A Few Things About Communication: 3. Bridging the Gap
Until you have sat in a darkened room for days on end, watching through a two-way mirror as groups of total strangers discuss their interpretations of messages you spent months crafting to make a different point than the one they are getting – unable to intervene and explain what you meant and on the wrong side of a sugar rush from eating too many M&Ms out of frustration – you cannot truly appreciate the gulf that can exist between the messages you intend to communicate and what it is that people receive.
How could they be so dumb (you think), how could they not appreciate your cleverness or laugh at your joke? Have they never heard of irony? How can they not see that you are telling the truth, unlike all the other companies making the same argument? Did they not get the reference to Hemingway? Why didn’t they work a little harder to see that you were using that word to mean something more specific than most people do?
A focus group with consumers, like the one described above, is only one place you can experience this gap between intended message and received meaning. If you pay attention, you can feel it live in a room full of potential investors. It’s there every time you send an email, conduct a job interview or create a presentation. It’s hanging in the atmosphere between your web site and the people who visit it. The more aware you are of this gap, the more skilled you will become at bridging it. Until you do, you’re not communicating effectively.
The invaluable lessons I learned sitting in the dark listening to people as they tried to comprehend my work, while hard won, are relevant to everybody everywhere who wants to be understood, and are the basis for just about everything I have learned about communication since. I’ve tried to summarize them here.
There are three parts to any communication.
What you want to say, what’s received and what gets lost in translation. We’ve covered the first (how to say what you want to say) in the last few articles, we’re getting to the receiving part here. The loss in the middle can be viewed as what splashes out of the water bucket on the way back from the well. You need to make sure you’re carrying enough to begin with so that it doesn’t render the whole trip futile.
Communication is about making a connection – getting meaning from point A to point B. In the riveting documentary, Man on Wire, Phillippe Petit spent months in 1974 trying to figure out how to rig his wire from one Twin Tower to the other so that he could walk (illegally) between them. In the end, his team used a bow to shoot an arrow strung with a thin line across the chasm between the buildings, in a thrilling feat of ingenuity and precision. It’s not a bad metaphor for our current subject, although if it was always that dramatic we’d be too exhausted to talk.
Communication is not just self expression, no matter how scintillating your self is. Create every message with a destination in mind – like a package needs a specific address to get anywhere, or an arrow needs a target. Depending on your subject and the interest level of your audience, you may only need to send up a flare, but double check your instincts on that. Other times, you may need to hit them with the communication equivalent of a blunt instrument. Sometimes you will aim for the head, sometimes the heart. When it works, it’s rarely an accident.
Recipients of communication are stunningly literal.
It’s an excellent idea to never underestimate an audience’s ability and inclination to take things literally. Assume that people will take what you say at face value – if they bother to take it at all.
Now, if the audience is your mother, this will not be true. She will likely fill in the blanks for you, connect dots, remember what you said the last time and why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. She understands and probably shares your twisted sense of humor, and what’s more she will likely love you no matter what you say.
As an entrepreneur, you will, hopefully, have many audiences in addition to your mother. The more successful you are, the more likely it is you’ll be communicating with strangers, that you’ll need their support more than they need you, and that your business will depend on the skills you develop to engage them.
Don’t count on any help from them. Your thought process, your style, your wit, your skill with a double entendre, your previous successes are all meaningless if they don’t get it. Your intention does not count. They will not cut you any slack. What they get is what they get, and what you intended doesn’t matter at all. Love them. Be patient with them. Make it your responsibility to reach them and create understanding, not theirs. In other words, if they don’t understand you, you have only yourself to blame.
Context is everything.
The context is the reality in which your audience lives. It’s their cultural bias, language skills, thoughts and feelings and desires and agendas and financial realities, preconceived notions and baggage. It’s the mood they’re in when they encounter you. It’s whether they’re hungry or preoccupied. Context is more complicated today because we communicate with each other in so many places – in cultures different from our own, time zones, in airplanes or bars or in bathrooms. You can’t plan for it all, but you can anticipate the big differences between your context and theirs.
Begin by thinking hard about who your audiences are. They aren’t one single lump of people, they are different and specific. They probably include funders, employees and potential employees, partners, potential partners, and customers. Depending on what you do you may need to add the media and even policy makers. They all have different needs and interests. It’s a good idea to map them – literally draw them, by size and relationship to each other. It will help you see them, and help you begin the work of understanding them more deeply. What are their needs, their challenges? Do they know you, what do they currently think, and what do you want them to think? What you are trying to say is relevant only if it’s relevant in the context in which they live.
Master the out-of-body experience.
Cultivate an ability to move back and forth from your intention to your audience and their context. Try to see what you’re saying from their perspective. If you have been buried in the details of what you’re doing, step back and look at the broad strokes you’ve created. What would YOU think was the big picture if you were viewing it for the first time? Notice the obvious. Is it long and complicated or simple and quick to take in? Is it clear what’s important and what’s secondary? Is it true? Logical? Is what comes across what you meant to convey?
This skill will help you with more than the messages you create, it will also help you with the best mediums. What’s appropriate for an email and what would be most powerful in an old-fashioned letter? When should you get in front of somebody because what you are presenting won’t stand on its own? When is advertising the last thing you want to do, and when is it the first? If you can come to know your audience and see things from their vantage point, the answers to these questions will become common sense.
Of all the TED talks I have sat through, one of the most memorable was also the simplest. A man, with credentials that far exceeded the subject of his five minute talk, gave us advice on how not to lose things. He said, “Always look behind you.” Whenever you stand up to go, turn around to see if you left something.”
On the subject of communication, I would add; always consider what precedes you.
We represent who we are by sending messages out into the world – written, spoken, visual or all of the above. We mean them to reflect who we hope to be, and what we want to happen. We should always consider what we send from the perspective of those who receive it, and look not only at the wake we leave behind but the waves we create right in front of us.