Friday, June 24, 2016

Frames are the bones of good communication

No matter what you wear, your bones give it shape. You can change clothes, change your style, add padding, pull in loose bits with shape wear and still, your bones give your shape. Although no one can see them (we hope!), they change what everyone sees.

Your communication has bones too. These bones give shape to your writing or speaking; they tell people how to interpret what you are saying. If they don't think the bones fit their expectations, they won't have a container that allows them to hold your information. If they think the bones fit their expectations too closely, they'll assume they already know what you are going to say and they'll remember what they thought you meant (and not what you meant to say).

Consider this mannequin. It has so skin and no clothes, but you know immediately that it represents a body in motion and you can make predictions about the kind of movements and the direction it is moving. Frames in communication allow us to do the same thing: they don't just hold the facts, they hold them in a way that allows us to predict where someone is going and how they expect to get there.

If you're not sure what I mean, consider some frames that are familiar:

  1. You have to look after the bottom line. In this frame, all the information is arranged to show that everything has to be tied to a predictable result. If you can't show a way to produce more than you will expend, then you don't get to start something new.
  2. We are all on a journey. In this frame, you expect things to be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, because travelling is like that. On the other hand, you also expect to encounter new people and new sights that might open up new possibilities.
  3. It's a real battle. This is almost never a reference to a real battle, but it tells you immediately that there will be winners and losers. Choose your friends wisely and keep an eye on your enemies.
Practice noticing that these frames are the bones supporting many of the messages you receive (and maybe some of the ones you send). When you notice one, do some mental modelling and uncover what changes when you change the frame. Say, "if this was a journey and not a battle, what would be important and what would I predict comes next?"

Friday, June 17, 2016

How to focus your communication

Some people think that the bigger the words they use, the more focused their communication will be. The reasoning is usually fuzzy, but goes something like this: Bigger words often have more precise meanings. So using more big words must mean that you are expressing a more precise meaning (a subset of narrowly defined words).

This may be true of the dictionary meaning of your words. It's not true of how most people will process them.

You need two qualities to help people focus on your words. The first is that you have a key message you can state simply and directly. This becomes the touchstone for everything else you write. It all points back to this clear key message.

The second quality you need is sensory coding. People focus on what engages their senses. If your words point them to sights and sounds and feelings, their attention will wrap around your words. Your readers or listeners will be so busy filling in the sensory information that your words suggest, they will let go of all other distractions. This is focus.

Look at something you have written or your notes for a recent presentation. Ask yourself: did I state my key message in clear, direct language? Did I use words that referenced the senses so that my readers would make a mental movie of my words?  Where could I add sensory information to make it easier for my readers to focus?

For instance, let me ask you this: is your message on target? Have you painted a picture with bold strokes and colours or are you working in watercolours, detailed and delicate?

Friday, June 10, 2016

Why the front step is the right place to talk about change

Welcome to our front step. There are other places to have an important conversation, but not better places. Lives change when people sit side by side on this step and look out at the park while they talk.

Front steps are portals - spaces that mark a transition between one place and another. That's why this front step is such a good place to reflect on change. The space does not change anything in the situation described. It does change the attitude in which that situation can be considered. It invites you to sit far enough outside your life to see it differently, close enough to be back into the thick of it in a step or two.

It's easy to get caught up in what you know and what words you will choose when you want to influence someone else, either to lead them through something or to support them through something. But the research suggests we're putting our focus on the wrong stuff. Most of what we say will be forgotten almost as soon as it is said. But we do remember where we were when something important was said to us, and we do remember how someone's words made us feel. So setting the stage for a conversation is an important part of having the impact you want to have.

This step looks out over traffic to a city park. You can't sit here without being in the middle of work and play, movement and rest. You can't sit here without knowing that life contains complicated elements in relationship. Whether you look at the concrete or the garden, you know that the other is just an eye movement away. A change in perspective is not just possible here; it is inevitable.

I love sitting on this step and opening up to the sidewalks and the traffic and the park. But I love even more taking all that balance and energy and using it to nudge someone towards a tough topic or a raw place that needs care so it can heal. Just outside their awareness, the place reminds them that change is as natural as moving through a doorway. That's what doorways are for.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Clear and concise communication results from knowing your audience

Take a look at the picture. Is it a picture of bare trees or of trees that are just about to burst into leaf? 
Your interpretation depends as much on you as it does on this picture of trees in late April.

Your words are like the bare branches of these trees. When you choose them well, they burst into leaf in the minds of your listeners or readers. Just a few words can grow into a rich impression. When you choose without enough thought, your concise expression will just be bare branches.

Too often, we think that qualities like "clear" or "concise" are absolutes, qualities that are found in the writing alone. They are actually descriptions of a relationship between a communicator, an audience and a message. They define the sweet spot where the fewest words have the greatest impact because they represent shared experience and understanding.

Think of a time someone has been abrupt with you: you were given a bare branch but not enough information to imagine that branch in full bloom. Think of a time you were frustrated by someone who couldn't follow your (obviously clear) instructions. You gave them the bare branch, but perhaps they didn't know what kind of leaves to expect from it.

There is no clarity in words: there is only a finely tuned attention to meeting your audience in their experience so that they can imagine more than your words can say.