How hard can communication be? If you're reasonably intelligent and articulate, it shouldn't be that difficult to deliver a message so that audience members understand what you're trying to say.

But the truth is that we often get in our own way when it comes to communication. Recently I've been re-reading that brilliant book, Information Anxiety, by Richard Saul Wurman, a pioneer of information architecture (and founder of TED Talks). Published in 1989, Information Anxiety is as insightful today as it was back then, when Mr. Wurman first explained why the growth of information has led to a decline in attention. Some of the factors are societal, but sometimes the problem lies in how we as communicators approach sharing information.

For example, here are 5 "traps, diseases and malaises" that sabotage understanding:

  1. Familiarity breeds confusion. Also known as the "curse of expertise," this occurs when you're so knowledgeable about a topic that you overshare details rather than simply explaining your point. The problem with experts, explains Mr. Wurman, is that "you ask them the time, and they will tell you how to build a clock. They fail to provide the . . . threshold into each thought" so audience members can gain access.
  2. If you can't be good, at least you can look good. Communicators often confuse pretty packaging with performance. A communication doesn't work just because it's attractive; it has to successfully communicate an idea to be effective.
  3. "Any questions? No? