It has been remarked before, by better writers than I, that despite having more ways to communicate in than ever before we as a species are pretty bad at actually communicating with each other.
I suspect it’s this idea that we all are deserving of being listened to, which is not true at all – even me. I’m gratified that you’ve read this far, and that some of you like my occasional tweets but it never works out the way you think. For example, last week I tweeted this:
According to Twitter, this garnered 4,956 impressions and 132 engagements (which included 68 Likes and 15 Retweets). None of those Likes or Retweets came from people who follow me on Twitter. So much for ‘target audience’.
At its simplest, communication involves a sender and receiver. I have met and worked with (and for) people who think that this is the entirety of the communications process; if they say something, people will listen.
And it’s true that this simple model does sometimes work – if, for example, you’re Taylor Swift. Or, if like some people I know, you’ve gathered so many ‘friends’ in life that you have no way to sensibly communicate with all of them, so you use Facebook to tell everyone what you’re doing. The 21st Century equivalent of the Christmas Letter, except it lasts all year long. You probably know of people who do this too.
As regular readers will know, I’m not a great fan of the Facebook model. It’s around this time of year, 30 years ago, that Birgit went back to Germany after her term-and-a-bit on overseas placement with us at TASC. We got into the habit of writing to each other every month, which meant letters were flying back and forth across the North Sea about once a fortnight. There wasn’t always much to write about, but we wrote anyway, to keep our friendship alive. I’ve kept all of those letters in a way I never will with Facebook updates, even though I can download my whole Facebook history and file it somewhere.
Pumping messages out is fine and dandy then, but the only way to ensure people tune in is to give them something worth listening to. Which isn’t something you decide.
If, for example, I wanted to embed the West Yorkshire Combined Authority better in the consciousness of the citizens of West Yorkshire (and York, market days only1 ), then telling them about the great things “we’re” doing isn’t good enough. As I’ve said before, the question is always “What does this mean for me?” and if you can’t express your message in such terms it will be skim-read and ignored.
Dydw i ddim yn deall yr hyn yr ydych yn ei olygu2
It also has to be in a language that your receiver will understand. If I had £1 for every time I’ve had to sub-edit documents meant for public consumption that contained acronyms and jargon I wouldn’t be sitting here getting depressed about my employment prospects.
More often than not you’re trying to tell a story, which means engaing with your audience on their terms, not yours. That’s why you need good public relations people in the first place, we are storytellers3 and it’s what we do best.
As organisational communicators, we need to listen to what people are saying to us so that we respond correctly. The same applies in our interpersonal communications. That means understanding the reason for the communication not just the message. Back in the day at work we used to have a regular phone caller. He was housebound, it was clear he just wanted someone to talk to and we indulged him, even though it was rarely on the subject of public transport. Okay, Josie indulged him, Martin & I never had the patience.
Someone I haven’t seen for 15 years, but have kept in touch with, sent me some photos of her three-month old daughter the other day. She knows I don’t like kids but she wanted to share and she knew I’d be happy for her. Not at all ‘targeted communication’ but welcome nonetheless, and if I had similar news I’d share it with her.
It all comes down to the kind of reputation you want people to have of you / your organisation.
When friends or acquaintances don’t follow through on the “getting back” thing I get annoyed, because they’re promising things they can’t deliver on. I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever left someone hanging.
If I ever told a reporter that I would “get back to them” then I did, and usually in good time. If I couldn’t, I would tell them what the delay was (usually in getting political sign-off for a statement) and work with them to make sure our message would still get across.
Because, when it comes down to it, the only things I have in life are my word and my reputation. I’d like them both to be good. And if they’re not… I’m all ears.
- A bit of politics there – York is in and out as it sees fit. [↩]
- This was from Google Translate, but I have always wanted to learn Welsh. Tried once. If I get a job, I’ll try again. Deal? [↩]
- Not, sadly, in the tradition of the Gleemen. See also the actor Julian Glover’s interpretations of Beowulf. [↩]