by Bill Flury

Cruising Down the Road

You weren’t nervous this time. You had worked hard on this presentation. You had great slides and you cruised through your delivery. Now you were ready to handle any question about the details. The first question was about your analysis. “I don’t understand your statistics. Could you please explain how your conclusions apply to our problem? I’m not a numbers person. Could you draw us a picture?”

You thought you were cruising down the road but, the questioner didn’t understand what you were trying to communicate. You had just hit a big communication pothole.

The Great Truth About Communication Potholes

The Great Truth was revealed to you that night, in a dream. The Great Guru of Good Communication appeared to you and shared this bit of wisdom.

Communication failures are potholes on the road to success.

Then, the Guru vanished, but the message sank in. To ensure effective communication with others, you must find and pave over the potholes that wreck communication, impair your performance and, possibly kill your project.

Pothole Types

Like potholes on the roads, communication potholes come in many forms. Some are accidental, some are on purpose. All have the potential to cause you or your projects to fail.

Intentional Potholes

Let’s think about the really bad ones first. Unfortunately, there are some people who may have a vested interest in keeping you from seeing clearly what is going on. Without outright lying, they want to make sure that you do not fully understand what they are saying.

Obfuscation is one approach. There are many guides published on “How to Lie with Statistics”. They show many of the ways that slides, statistics, and other items can be presented in ways that are misleading. (Example: A politician states that in the last election his opponent ran “Next to last” without mentioning that it was a two-person race.) These self-help books are not meant to encourage lying, rather, they are intended to point out the obfuscation potholes that you should try to avoid.

Some other kinds of potholes to watch out for include the favorites of those who have to present bad news and would like to keep the worst parts hidden. Their techniques include selective omission of details and euphemisms. For example, on a project that is running seriously late, “We have two small tasks to complete, but we are 96% done”. How small is “small” and how big is the remaining 4%?

Magicians don’t want their audiences to see how they saw the lady in half or produce the rabbit out of the hat, so they use misdirection to trick people into not seeing what they are getting. This type of pothole is not limited to magicians. Politicians can keep you from seeing their favorable vote on something you don’t like by focusing your attention during the voting on some other issue. Project managers may ask you to focus on other projects.

In his book, Nudge, Richard Thaler describes a very common pothole based on exploiting human inertia, the tendency to keep doing what we have always been doing. He points out that most people fail to pay attention and thus don’t see that a contract that you signed has an automatic renewal clause that will continue a monthly charge past the anniversary date forever unless you take action to stop it. Let’s add default clauses to the list of potholes.

Although there are many more types of intentional potholes I will end with this example:

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Please read all instructions and warnings before use. Must be 18 years of age or older to proceed further. Enter at your own risk. Some assembly required. Batteries not included. You are responsible for all errors, even those made by the author. Always read the fine print.

Accidental Potholes

The accidental potholes on the way to seeing are those that nature creates for us. They are the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of the world in which we live and work. These are the potholes that we have to look out for and be prepared to avoid.

There are several types of media that we can use to try to help ourselves and others see. We can:

  • Write something
  • Say something (e.g., speech, briefing)
  • Show one or more pictures
  • Give a demonstration (e.g., an activity, a device, a combination)
When We Write or Say Something

There are many ways in which a person trying to read the written word can feel like what he or she is reading is in a foreign language. The wording may be too complex. The words may be unfamiliar.

Some may have a limited vocabulary and all the words beyond those that they know are, to them, a foreign language.

  • There may be regional differences in the terminology (e.g. is a poke a bag or a sock or a punch?).
  • In areas where the pace of life is leisurely and you ask when something will be done, “shortly’ may turn out to be days or weeks.
  • Those who see the words but are not able to make any sense out of them can’t see and do not get anything out of the situation except frustration.
  • Variations in the English language and extensive use of idioms increase the problem. Does everyone know what is meant by “That dog won’t hunt”?
Problems with Spoken Words

Many of the seeing problems with the written word are made worse when the words are being spoken. Some people do not hear clearly. When you are speaking to them, they may mis-hear some of the words and that will lead to a confused message. Some do not hear and process spoken words quickly. Fast speakers are often misunderstood by such people. The translation process can get really stressed when you are speaking quickly and what you are saying is full of jargon and acronyms.

Sarcasm

It depends on your tone of voice, but your listeners may think you are being sarcastic when you say, “That was really great!”.  Was it something that your group had done that was really good or something really bad?

Different Frames of Reference

The optimist sees the glass as half full. The pessimist sees it as half empty. The engineer sees that the glass is the wrong size.

Frame of Reference

Someone watching you demonstrate some new cost-saving technology may end up thinking about the poor people who will be losing jobs because of it.

Ambiguity (Context and vocal stress)

The meaning of the following sentence changes radically depending on which word is emphasized.

I think I see a moving van.

Do you see a family van with a Mom driving the kids to school that is moving? … or do you see one of those big trucks in carrying furniture, moving or not? Also, do you really see it? … or do you just think you see it?

Misdirection

Sometimes the words can lead you into a mental trap by misdirection.  For example, answer this question: A big elephant and a small elephant are walking together in the circus parade. The little elephant is the big elephant’s son. The big elephant is not the little elephant’s father. Who is the big elephant?

The trick in this riddle is to catch you when your mind is preset to think that all big elephants are male. Mom elephants can be big also and you have to remind folks to remain open-minded in order to see better.

Believability

A quote from a recent report on a test of a communication link: “During testing there were only three instances of undetected error”.  Some might let that statement pass without thinking. An inquiring mind would require and answer to: “How did they find those undetected errors? *

* In this case, the testers explained they had inserted 100 errors into the test message and only 3 sneaked past the test. That explanation was necessary to make it possible to “See” how the test was done.

Jargon Problems

Jargon problems can be severe but are more easily overcome. Some work groups use acronyms and specialized jargon extensively. This is very prevalent in military and technical circles. Those who actively work in these groups, the “insiders” are thoroughly familiar with all the words and find it easy to process the acronyms and jargon as they read or hear them. To an outsider, some of the things that are written seem like a foreign language.

 “Seeing” Problems with Pictures or Data

Some people have difficulty visualizing the relationships among components of a related set of activities. When they read or are told about these activities, they tend to see all the things going on as separate tasks and cannot picture the relationships among them. 

Some people can look at a spreadsheet full of data and “see” the story in the numbers. Others, whether they have math fright or some other aversion to numbers, may freeze up at a set of numbers and have to find a different way to see the story. (See books by Edward Tufte in the References). To avoid this pothole, you must be aware that what works for some may not work for others and be prepared to offer a variety of approaches.

Some people have never been trained to translate written descriptions of objects into a mental image of the object or activity. They can read a description of a new building or device, but they cannot comprehend what it looks like from the words alone. To understand, they must see a physical model.

Paving-Over the Potholes

You can adapt your presentation methods to most of these problems. They are the inherent characteristics of your intended audience and you must be aware that you will have to use special methods when you are working with people with these reading impairments. Work with persons who have reading or visualization problems. Talk with them about what you are trying to do to help them get to understand. In the posts that follow you will see some detailed examples of communication potholes. These are some of the most common and the most difficult to avoid.

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