By Guy Higgins
I read an online article recently about how the color of your coffee cup affects the taste of the your coffee. I thought that the article would be informative and possibly amusing. It could have been both, but I couldn’t tell.
There are, I think, three practices (or perhaps they are “mis-practices” or “dys-practices”) that adversely affect attempts at communication. It is also, I will boldly assert, critical for leaders to avoid all three of these communication practices. They are, in order of importance:
- Inadequate structure – In the article I mentioned above, the authors related their research into the effect that the color of a coffee cup has on our perception of the taste of the coffee, but I have absolutely no idea why they were telling us this information. There was no apparent “message” in the article, it was simply a catalogue of information. Further, the article did not flow smoothly from beginning to end and did not present a conclusion (in fact, it really didn’t even end – it simply stopped). Finally, I felt that individual sentences and paragraphs were incomplete and jumped abruptly from one to another.
- The use of buzzwords and technical “jargon” – Stephen Hawking and Karen Armstrong are recognized experts in their respective fields (theoretical physics and theology/philosophy), and they have both written books for the popular market. Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, uses a vocabulary of about 2500 words – all of them simple, common words, and it includes only a single equation, E=Mc2 (which Hawking said he felt “compelled” to include even though he felt in unnecessary). In contrast, Armstrong’s book, The Battle for God, relies heavily on the language of theology (actually, it’s theologies, since she discusses all three major monotheistic religions). This use of specialized language, whether technical “jargon” which requires extra effort or special knowledge to understand, or buzzwords, which should be (but almost never actually are) shorthand for well understood ideas, can easily make any intended communication unintelligible. Worse, it can result in non-communication or even miscommunication.
- Poor communication fundamentals (grammar, spelling, etc.) – interestingly, the article I mentioned above started off with a paragraph that included, “… research done by my colleagues and I …” When I was in seventh grade, Sister Alfred (real name – great teacher), by means of inflicting infinite practice diagramming sentences, taught me that prepositions (in this case, “by”) are following by the objective case of a noun or pronoun, which means the correct word should have been “me.” Errors like this detract attention from the communication and are, simply, unprofessional.
Communication requires the participation of both the communicator and the person to whom the communication is directed – breaks in attention are counter-productive.
Are those “dys-practices” easy or hard to correct? I think that the prescription for correcting them is simple; the application is difficult – in the way that the prescription for running a marathon is simple (run a lot!) – but the application requires a tremendous amount of discipline and effort:
- Fixing inadequate structure – The first step in creating a good communication structure is to decide on and writing down the one, two or three, messages to be delivered. With those messages in hand, draft an outline. Once again, Sister Mary Alfred, those many years ago, emphasized the importance of outlines and spent a great deal of time teaching me to outline (with lots of practice – Catholic nuns are big on practice, but then, again, I remember what they taught me). The outline not only captures the messages in a framework, but also forces the communicator to develop the flow from paragraph to paragraph. And, for those who think that this is somehow beneath them, it is exactly the same approach that was beaten into me and my classmates at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School (TPS teaches you how to write about what you tested – it isn’t all “white scarf” stuff – actually, none of it is). Creating the structure – the messages, the flow, the continuity is critically important. It takes relatively little time but does demand the effort and discipline.
- The use of buzzwords and technical “jargon” – Good communication requires understanding the audience. When Stephen Hawking writes a paper for theoretical physicists, he speaks to them in their common language – which is as much highly advanced mathematics as it is prose. He does that because he is using the common vocabulary of his audience. When he wrote A Brief History of Time, he used the common vocabulary of his non-physicist audience, and it was a wonderfully understandable book. Karen Armstrong, on the other hand, did not cleanse her writing of the vocabulary of theology and philosophy. That made The Battle for God a much more difficult read than Hawking’s book. Effective communication demands that the communicator use the simplest vocabulary for the intended audience. Use of the appropriate vocabulary requires focused effort and is harder – I think much harder – than establishing a good structure.
- Poor communication fundamentals – fixing this problem is probably the easiest. Use an editor. Not just someone to review the communication, but someone who actually has editing experience. It isn’t fun to be corrected by an editor, but it is effective and will gradually result in an improvement in the communicator’s facility with the fundamentals of communication. Just like Peyton Manning still has a quarterback coach, people who have been writing for years can still use an editor.
Communication is a critical competency for leaders. Like any skill, it takes time, effort and practice.