Monday, July 19, 2010

Your Audience Defines Good Communication

Are you a good communicator? Many technical professionals readily admit that's not their strength. And that's only half the problem.

Communication is a partnership. Presenting your message proficiently is just one side of the process. Your audience has a critical role. They have to receive the message, and sometimes they don't do their part all that well either. Ironically, the more communication channels proliferate, the more difficult it can become to connect with your audience.

In the most basic terms, communication involves conveying a thought from your brain to someone else's. The process is fraught with difficulties. First, you need a clear concept in your own mind. Muddled thought is where poor communication often begins. Then you need to be able to adequately articulate the message, and send it in some way that your audience can receive it as something that approximates what you were thinking.

While the emphasis is usually given to the one sending the message, both parties have a share in making the communication successful. I liken it to a quarterback passing the football to a receiver. Once again, we tend to give more attention to the thrower. But if the receiver drops the ball, no matter how well thrown, the result is an incomplete pass.

These days, I think receivers are fumbling more messages than ever before. The big problem is that they're suffering from communication overload, an issue I addressed in a previous post. The result is that it's harder to get people's attention, to have them carefully read or listen to what you're trying to communicate, or to remember it long enough to act on your message.

My point isn't to excuse the shortcomings of communication senders, but to suggest that we give more consideration to the audience when formulating our messages. That will help us become better communicators. A few tips to keep in mind:

Remember that first impressions count. Your initial message--be it the title to your article, the subject line in your email, or the opening statement in your presentation--often colors the communication to follow. Don't take it lightly. This is not only your call to attention; it shapes expectations about what you're about to say. And it may even influence how it is interpreted.

A case in point: I gave my last post a rather provocative title, "Social Media: Beyond the Hype," thinking it would attract more attention. It did. Some of the feedback I got was a bit defensive, coming from fans of social media. I suspect that some of them were put on the defensive as soon as they saw the title.The interesting thing was that those who seemed to have the strongest affinity for social media also seemed more prone to misread what I had written.

That's human nature. We all filter communication based on our interests, beliefs, experiences, and preferences. Navigating those filters is an important facet of effective communication. What if I had titled the post "Social Media: Some Questions to Consider"? Would the social media advocates have read the article differently? I think they might have seen that my post really wasn't all that negative (I obviously use social media myself!).

Likewise, your initial communication sets the stage for what's to follow. Make a splash if you need to attract attention, but consider the ramifications. It could weaken or distort the rest of your message. Try to put yourself in your audience's place; think about first impressions. Are you setting the right tone for your message?

Promote trust. People generally don't listen to those they don't trust. And if they do, they're likely to misconstrue the message. So how do you build trust with your audience, especially if you don't really know them?

The first step is to try to identify with them. Connect to common interests, experiences, concerns. Since my target audience for this blog are those in the A/E industry where I've spent 37 years, it's fairly easy to identify with them. Furthermore, if I'm writing to managers, I often refer to my experiences as a manager. If to marketers, I'll draw on my time as a marketer. And so on. Identification communicates that you understand where your audience is coming from.

It's also important to convey that you care about your audience. Showing genuine concern is probably the fastest way to build trust. How do you show you care? By showing empathy, speaking to audience concerns, using personal language, being respectful. That last suggestion is just plain common sense, but it's less common these days, especially with people we disagree with. But you'll never persuade anyone who doesn't think you respect them.

Don't ignore the emotional context. This tip was implicit in the two previous bullets; let me make it explicit here. Emotions can profoundly influence communication. Yet many communicators--and yes, this is true of technical professionals--are often oblivious to the emotional context of their messages.

This cuts both ways. Your emotions can substantially shape your message. Your audience's emotions affect how your message is interpreted and received. Pay attention to both dynamics. If you write or speak when angry, for example, expect an angry response. If you're critical, expect a defensive response. On the other hand, people tend to respond favorably to someone who is friendly, upbeat, humble, respectful.

Of course, there may be times when you want to portray that you're angry, frustrated, anxious, etc. Just do so intentionally with a sensitivity to how it's likely to impact your audience. Don't be in the dark about the role that feelings play in communication.

Use a common, personal language. The technical professions have developed distinct terminologies. In one sense, these words clarify and specify; in another they exclude. Sometimes I think the exclusion is intentional; perhaps to accentuate our expertise. But it often impedes our communication. So the advice is to avoid the unnecessary use of jargon.

But speaking a common language is not simply about avoiding certain words. It also includes adopting words--and ways of putting words together--that connect with your audience. Among professionals, there is a tendency to write, and sometimes even speak, in a stuffy impersonal tone. Remember the caution about evoking emotions? This style of communication can deaden them. That's not an effective way to connect with your audience.

Impersonal communication is particularly inappropriate when attempting to persuade. Technical professionals sometimes underestimate how prevalent the persuasive process is in their jobs. You have to persuade someone every day. And you should recognize that persuasion is largely driven by emotions like passion, trust, comfort, confidence.

So don't drain the emotion or personal connection from your persuasive messages. Use first and second person, write and speak in a conversational tone, and don't be afraid to address what people are likely thinking and feeling. Technical solutions are valuable only to the degree that they address human needs. So your communication about technical matters shouldn't be devoid of humanity.

Invite dialogue. One-way communication is risky. Without feedback, you don't know how well your message was received. Did your audience understand you? Did they agree or disagree? Did they even care? You always want to try to get some response so you can gauge the success of your communication.

When speaking to an audience, the opportunity for dialogue is obvious. Or is it? How many one-way presentations do we make without engaging a conversation? How often do we give instructions or provide information to colleagues without confirming the message was received? This lack of dialogue can create a host of problems, from misunderstandings to missed opportunities.

When writing, audience feedback is no less valuable, if less convenient. Use whatever means are available to solicit input from those receiving your written messages. Better still, engage dialogue before writing when you can.

This is particularly important when there is a disagreement or conflict with the recipient. Some people like to collect their thoughts in writing rather than talk to the other party in such situations. But dialogue is usually better. If controlling emotions is a concern, invite an impartial third party to facilitate the conversation. Then, when appropriate, summarize in writing what you discussed.

Confirming successful reception of your message is an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of effective communication. Engage dialogue (see this earlier post related to presentations). Invite feedback. Confirm meeting or conversation outcomes in writing. Of course, your comments are always appreciated here. How else do I know if I'm communicating?

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