Communication: harder than you might think

It would be nice to think that ‘message sent’ is always ‘message received’, but it is, of course, not the case. Our ability to miscommunicate is only matched by our certainty that our communication skills are superb. Finding our what’s in your head and sharing what’s in mine is a challenging task.

Most learning is about change: changing skills, knowledge, behaviours and attitude and, at some level, it comes down to me understanding what on earth you mean. What’s your story all about?

I wanted to take some time to think about communication and reflect on how we can make it better, simpler, more effective. Think about the ways that people try to communicate with you everyday: i was woken by the radio then turned on my phone to find several texts and an update on Facebook. After breakfast (watching the news) i turned on the iPad to discover around sixty emails and various ‘push’ notifications from Yammer, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on. After a phone call i went to work and met my first ‘real’ person of the day. Eight of them in fact, sat in a meeting room where we managed to communicate and miscommunicate for two hours, before heading off, each with a certain understanding of shared messages that probably differ widely. More phonecalls, more emails, some texts and an online training session brings be back home again in time to pick up the post: junk mail and magazines.

There’s no doubt about it: people want to communicate, but using all sorts of channels, methods, languages and styles, not all of which are effective. But we all know this, we are superb at adapting: screening phonecalls, junking email, sitting in meetings whilst doing ‘real’ work on our phones or iPads. So what can we learn from it?

Well, consider what works and what doesn’t: what causes you to engage and how long do you engage for. When was the last time you read a whole page of text as opposed to glancing at it? When did you last have a conversation that felt too short? When did you last leave a meeting feeling that you wanted more?

We tend to throw a lot of effort into saying things, whilst maintaining an ability to only half listen, but perhaps we are only half listening because only a quarter of what is being said is relevant or interesting.

Less can truly be more, or at least it can be if you cut out the right bit of ‘more’. What works for you? What grabs your attention? Let me think: when i get my daily email update from Harold Jarche i read it. Why? Because his reputation is strong: it’s interesting much more often than it’s irrelevant. Sure, some days it doesn’t quite spark with my interests, but others (and quite a lot of them) it’s a moment of clarity in a murky world. Great ideas expressed well and iterated over time. Reputation makes me engage.

But what about my two hour meeting today? Did i go into it expecting it to be great? No, i expected half an hour of good content in a two hour window. Maybe i need to work on my meeting skills… but the point is this: i gauge how much attention i will give something based partly on it’s reputation, my previous experience.

So, from an organisational learning perspective, we need to build our reputation: we need a reputation for materials that are high quality, time efficient, relevant and punchy. How often do you feel you see these kind of materials?

For me, i reckon it’s 5% of the time: it’s certainly a small minority of things that cross my attention span each day that really hit the mark as powerful pieces of communication. So how can i learn from that? How do i ensure that i reach the five percent? Partly i guess it’s about recognising the filters we employ: what strategies do you use to identify what’s good and what’s bad? How far down a page or into an email do you read to make your judgement? How often do you engage with something because it looks different rather than the same? How often because it’s short rather than long? How often simply because it has your name on it?

I don’t have a list of answers, but i do think it’s worth looking at how we focus our own (in my case limited) attention and thinking what we can learn from that to try and get our materials into the top percentile. These aren’t things that take time: they’re things that take thought. Relevant, timely, time efficient, short, clear, personal. Maybe some of those things, maybe different ones for you, but think about what catches your attention everyday, what communication works and how can you learn from that.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Attention to Detail, Broadcast, Communication, Difference, Journalism, Language, Learning Design, Words, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Communication: harder than you might think

  1. Jay says:

    Julian,

    I have found communication is not what you know and how effective you are in transmitting a message to someone. Lot of it depends on what they know (their knowledge base) and how they process information. Your job is to first find out do they have sufficient knowledge to process what you are about to communicate to them. If they do, then you will be able to communicate effectively.

    Lot of times we just don’t take time to figure this out and struggle.

    @5ToolGroup

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