To be a successful communicator, think of your listener first, and focus on attention.
Communication is hard. To successfully convey information requires taking what's in my head and getting it into yours in some reasonable facsimile of the original thought or idea. If you think this is easy, just remember the last time you tried to inform a group of individuals about an upcoming change – and then remember the many (sometimes baffling) concerns and rumors that arose as a result!
As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that is has taken place." That's because most of us focus only on the front end of the communication process – the part that's all about us: the information we want to convey (the message) and how we plan to convey it (the medium).
We ignore the back end – the part that's all about the person we're trying to communicate with. We rarely take into account, for example, the knowledge, experience and beliefs that might influence how they interpret our information. We don't consider what might have happened to them that morning, or if we even have their attention at all! If you want to be a successful communicator, you have to work the entire communication process (see diagram) – including having a feedback loop to ensure that the message you sent is the one that got through.
Hey You, Over Here!
Attention is the single most important resource in successful communication. Without it, you can't explain, sell, or influence anything. That's because people only absorb information when they pay attention, and attention is scarce. It was scarce even before the advent of instant messages and texts, Facebook and YouTube, Twitter and RSS feeds. Today, getting someone's attention is like trying to attract a hummingbird to a specific flower in a field of tulips.
So what do we do? We push more information at people to get their attention, fighting the information glut with our own arsenal in an ever escalating arms race. Wrong! Herbert Simon, a social psychologist who pioneered the field of attention economics back in the early '70s, observed that since information consumes attention, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." These days we've gone beyond a wealth of attention to a state of full-on information pollution.
The first thing, then, is that we need to reduce “noise." Noise is anything that distorts, distracts or interferes with the communication process. We do that by making sure our message is focused, relevant and clear, that we pursue engagement as much as understanding, and that we repeat the message until we know it's been received and absorbed.
In my next post, I'll delve into each of these areas and explain how persuasive communication is as much about change management as it is about messaging.