The single most important thing I’ve learned in communications? All comms is coded.
Communicating is often portrayed as if it was simply a matter of transmitting information. Find out what a leader wants to say, “wordsmith” it, and push it out. Next!
That model works great if you’re a postman.* Otherwise it has some limitations - the main one being that there’s a vast difference between what a speaker says and what the audience hears. Without thinking seriously how the message will be received, speaking is mere noise.
A better model is encrypted radio. A coded message makes sense only when it’s deciphered by the receiver. If the transmitter and receiver aren’t both turned on and on the same wavelength, there can be no communication. As usual, Drucker was right: “It is the recipient that communicates”.
The implications of this are profound. In conversational terms, it means the person who holds the key to a conversation is not the speaker but the listener. A good listener transforms sound into meaningful, actionable information. Good communicators are mindful of the many barriers a listener faces in doing this. These include:
Assumed knowledge: unfamiliar concepts, jargon and words all need translating, draining mental energy away from other tasks.
Length: no one gets criticised for their text, speech or video being short. There’s a reason Twitter, Insta and TikTok have taken off so rapidly.
Complexity: richer content often reduces rather than increases value.
Context: a good presentation faces a steeper climb when it’s the fourth of the morning and right before lunch.
Orientation: a journey isn’t much fun when you’re lost. The audience needs to have confidence that you know where you’re taking them.
Participation: if a meaningful opportunity to take part in the conversation is denied, the most natural response is to withdraw.
The solution? Think less of what you want to say, more of the underlying message you want the audience to receive. A few quick pointers should help:
Have a clear takeaway: what’s the one thing the audience needs to think/know/do?
Simplify and exaggerate: use contrast or drama to make the message unmissable and memorable.
Condense: boil the key message down to a single hashtag, phrase or word
Repeat: repetition is the simplest, most effective way to underline what’s important.
Storify: use anecdote or analogy to humanise the message.
Check for risk: could your intention be misread? (best ask someone else to do this).
Flow: revise and streamline ruthlessly to ensure each part forms a single message.
Signpost: detours are fine but give the audience a sense of overall direction.
Personalise: revise or repurpose so the message is well received by this specific audience.
Make it conversational: both sides should be the listener in turn. Ensure plenty of opportunities for the audience to have their say, both vertically and horizontally, and not only in terms of responding to the agenda but also setting it.
—- *Nothing against posties - I was a one once!
*Nothing against posties - I was a one once!