More on Messaging

Posted on April 8, 2009. Filed under: Professional |

I’m excited my previous post on The Message dictates the Media generated additional questions. I’m inspired so much in fact that I’ve decided to leave the previous article (mostly) unedited and provide this second clarifying article as an addendum. The previous article was on the long side and got into some rather complex and ambiguous concepts. I believe these question responses will both fill in the missing details and provide a more precise picture of the concepts in the previous article. Thanks to those of you who asked questions! (Yes, I combined and manipulated your many questions to make my responses more concise.)

Loss of Signal DiagramWhy is technology selection so important?

I use the concept of human bandwidth to refer to two separate components. In the simplified view of the Information Theory model of communication, there is a sender who encodes a message, that message is transmitted over a channel and is received and decoded by a receiver. My diagram at right attempts to both illustrate that one way flow of information and insert the concept of filtering. The pale blue disc represents the physical barrier between a sender and a receiver – in today’s world this is usually a combination of distance, time, culture and language.

A communication technology (like the telephone, email, webcasting, etc.) essentially puts a hole in the disc and enables parts of the message to be transmitted through those physical barriers while other parts are filtered out.

This filtering can create one of two possible problems… first, if the portion that does not make it through the hole – the technology channel – is important to the nature of the message, it will not be adequately transmitted. Second, if the portion that does make it through is not all entirely relevant to the nature of the message, then noise is created.

Fortunately, much of this filtering factor can be predicted. For instance, telephone communication, even though it happens synchronously (at the same time), fails to transmit visual cues that may be valuable in understanding the iimportance of a message. Think about a speaker who gets red in the face or gets watery eyes when sharing a specific message, without the visual cues the passion or sincerity of the sender may be lost. I believe this helps explain why trust is so important in effective communication. When our personal knowledge of the person who is conveying the information is minimal, we have trouble trusting their statements without visual congruity.

Similarly, when using a technology that is too broad for the message is employed, information overload is created. If you don’t have information anxiety in today’s modern world, you probably aren’t on the internet, email or telephone. Too much noise in the message interferes with effective communication. If you want to know how to check the balance of your checking account before you write a check and I tell you about the state of the economy, share the financial statements of your bank and present a graph showing your spending and saving habits over the last 10 years, your bank balance may be hidden in all of that data somewhere but you are unlikely to make the effort to find it.

Clearly, when used appropriately, filters provide a useful service and technology can either enhance or detract from your communication.

Does the effort vs. value arguement work the same for both sender and receiver?

In the previous article I used a stair step diagram to illustrate a hierarchy of technologies (from email at the bottom to face-to-face, one-with-one at the top) relative to the bandwidth they offer. (In the diagram above, think of bandwidth as the size of the hole in the disc.) Even the highest bandwidth technology – meeting face-to-face with another person – can generate misunderstanding. Obviously, there are unseen portions of the message that are filtered even when using the richest technology available to humankind!

Think of it this way – when I use a word it is representing an image or concept in my mind, I utter that word and it creates an image or concept in your mind. If those two images are even slightly different, misunderstanding or confusion may result. My favorite example is the Abbott and Costello act called Who’s on First orfor a more modern version see the grsr420 version.

Back to the effort vs. value diagram. In it I point out that lower bandwidth technologies offer greater ease of use – it is often easier to pick up a phone than to go across town to have a discussion with someone in person. Likewise, if that person is on the other side of the globe (therefore living in an inconvenient time zone), it may be easier to use a technology that allows asyncrhonous communication, like email. In addition, since it is so easy for me to send that email message to the other side of the world, I may be lulled into giving it much less attention than it requires. So, as these examples illustrate, as convenience increases for the sender, the opportunity for the receiver to interact decreases. If the intention of the message is to generate action or change, a highly convenient medium may reach many people quickly, but it is unlikely to generate the desired behavior.

From the receiver’s standpoint, things appear a bit different but complimentary. As part of the audience for your message, I’m receiving it along with many other messages during all of my waking hours. Your message looks just like a thousand others… part of my personal background noise. Essentially, convenience on your part, shifts the energy toward me as the recipient. If I don’t have reason to expend the energy to dig for the parts of your message that are relevant to me, the communication might as well have not happened.

The bottom line is this, if what you are saying is important enough to be acted upon, be careful about how it is communicated. Otherwise, don’t expect your audience to respond. If what you are saying is not important, you can save everyone’s energy by not communicating at all!


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