Communicating is one of the most fundamental of human activities and the simplest of human processes, next to breathing. We begin communicating the second we leave the womb and, in many cases, before that with a kick or a stir. We communicate in much the same way that we breathe, without thinking much about it. But, unlike breathing, effective communication isn’t automatic and that’s where organizations and individuals fail.
Mastering the tactics, tools and execution for effective communication is not easy and requires a strong grasp of the fundamentals. Effective communication is further stymied by a common perception that it’s taking place when it’s not.
The inter-webs are full of great sites delving in to how we use tools and technologies to communicate, especially with regard to social media. However, there are far fewer sites discussing what we communicate and why. Regardless of the technology or tool, if you don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate and why, then how you communicate (whether by telegraph or Twitter) is irrelevant.
Think of it this way – a builder can be well-versed in the best way to use a hammer, nail gun, table saw or any other tool, but until he understands what he needs to build with those tools and why, knowing how to use them doesn’t get him any closer to building anything useful.
Communicating for effect may not be automatic but it doesn’t need to be complicated either. It starts with the fundamentals, the basics. So my advice to any person or client who wants to communicate effectively is to make sure they’re clear on the following, regardless of (and in most cases before a decision is made on) the tool used:
With whom are you communicating?
Think in terms of their background, disposition, language, beliefs, prejudices, etc. If you’re communicating with a group or a specific segment of the public, what do they share in common, what’s the common thread? You would start with the commonality and use your understanding of their view of the world to help with the next two questions.
What do you want to achieve by your communication?
Are you interested in gaining understanding, support, action or all of the above? While it’s possible to communicate for communication’s sake (i.e. small talk), in most situations there’s a goal in mind. If you’re making a presentation, you want understanding or acceptance of your proposal. If you’re an activist, you want others to support your cause and/or take action.
How do you plan to communicate in a way that will make sense?
This goes back to knowing with whom you’re talking and understanding their frame of reference. You want to communicate in a way they understand and prefer, not just the way you understand. I think of Army buddies I knew who were unhappy when the service changed their recruiting motto to “Army of One.” It was contrary to what they believed was important; teamwork and service before self. Yet, recruiters understood the kids approaching service age valued individualism and the message was meant to appeal to them, not the career sergeant major.
Effective communications requires effort, skill, practice and patience. If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Good news is not every situation requires this level of effort – if you’re having a few drinks with friends or making small talk at a BBQ, you can be less deliberate. When it counts, don’t take communication for granted.