Success in Communication
It is Friday morning; you just received yet another rejection letter after an interview, your girlfriend is mad at you for who knows what, your boss has no idea why you haven’t finished that task from weeks ago, and now, since you hate texting about as much as you hate code reviews, you’ve got nothing to do this weekend. Sound familiar? That makes two of us. No need to fear, all hope is not lost, the solutions to all of these problems share one common denominator: communication. Communication is key for success in each of these scenarios that you find yourself in each and every week.
A communication paradigm shift
Communications class in college was the only class that everyone had to take and it was also the only class that nobody learned anything from. This is true for a couple of reasons: people do not care what they are presenting about and the level of quality at which they communicate will not affect the final grade that they receive.
In other words, students have no skin in the game when it comes to communicating effectively, in both verbal and written forms. How is a student supposed to be motivated for a ridiculous presentation about something that is of no personal interest? On top of that, spending the time to prepare a good presentation versus just wingin’ it is the difference between an A and an A-, and that’s only if the teacher likes you.
It is no wonder why effective communication skills are so rare professionally. The impact that communication of information has on life is negligible until making it to that first job interview, and then it is already too late.
I challenge you to change your view of communication, no longer thinking of it as worthless amidst the desolate boredom of college Communications class, but instead viewing it as one of the most important skills that impacts all facets of your life.
Knock knock. Who’s there? Your neighbor. My neighbor who? No.
Why did that joke suck? Well, for many reasons, but this particular joke makes no sense to someone who does not possess the proper information. It merely sounds absurd; maybe that joke would be hilarious if you knew my neighbor, but with no background, there will be no laughs. Similarly, when you are trying to convey a concept or an idea, with no background, there will be no understanding.
If you are a knowledge worker, the odds are pretty good that you have the opportunity to sit through a bunch of presentations, both formal and informal, where you have no idea what is being talked about. You are not able to participate in the conversation because you have been thrust into a problem, not into the story behind the problem.
Having this story-centric approach in the back of your mind during your next meeting will be a real eye-opener and helps demystify why during some talks your attention is totally lost, while during others you find yourself naturally participating.
Thinking of a practical application of this concept: to get your point across better, add more background information, whether you are presenting a technical concept or planning a boys trip to the beach. You might think that everyone in your audience is smarter than you and doesn’t need any background or you might think that background is boring and people just want you to get to it. Both of these assumptions are wrong. You have been thinking about your topic constantly since you started working on it and no one in your audience has even considered it until now.
You need to have the audience walking in your shoes and actually understanding the problem, facing it as you did, before you show them the solution. A solution with no context is a solution of no value.
Make it your own
To echo some advice society hammers into all of us, if greatness is to be achieved in any field, uniqueness must coincide with the requisite knowledge. No two great speakers are alike, but most mediocre speakers are fairly interchangeable.
Everyone is an individual, potential is never fully achieved by trying to be exactly like another, but that does not exclude drawing upon others for influence. With that in mind, when thinking of your own pursuit of communicable-greatness, the most valuable tip that I can offer is to be an active listener.
Identify those speakers whom you admire and wish to emulate and also identify those speakers who make you cringe. Instead of listening to talks for the information (or just playing on your phone with your camera off), listen to talks for the style of the presenter; the art, not the content. After only a few presentations, a clear picture will be formed of the speaker that you wish to become. With this concrete ideal forming, improvement will flow naturally as you strive for your own ideal.
Kierkegaard on communication
Taking a look at Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is particularly interested in possibility, the description of an event that happened to another individual, and actuality, the way that things actually are. Kierkegaard explores the idea that when one person communicates their experience to another, the only actual information that can be communicated is the possibility of the experience; it is impossible to communicate an experience in actuality.
If you and your friend had what was in your eyes the best pizza ever, it would be impossible to communicate the actuality of the pizza-eating experience to anyone, even to one another, since the experience of eating the pizza differed for each of you. There is no way that your friend could grasp the actuality of your eating the pizza, since this reality was experienced outside the scope of her being. You could only explain as best as possible what it was like; this would lead your friend to grasp the possibility of the best pizza ever, but the actuality, the experience of the best pizza ever would still evade her.
What this means is that, as the receiver, your friend is only exposed to the possibility of the greatest pizza ever. This pizza, that is, your pizza, does not actually nor has it ever existed to her; she can only take your word for it, there will always be some uncertainty about what it was like. This is a powerful tool when conveying a point.
All the audience is capable of perceiving is the possibility of your information as it relates to themselves. Information should always be presented with this in mind; how can my audience turn this into actuality by applying it to their own problems?
So, here you are at the end of the article and another rejection letter has rolled in, your girlfriend is still mad at you, and your life is still in shambles, but you now possess the skills to solve at least the first of these problems. Interviews and technical presentations are a game, so you might as well play with a stacked deck. Focus on your communication skills professionally and you will immediately reap the benefits and, with a little bit of luck, some of those benefits will be carried into the rest of your life; communication is constant.