When we communicate there is always noise.
Whether it’s writing, speaking or broadcasting, there is always potential for inteference from the external environment.
This simple but elegant diagram is based on the classic Aristotle model of communication (note 1), and shows three phases other than the message itself (note 2): the encoding (the writing or expression), the decoding (how the audience interprets what you communicate), and the effect it has (what changes as a result of the communication).
The important end of this model is the right-hand-side: what effect the communication has. The next most important step is the decoding because this is what the audience hears and therefore directly influences the final effect.
it is the recipient that communicates. (Peter Drucker)
Unfortunately we can only act on these steps indirectly, because they are outside of our control. All we can do is attack the other step (the encoding), by definition the least important one in the chain!
Shannon and Weaver (in 1949) complicated this model by adding in noise, the distractions that sit in the middle of any communication. This could be anything external that stops our beautifully crafted message from getting correctly decoded by the recipient.
At least now we have another sort-of step which we can influence. I don’t call this a full-blown separate step, the noise sits across the whole model, it is not a distinct step in a linear chain that must be traversed to get to the other side. It is the ever-present hum of distraction which is at its most potent as the message leaps from sender to recipient (hence it sitting in the middle of the model), but as anyone with internet access knows, distractions can strike at any time!
I like to think of distractions as like a Maslow hierarchy of needs. A distraction is essentially something that the brain needs more than it needs the communication at that moment – or at least that’s what the subconcious brain thinks, moving its attention from the communication to the distraction.
Sometimes these distractions are deliberate.
For example, advertisers know that a flashing advert grabs our attention because we are attracted to movement and change, so they will pay to distract us from reading an internet article.
This obviously had an evolutionary advantage when being attracted to movement meant a lower probability of being eaten by a lion. On the African plains, avoiding a lion was more important than reading a webpage, so it made sense.
You were probably distracted by the picture of the lion below as you were reading this.
Here is that pesky lion:
Equally, if we’re starving hungry and can smell lunch being prepared in the next room, chances are we’re thinking more about our need for food than our need for whatever is being communicated at that moment.
(That was probably the wrong use of the word “equally”, being chased by a lion is not really equal to smelling lunch being cooked next door.)
To improve communication, we must therefore:
- Repeat ourselves; and
- Dampen the noise.
Misusing Maslow to define distractions
This is a simplified Maslow hierarchy I just sketched:
So, this is really just about:
- The environment and biological needs, including safety;
- The dynamic of the group; and
- The opportunity to learn, grow, achieve.
If these needs are not met, they will distract the recipient of the communication.
How this translates into action will depend on the type of communication: written, spoken, interactive (e.g. a training event) (note 3); and the intended effect of the communication.
I will explore those in more detail in future posts. This one is already long enough.
(1) Aristotle had: Speaker – Speech – (occasion) – Audience – Effect.
(2) You could argue that the message itself is a distinct step in the process. I don’t. I assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that what we need to communicate is given, and we – as professional communicators – need to find the best way to achieve the desired effect.
(3) These are the three broad types of communication I tend to think of: written; spoken and interactive. The latter is usually a training event which I separate out because it’s longer, interactive and uses a variety of communication methods. By “spoken” I mean a presentation, lecture or speech that is usually shorter and a one-way communication.