Writing in isolation: our new communication context

About three weeks ago in the UK the world changed. Yes, we’d known about coronavirus, and saw the devastation it was wreaking in other countries. We knew it was likely to come here, but it was only when the various layers of lockdown began to be introduced that its reality came home.

Now just these few weeks later, a world where people could mingle and talk freely already seems a different era, made poignant when you see TV or film with people doing just that.

I don’t watch any broadcast TV, but even on streaming platforms (in this case All4) some of the ads seemed painfully irrelevant. That’s not the ad makers’ fault of course, though it doesn’t say anything good about the planners and schedulers. Whatever, it forcefully makes the point that in communication context is everything.

Context and understanding

Or at least, it’s quite a lot. A few years ago (1967) the psychologist Albert Mehrabian made an influential observation about effective communication. His research suggested that the words we spoke accounted for only seven per cent of what was understood, while tone of voice shaped a further 38 per cent, and body language the remaining 55 per cent.

Mehrabian’s findings have been widely misused and misinterpreted. He was looking specifically into the communication of emotion: the split would be very different if you were analysing the effectiveness of a lecturer.

The analysis also pays no attention to context, which is not surprising, because any experiment demands a tight control of context, and the real difficulty of so much communication, (particularly business communication) is that you can’t control the context. It’s why I remain deeply sceptical even about the concept of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), which attempts to push a deeper understanding of how content, tone and gesture fit together, but again and necessarily has little useful to say about the contexts in which such communication takes place.

The brain is not a computer

I’d suggest that this is because NLP springs from an unreflective view of how we are in the world, an unfortunate by-product of advances in brain science (and the lingering influence of behaviourism). Metaphor can be truly helpful in the ways we can see or understand things, but the metaphor of the brain as a computer is not helpful. Too often it obstructs the limits of the correlations between MRI observations and the various phenomena of consciousness. (That’s admittedly a compressed thought, but if you’re interested in this subject you’ll find a good primer here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/27/why-your-brain-is-not-a-computer-neuroscience-neural-networks-consciousness ). NLP is part of the same dubious metaphor (neurolinguistic programming), as if our understanding of a communication necessarily follows predetermined and easily defined patterns of input/output.

I’m not suggesting that respectively content, tone or body language are unimportant. You will need to get these things as right as you can in any face-to-face encounter, but they are not sufficient if you want to understand how your communication may be received. NLP, and beyond it concepts like neuro-marketing pretentiously under-describe how communication works.

They’ve proved popular I’d guess because they claim to bring precision and science to a field more traditionally thought impervious to such certainty, but as ever with the seemingly miraculous it’s snake oil. In the words of the American writer HL Mencken (and I’ll be coming back to simplicity in a later blog) “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Control and constraints

Or to draw ironically from another aspect of brain science, this way of thinking is very much a left brain mode, blinded by its craving for simplification, attractive because such simplicity brings the illusion of control. You need to forget about control, if you want to get closer to communications effectiveness. You do not have total control of the communication environment, particularly when it comes to written communication. That’s not to say there’s nothing you can do, but the first step towards doing this well is to recognise the constraints within which you must work.

The way the advertising industry works is a partial solution. The industry spends a great deal of time and money crafting and above all testing its messages. But as I noted in the opening remarks about changing times, this won’t protect them from devastating shifts in context. Ad agencies might argue that this is not the point, that what you hope for with your media targeting is to find enough people often enough in a receptive frame of mind for the message to work, and indeed that’s how it’s always been. These days the promise of social media advertising, building on big data, is to refine the targeting so in theory it has a better chance of finding that warm reception. (An improved chance, we should note, is not the same as precision, and bogus pseudo-scientific claims are still being made in this area.)

Advertising is a special case, though even advertising clearly has its persuasive limits, not least because it’s confined to the one-way possibilities of a message. It’s a special case too because in the ordinary world the same refining and testing resources are not (and cannot realistically be) deployed.

Virtual contexts

When we are speaking face to face with people, we do have a full ability to understand context. At its most basic, if someone is crying or upset you don’t usually try to tell them a joke. We have in varying degrees the ability to read the situation around us and come up with an appropriate approach or response.

We also have the technology to give us a version of this kind of contact over a distance. It is limited. A phone call will allow us to accommodate tone of voice. A video call will let us see gestures and facial expressions. As we’ve been finding out en masse recently the still-imperfect technology will intrude somewhat, making it harder to read those cues reliably, but an imperfect substitute for face to face conversations is up to a point still easier than trying to manage what we might mean in silence.

(On the other hand I read this morning of a US travel company that fired whole departments using Zoom video conferencing. The company argued that this was a version of the face-to-face announcements they would have preferred to have used, but it had the bizarre effect of turning this sensitive conversation into a TV spectacle, with colleagues watching each other react, often tearfully, in little squares on the screen.)

Writing in isolation

There’s a lot of understandable speculation right now about how this crisis could change our working patterns and assumptions, making remote working the norm for many roles. This seems at least likely, and communicating remotely clearly requires more thought than most of us will have given it. In a recent RSA conversation creativity expert John Howkins noted the isolated context will urge us to think harder around how we feel about work, about why we do it, how we relate to our colleagues, and how that work relates to society.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=rcZQiCB7fgk&feature=emb_logo

He may be right, but this dislocation of context is in itself not new. Personal computing has long transformed the ways we communicate, causing everyone to write far more than they ever used to, whether though email, messaging, or more formal reports and narratives. And writing, unlike most work related activity, is solitary.

