Effective Communication

A good friend of mine recently delivered a talk on how to increase one-to-one communication. She made the point that all electronic communication is ultimately binary – which is data. A wonderful observation, replete with significant implications.

Communication is an Art.

It requires active participation at the face-to-face level. Most communications students can quote the “90% of communication is non-verbal”mantra. But in today’s business world, communication today is non-verbal!  How do you overcome this limitation?

Text-based communication is inherently negative

Text-based communication is inherently negative

At its source, data is subjective. Data is ultimately judged by the receiver. This is the crux of text-based communication. Your tweet that was somewhat snarky is read as insulting, regardless of your intent. It is all based on the interpretation of the receiver. There is no additional context available, so the receiver adds their own context.

Negative Interpretation

There are two problems with receivers adding their own context. Psychologically, we tend to read Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) with a negative bias.

This is the Fundamental Attribution Error: We tend to attribute people’s words and behavior to their disposition (personally) rather than considering any external events or cause of confusion.

Another aspect of our personalities is Negative Interpretation: Because emails, texts, and tweets lack non-verbal factors, they are read as neutral or negative.  Even emails written with a positive bias are read with a neutral bias, as the intent is not communicated. Positive communication relies heavily on non-verbal factors.

Intent is rarely communicated

Here’s the bottom line. Information that you Tweet, text, email, or update in your status is ultimately data – and binary data at that. Data mediated through a computer. As with all data, it is then left to the receiver to read, apply their bias, and interpret it through their own filter.

Research has shown that people believe that they can communicate over email and other CMC’s more effectively than they actually can. Unfortunately, this bias, combined with Negative Interpretation, leads to unpleasant confrontations. When responded to in kind (electronically), the situation inflames. When people use email in responding to a negative situation, the reader takes what was written negatively and reads even more negativity into the email, and both parties take it personally. When you write an angry electronic message, the added Negative Interpretation of the receiver reads it as venomous.

Having seen this happen in work and life, I made it a policy for my employees to use the phone when they suspect mis-communication or anger in an email. By picking up the phone, you add the context of a person’s voice and the inflections, which tends to show that the perception was usually the result of Fundamental Attribution Error.

Social Media is Data

Beyond interoffice IM’s, client relationships and sales, there is the realm of social media information. Despite the growing popularity, one can easily show the volatility of the industry and short life spans of many social media communities. One reason for the lack of staying power is that the communication becomes complex when you have thousands or millions of Computer Mediated Communication messages. Ultimately, these messages are interpreted by the receiver, despite the intent of the sender.

Using this as a primary communication method creates the same pitfalls as other CMC content. Context is the key. Social Media recognizes rightly that conversation is important. However, how many “conversations” take place with no non-verbal cues?

While there is a blessing of short-form communication to express a thought; Its curse is short-form, limited communication that is ultimately binary data, recorded for all time, read through the filter of the reader.

(as an aside, this is why I prefer blogging as my primary form of social media and marketing content. It is long form. It helps to communicate more than just information, but also allows the ability to provide citations, images, and additional context).

To some marketers, this may explain why your cat pictures are favorited and shared more than your contest. Your electronic communications deliver very little intended emotion; as any emotion there is tends to be added by the recipient.

That is, if they even take the time to read the full text of your message.