The writer George Bernard Shaw once said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. In other words:
- Are you communicating effectively? and
- How do you know you’ve got your message across?
Those questions are opposite sides of the same coin. To communicate effectively is to say or write things as clearly as possible in the simplest language. To know if the hearer or reader got the message is to look for feedback that tells you something of what you said was understood.
Yes. Nobody ever fully understands you because we all come from different backgrounds and interpret things differently. The best you can hope for is that your audience will respond in the way you hoped for.
The factors that influence our understanding include the different languages that we speak, our cultural origins, our beliefs and life experiences, our age, gender and race, and where we grew up and live today. Relatives and friends influence us and our opinions and feelings change over time in response to events.
Message & meaning
Let’s say you wanted someone to “catch the ball!”. If they jumped to catch it they understood you. That’s as near perfect communication as you can hope for.
But let’s say you asked them to explain a passage from Shakespeare. They read the words and tell you something so different from what you expected that you have to wonder if you’re talking about the same passage. But yes, while they understood your instruction they put a very different construction on the poet’s verse.
“Out, out damned spot!” said Lady Macbeth, referring to the blood on her hands.
“I think this means that the Lady is neurotic and needs psychological counselling,” says your listener, a social worker. You were sure it only meant that the character in the play felt guilty: pangs of conscience were entirely to be expected. She had urged her husband to murder the King. Lady Macbeth didn’t have a psychological problem, she had a moral one!
Content & context
So what are we to make of the word “communication”? The term has two vital aspects:
- The content and context of what is said
- The meaning that the audience takes from it
Note that communication is NOT communications (with an “s”). The word communications refers to the tools, usually various forms of media, that we use to convey our messages. See more about this here.
What we try to convey (the content) is affected by how we say it, the emotional tone of our utterances, and the situation in which we are speaking or writing (context). At the same time, the listener/s have their own situations to deal with and may translate your words to mean something very different from what was intended.
You find yourself in the midst of a street protest, and someone lobs a Molotov Cocktail. You shout “Fire!”. Police hear this and open fire! The example may seem silly but accidents of communication happen all the time. Players in a soccer match understand when the referee blows the whistle, but do they agree with the decision to call foul? The symbolic act of communication (whistle: stop play) is not the same as the meaning that people take from the symbol.
Where does this lead us?
Again, to quote Mandela, “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But, when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
In the communication coaching offered by Editorial Assignments we focus on building messages from simple, agreed elements – things we can all understand. It starts with straightforward language. Address the audience in words they use all the time, not in complicated, abstract terms. Make every effort to grasp where the audience is coming from so that you pitch your messages to people who are willing to listen. And check for feedback, to see if they are listening and are reacting in a positive way.
Fortunately the digital era has brought us various wonderful tools that make communication easier and allow us to check for responses. Most of these tools are free or nearly so.
Google searches, spelling & grammar checkers, databases to organise information, Recently a number of Artificial Intelligence engines (AI robots) have taken the writing scene by storm, allowing even semi-literate people to compose scripts. We use these tools with caution, but they are helpful.
You can’t rely on a machine to do your thinking for you. Your awareness of context (especially the mood of your audience) must be the foundation of your communication strategy.
News, views and interviews
A lot of what counts as public communication takes the form of media content. Crafting news releases is an essential skill. It is also important to know how to face interviews, and how to prepare for journalists’ questions.
Other communications may be internal to your organisation, memos, reports and emails. Videos and newsletters. Research reports and presentations at meeting. Some communication is person to person, some is written.
There is crisis communication when things are falling apart, and there are routine communications when things are running smoothly. The organisation requires standard operating procedures to deal with situations as they arise.
All of this implies that organisational communication demands a wide range of skills. These skills cannot all be learnt on one course or another. They take years to perfect. When we prepare to run courses we focus on what you, the client, need to train your people for. We ask what your immediate needs are and plan training accordingly.
Consulting & mentoring
The personalities and abilities of communicators are all-important in conveying clear messages. A pleasant, polite, unflappable person is better than a fireball. Also vital is the infrastructure for communication: the connectivity, resources and manuals required to do the job. Very often it is the organisational backup that falls short, and we help you to get the necessary tools.
Tell us what you want in order to be better communicators. We’ll help you to formulate the strategy.