Managing tone in writing is tricky. You can try to limit ambiguity by keeping things as simple as possible, and you can try to set context at a micro level (ie within the text) by the build up of a narrative, limiting interpretation, but as Mehrabian observed, sometimes meaning is carried by the tone in which a phrase is delivered, and you can’t control that in the silence of the written page.

This difficulty is why email and social media posts so easily give unintended offence, and why emoticons have developed, giving a crude approximation of gestures or facial expression.

Much of the time, where the communication task is simple, this may not matter too much. When it does matter, managing tone requires real skill in writing, and the absence of that skill and attention means we have to spend too much time wading through corporate hogwash.

Simple or not?

On the other hand with written communication you can often make some reasonable assumptions about the context in which your words will be received; I’m doing so now, assuming that you’ve got this far because you’re interested in the topic and have decided in advance to give your attention to it. So all is not lost.

But context means much more than the particular mood or known interests of a given audience. The wicked effectiveness of the simple slogan “take back control” in the Brexit debate was a manipulation both of a known context, and its absence. The known context was the intuition that a significant part of the population was feeling unhappy, left behind, or whatever, and so would respond to the phrase as a pithy analysis of where they were. It also played on the absent context of a much bigger reality, a reality of global interdependence, the complexity of trade deals (with their inevitable compromises of sovereignty for mutual benefit). The context was largely absent because it’s complex and requires a committed interest in the economic and political ways of the world, an interest not reflected in this country’s populist media.

The slogan was knowingly framed in the confidence that without such a context its audience would literally not understand that these words did not mean what they say, that they were a deliberate diversion of responsibility for impoverished lives from where it actually lay (in the governing economic and political philosophy of the last 40 years). It was, to speak carefully, deceptively simple.

However in our current place we’ve seen all too painfully that such manipulative simplicity is not the answer, even if it seems this government has no other answer. It is true that government messages about how we should behave have been unhelpfully mixed, causing confusion and unhelpful behaviour. Consequently they seem to have settled on a unashamedly manipulative directive: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. The slogan is designed to make people think twice about doing something self-indulgent, but in this context people are going to be thinking a lot more than twice, because in reality the injunction to stay at home is impossible. People do need to go out, for shopping and other important tasks. What’s more when the chief exec of a supermarket chain rightly pointed out that it would be better if most people did go to a shop, and leave the overburdened home delivery services for those most at risk he was answered with the same blunt slogan, which just made it look brain dead. The government needs to be unambiguous in its messaging, but that can’t be at the expense of visible reality.

Beyond distance

Looking beyond the pressures of the moment, although it’s impossible to predict the lasting consequences of the current lockdown we can expect a surge in people finding they work effectively from home, at least part of the time, and many more will want this. The advantages to a business are well-established (not least reduced office costs), and for many the current emergency will have broken through the inertia that ensured the old ways stayed in place.

But such a change means much more than a different location. It’s one of the more unhelpful prevailing assumptions in business that the practice of internal communication is primarily about crafting messages in an advertising sort of way to influence behaviour (and indirectly, productivity). It’s not.

Internal audiences are not like commercial audiences. They’re in a certain place, to do work, notionally at least for specific good outcomes for the enterprise. They talk together about that work, within their teams, and sometimes beyond those teams, spreading their understanding, insight and attitudes. The primary function of internal communication is to help set the context in which those conversations take place. It can try to ensure those conversations are as informed as possible, that people feel they have the information tools they need to do their work, and that they know what good work looks like in this organisation. The latter in particular demands attention to the stories that get told across the workforce, both in terms of the bigger pictures of what the organisation or business is about, and in the smaller stories that influence individual behaviour.

Achieving this context-setting when people are gathered in workplaces is one thing (though no one is saying it’s easy, and most organisations are still finding their way), but it is quite another set of things when people are working virtually.

It won’t be enough simply to develop virtual versions of the tools used in collective workplaces, because this displacement is not just about location. If John Howkins is right, and I think he is, the aftermath of this epidemic is likely to yield a questioning of our relationship to work, about what we expect from it, and about our relationship to colleagues (even as other pressures, from automation and artificial intelligence for instance, continue to push in on us). The notion of a workplace culture may still matter, but its interrelationship with the other cultures of our lives outside work will become more evident, demanding more attention from us as working individuals, and more thought from those trying to manage their dispersed staff. The relationship of work to the other things we do, and by extension the relationship of the enterprise to the societies in which it functions will all be under far more present scrutiny.

This will be the new context in which people have to find words for what they mean, and in which they will need to understand the meaning of the words coming out of their organisations. It’s likely to be a context in which the aforementioned corporate hogwash will look increasingly intolerable, and where the notion of transparency suddenly matters across multiple domains: in the visibility of my work, that of my colleagues, and in the functioning and priorities of the wider organisation.

This will not be business as usual.

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