared, attempting to conceal our lack of understanding for the basic principles which underpin arguments of technical and statistical nature.
Less isn’t always more
Another frequent mistake is to erroneously assume that, in a community of peers, everyone’s level of understanding is approximately on par. There can be a thousand reasons for why it is not, and leaving information out on such grounds can easily result in confusion which brings a negative connotation to your message. Worse yet, you may cause someone to feel like an idiot – which is the one thing you never, ever want your audience to feel.
The benefit of less, however, is to enable improved recollection. Find a simple, repeatable sentence which contains the essence of your message, and use it – with care. For presentations, keep backup slides covering more advanced aspects and only bring them out if needed. When writing e-mails, be short and succinct, and always remember to invite your recipients to get in touch should they like to discuss matters further, negating the chances of anyone feeling like an idiot.
How to improve your communicative skills
If you’re looking for more than a few tips and tricks and would like to invoke lasting change, find the two longest mails you’ve written in the past week, and – if applicable – a lengthy Powerpoint presentation. Spend approximately 10 minutes on each to cut as much text as you can by removing and rephrasing everything in sight. If you’ve managed to cut at least 1/4th and your message still comes across unscathed, you have just realized how to cure yourself for worditis.
Yes, it is tedious. But it’s worth the effort – trust me.
The next step: apply this to oral communication by forcing yourself to ask people what they think whenever you finish explaining something. This will reveal their level of understanding of the subject, and allow you to adapt your communication.
There’s an opposite excercise for those who fear they might be conveying too little information, and that is to do exactly as outlined above but imagine that the audience consists of complete and utter strangers with only an average understanding of the subject at hand. This is particularly useful if you happen to be communicating with your leader’s leader – or above.
The simple summary
[box]Communication is an art, and there is no one solution to bind them all. Know your topic and your audience to adapt your message; respect that your listeners may have an infinite number of reasons for not devoting their undivided attention to you; and make your message simple enough to be repeated without distortion by anyone who wholds an interest in the matter.[/box]