Article in Brief: Communication isn’t just about getting your message right. In fact it’s much more complex. Here are 5 principles that will ensure your communication is effective and leads to results.
By Jonathan Halls
Communication – Let’s Get Specific
My ears pick up whenever I hear people talking about communication. That’s because communication has been at the heart of just about every job I’ve had. As an executive, change provocateur, adult educator, media producer and even talk show host. And you know what I’ve noticed?
More people complain about poor communication than affirm good communication. They blame communication for things that go wrong at work, in marketing, and in change initiatives.
People rarely talk about good communication in an organization. And this is born out by studies that show communication – good or bad – hardly gets mentioned in morale surveys in high performing organizations. But it’s high on the list of grumbles and frustration in low performing organizations.
Good communication is invisible. Seamless. So, it’s super hard to define good communication, outside of all the trite definitions people throw around in corporate brainstorming sessions. You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re vague and general. “Getting your message across,” is one. “Engaging,” Another. “Having impact,” yet another.
Many people’s understanding of communication, I would suggest, is based on the outdated ‘sender-receiver’ models of communication which originated from the scientific world of telephony.
The first such model was the Shannon Weaver model, designed to help engineers make telephone cables more effective and reduce static. These models were then adopted by sociologists.
The primary characteristic of these models is that they emphasized the delivery of a message. So to understand good and bad communication, thinkers devoted most of their time to understanding how to deliver and package a message.
But as the eternal provocateur, I want to suggest something different. I think that looking at how we deliver and package a message must to be secondary to understanding how a message is received. Or put another way, how and what’s been understood. Understanding this gives us greater insight to crafting messages that are understood.
If we measure communication effectiveness by looking at what we as communicators do, we have no reference point to be sure people understand a change initiative, nugget of inspiration or just-in-time message to support their work. None. Although, we still pat ourselves on the back thinking, “Well, I sent that email … ” (Which they didn’t read.) Or, “I included that in a PowerPoint slide …” (Of which studies show 80% is immediately forgotten.) Or, “That was an aesthetically appealing flyer …” even though no-one read it.
I’ve lost count of how many change agents tell me they did communication when all they did was send that email that no-one read. Or they did a town hall which most people forgot. Just because you do communication, doesn’t mean you helped people change the way they work, inspired them to aim higher or helped them avoid a problem.
Good communication is less about us as communicators and what we do. It’s more about the people we are communicating with and how we help them do what they need to do to make sense of the new information. And this is where it gets really interesting – it’s relational. If you look at the word communication, it shares the first four letters with other words such as common, community, and communal. What does this tell us?
Communication is a process of creating shared understanding. Not a formula for packaging a message. Or delivering content. It’s about doing whatever needs to be done to help our communication partner do or access resources that she needs, to understand our message in the same way we understand it.
We don’t have time to get into the neuroscience and psychology of that just here. But when you dig into this concept, it becomes very profound and unlocks the real power of deep and engaging communication which is so necessary in today’s organizations, especially when leading change in today’s fast changing organizations.
What Makes Successful Communication?
So, getting back to people complaining about poor communication. One rainy weekend, in London, I decided that I’d heard enough people complaining about communication.
Sitting in the living room of my flat on Wimpole street, I decided to analyze what makes communication successful, using the lens of broadcasting.
Broadcasters live and die on their ability to be good communicators. They have to be easily understood. And fast. And they have to be engaging. Over the next few months, I wrestled with this question and worked through the issues.
I distilled what I believed were the main principles of effective communication into five key skillsets that people could easily learn.
I shared these with literally hundreds of broadcasters, journalists and media friends in London and Sydney. These are people who also earned their professional success through communication.
I also wanted to be sure that my principles would work outside broadcasting in the real world. So, I talked to hundreds of trainers and professionals who work with businesses. I didn’t want to be overly academic. But then I wanted to be sure my ideas stood up to the scrutiny of people I respected.
Through this process I came up with what I call the Five Principles of Communication. These are we need to do if we truly want to create shared understanding. And they go way beyond designing job aids, writing emails or giving presentations.
5 Principles Will Improve Your Communication Success.
The 5 principles that will super charge your communication success are:
Relationship– communication happens in relationships. It’s a two-way partnership that when effective, feels like it’s a one-to-one experience. I refer to the person to who you are communicating as your communication partner because you are a partner with her as she makes sense of your message. People who build relationships, whether in front of a crowd of people, or in a virtual meeting, are more easily understood than those who just ‘present’ or ‘broadcast’ their message. That’s why my communication workshops explore relationship before the art of constructing messages.
Partner Centric– your communication partner understands your message by drawing on his memories which includes experiences, values, skills, language and much more. The more craft your message using his language and terms he is familiar with, include stories and metaphors that speak to his experiences and education, the deeper you will drive the message.
Purpose– successful communication is purpose driven. It’s not waffle or an empty process that happens for the sake of itself. In the business world, you don’t simply talk to your communication partner for the sake of talking. You communicate with her because she needs to know some important information. Or you need to create a business partnership. Or something else. Having a laser focus on the purpose of your communication enables you to hit your message target every time.
Context– too many people focus on content and forget context. Notice how savvy advertisers used soccer imagery for ads during the world cup? Communication success depends on timing, geography & medium. Understanding the emotional context within which your communicate your message can guide you in how you structure it as well as time it. If he’s not in the frame of mind to listen, he won’t hear your message even if it’s the best message you have ever crafted.
Discipline– this word means two things. It refers to an area of specialism, like an academic discipline like psychology. It also refers to how much effort and dedication we put into do performing a task. For example, she was disciplined at practicing the piano. Communication is a discipline that is complex. To be successful, we need to go deeper and learn it’s many dynamics. And, we must work hard in a dedicated way to transform theory into practice. Communication is not easy – it’s hard work.
It shouldn’t matter where you communicate, the context or physical instruments you use to do so, following these five principles will stand you in good stead to be a persuasive influencer.
First published in London in 2008