Sunday, August 4, 2013

Too-Sparse Messaging, or the Critical Task of Supplying Context

How many times do you assume people know what you're talking about?

See this picture?  I have no idea what it is.  As I look at other photos in the same folder on my computer, it doesn't seem to relate to anything else.  Of course, it's a shot that should have been deleted, and was saved by mistake.  But, finding it months later, I still stop and take the time to puzzle over it, trying my best to paint in the missing context beyond the borders of the frame.  Why am I driven to puzzle out something of such little importance?   

Because I'm human.  Humans have an innate need to connect the dots.  We are driven to put together the pieces -- fill in the blanks.  

If you are a communicator, you need to know this about your audience.  You need to be deliberate and thorough enough to give them access to all the necessary context to understand your message.  Because when you assume that your hearers have all the dots, and they actually don't, they will tend to respond in some counter-productive ways. They might:

  • come to a wrong conclusion about your meaning.
  • wear themselves out puzzling over your clues.
  • reject your too-sparse message and ignore it. 
  • fester in confusion and frustration. 
At best, they may come back to you for clarification, but that will complicate and prolong the communication process, and it may not help everyone stay on the same page. 

What's with the sparse-talkers?  We all know people who seem to dispense information with an eye-dropper, hoarding their knowledge, forcing the people with whom they live or work to constantly guess about what they mean.  

Some people do this on purpose.  It's an actual power tactic used by some bosses who lead by fear.  It keeps the power-player the focus of others' attention, and produces a gratifying, chaotic frenzy of decoding activity around him.  But purposely cryptic messaging is inefficient and counter-productive in the long run, because ultimate efficiency and productivity is hampered.

Then again, some sparse-talkers don't do it for power purposes at all.  They're just so immersed in their subject that they really think others are as well-informed as themselves.  They skip details because they seem so obvious.  That's probably been true of all of us at one time or another.  We think we say what we want to say, then we are mystified when others are mystified!  

Either way, messages tend to fail when they fail to supply enough context.  And some interesting new discoveries in neuroscience give even more insight about why this is the case.  

Famed psychology professor and researcher Mike Gazzaniga speaks of a section of the brain which he calls "the interpreter."  Everyone has it -- you do, too -- up there in one little spot in your left hemisphere.  This bundle of your brain is tasked with making sense of life as it happens.  It supplies an ongoing narration to the movie of your experiences. (A fascinating dive into this subject, well worth reading, is Dr. Gazzaniga's book, Who's In Charge?)

The interpreter is the factory that takes the raw material of sensory input and sorts it into patterns, which the rest of the brain turns into baseline principles for behavior and judgment.  If the interpreter doesn't have enough information to go on, it can steer the rest of the brain into grave and sometimes catastrophic errors.

People are driven to puzzle.  They will fret about figuring things out. On a constant quest to establish meaning, their inner interpreters will drive them to distraction... and that distraction will hamper their ability to receive a message, buy into its importance, or cooperate with the one who gives it.

The moral is this: take care of your hearer's brains.  Give your hearers enough informational resources to reach the right conclusions, make the best decisions, and effect the most optimal outcomes.  Know your audience; be sure of their context.  Don't put your hearers in charge of filling in too many blanks for themselves.  

In the workplace, this may mean:

  • adding an extra sentence to phone conversation: "Just by way of background..." 
  • providing a reference footnote to a PowerPoint slide, or inserting a hyperlink into an email, to point your readers back to a source document
  • creating a checklist or a set of instructions to help clarify a multiple-step process
  • putting together a chart or a spreadsheet that illustrates the bigger picture
  • prefacing your remarks in a meeting with a memory-jogger about an earlier comment or meeting topic
Another way to be sure you give enough context is simple. Ask if people need it.

Here are some context-setting questions to sprinkle into your conversations with family, friends and coworkers.
  • "Are you following?"
  • "Are you with me?"
  • "Any questions before I go on?"
  • "Do I need to circle back and explain some of the context here?"
  • "Am I saying this the right way?"
  • "Would it help to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture?"
  • "Can you see how this relates?"  
  • "Is that clear enough?"
This may not come easily if your customary communications style is more like a one-way street -- a lecture delivery.   You may not be convinced that you should spend extra time pausing and asking these questions, then earnestly answering them before you continue. It may feel awkward to do it. But if you want your messaging to have full impact, it's a good habit to develop.  When you use this approach, you are giving the interpreters inside your audience's brains a chance to catch up -- and the emotional tone around the table is bound to lighten up, as well.

It takes extra effort to do all this, of course.  But please don't resent the task of supplying enough information for successful outcomes.  Instead, accept it as your responsibility.  In the long run, the time you spend crafting context will yield stronger relationships as well as better results.  

When they follow your meaning, your hearers are much more likely to follow your lead.  

So set your listeners up for success.  Give them every piece of the puzzle.  Don't make them puzzle it out for themselves.

And if anyone can figure out what the purple thing in that photo is -- leave a comment and let me know!