October 20, 2014

Edge-Wise: Getting a Word in on Industry Dynamics and Trends

The Communication Edge—Do You Have It?

By Jeanne Stiernberg - Principal Consultant

Today more than ever, we are in a robust and content-dense information environment. Jeanne StiernbergAdd to that the many new options for communication tools that are literally at our fingertips, and we have the perfect storm for perfect communication. But things aren’t perfect and never will be as long as the combination of the human element and technology vagaries are at play. Conveying your reality of meaning and intent to another person isn’t so easy. What are the transferable principles from the perspectives of the communication sciences, and how can we apply them to our everyday interactions? What are the fundamental principles of communication pragmatics that can be applied to business? Read on…

An Imperfect Process

Human communication is inherently an imperfect process. It’s illusive to define and explicate, especially “midstream” (in real time while it’s happening). Have you ever thought, “I wish I hadn’t said that…”? Only in retrospect can the full success of a communicative exchange be determined. Even with a shared language “code”—vocabulary and industry jargon—there are unlimited opportunities for mixed results. So if communication is so imperfect, what makes it work? 

Pragmatics To The Rescue

To the rescue—pragmatics! Knowledge from the field of communication pragmatics, the rules for social language, sheds light on the functional aspects of human language use in action.

Just as technology transfer from one field to another can leapfrog and enrich innovation, so too can knowledge transfer from the field of communication science provide insight and tools for business professionals in our industry. Here are some perspectives from that field.

Language has structure, from the phoneme level to the syntactic utterance level. One element that makes it all work is redundancy. Our language code structure is dense with redundancy from the phonetic to the sentence level. Language also has semantic content and function. Holding it all together are the communication pragmatics that address the paralinguistic functions inherent in the interactive communication process.

Pragmatics are the rules for “saying the right thing to the right person in the right way at the right time” to get the message across with your full meaning and intent intact. It’s language interactive pragmatics that address message conveyance, and include the “cleanup” work so often required. This includes requesting and providing message repair.

Business Communication Skills—Black Belt Level

What do the best communicators do that we can learn from? Following are five principles of effective communication to use as calibration for assessing and improving your business—and personal—communication skills. Each is followed by an Edge-Wise Success Tip.

1. Multiple Ends Require Multiple Means

Electronic communication has enabled quick, asynchronous, accessible interactions in essentially real-time. E-mail correspondence, whether from a mobile device or a desktop has been a default means of information exchange for decades. Texting, e-mail’s quicker cousin, allows for even more instantaneous exchanges. Voice-to-voice and face-to-face offer the opportunity for greater nuance on topics that call for discussion as well as for real-time message clarification and repair mid-stream. And in-person situations offer the benefit of body language and facial expressions that convey far more than we estimate.  This is part of the reason why video-conferencing (from Skype and FaceTime to proprietary telepresence systems) is so popular. Anything less than face-to-face needs to have built-in mechanisms for ensuring clarity of information received and information sent.

Edge-Wise Success Tip: Choose the best communication medium for the message. Think through your intent and communication objective in advance and choose the best tool for the job.

2. Content May Be King, But Context Rules

The digital signage market has adopted the cliché, “content is king.” In reality, content may even be the grand emperor. But without context, the emperor has no clothes. The context of a communication is what drives it. The pragmatic communication skill of framing up the context of a message often times gets overlooked in the name of expedience. This is particularly important when asking questions. Without enough context (e.g. overview, background, quick review of prior conversations), questions—especially questions written in an e-mail or a text—can appear to be coming from out of the blue.

Edge-Wise Success Tip: Provide plenty of context to drive accuracy and expedience in both spoken and written communications. Frame up questions before diving into them. Provide agendas for meetings, including phone or videoconference. Don’t be afraid to say, “Here’s a quick overview of why we’re here.”

3. Ask For and Give Feedback

Consider a high-stress/high-stakes communication situation. Airport control tower-to-pilot communication comes to mind. What makes pilot-to-control tower communication successful in what is arguably a less than ideal, high stakes, time sensitive, mission critical speech/listening situation? A critically important factor is continuous feedback that provides the opportunity for immediate and efficient message repair. With each instruction, the listener (receiving party) provides feedback about what was heard. Both the message sender and the message receiver (as they trade roles) know if their communication was received successfully. We can all take a lesson from this extreme example.

Edge-Wise Success Tip: As listener (or “receiver” in the case of text communication), be sure to provide ongoing feedback to the speaker (sender) about what was heard and perceived. As speaker (or “sender”), make sure the listener/receiver understood your message. Don’t leave ‘em hanging!

4. R U 2 Kryptk?

In communication, conciseness has both advantages and drawbacks. Clarity and directness often come paradoxically from more communication, not less. The medium of texting almost dares us to pare down our messages to the barest of essentials. This is efficient, but concise often morphs to its evil twin cryptic. Add to that the quick-fill, auto-correct, often times off-the-wall guesses that the device itself makes on the sender’s behalf. Consider the pitfall of carelessly sending a confidential message to the wrong address and again we have a perfect storm for miscommunication. Of course the benefits of texting far outweigh the landmines. In fact, texting allows for the more frequent volleys of send-receive-send-receive verification of communiqué similar to the pilot-control tower paradigm.

Edge-Wise Success Tip: Don’t skimp on the redundancy needed to send a clear message. Redundancy is your friend, your pal, your chum, your buddy. While Twitter only allows 140 characters per tweet, most text platforms (and certainly e-mail) allow for enough space to be perfectly clear.

5. Your Communication—Intact Or Broken—You Own It

Human communication is imperfect and fraught with obstacles. The most successful communicators try to think like their listeners/receivers. They take ownership and full responsibility for the exchange. The best communicators are quick to pick up cues that signal the need for elaboration, clarification, redundancy, and repair. The most successful communicators also…

  • Make use of all the communication media and tools at their disposal.
  • Understand the benefits and limitations of each communication mode.
  • Think like the receiver to be sure the message makes sense in terms of context and content.
  • Are never so concise that they omit “please” and “thank you.” Even though we’re all using electronic devices, it’s still human-to-human communication.

Edge-Wise Success Tip: In every communication situation, EACH participant needs to take 100% responsibility for the success of the messages sent and received. This is not a 50/50 situation. It’s 100/100.

Your Competitive Edge

Excellence in business communication is a critical success factor in our rapidly changing industry. It requires continuous focus on the senders, the receivers, the tools, and the message. The “best of the best” focus on continuous improvement of their communication skills, and those who do have a competitive edge while others are vulnerable. Do you have industry leading communication skills?

About Stiernberg's Edge-Wise

Our industry (entertainment technology, music products, and AV/IT systems) is changing rapidly and growing slowly. While business is better than a few years ago, there is more competition than ever before. You need a competitive edge. The team at Stiernberg Consulting has designed this series of quick thoughts on industry issues and dynamics as support to your own good sense. Whether you are a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, rep, or design firm, this series aims to spark new thinking to optimize sales, profits, and growth of your business. We cut through the clutter and point you to ways to build your competitive edge, grounded in common sense wisdom. Sometimes irreverent, always timely, Stiernberg’s Edge-Wise is published periodically.

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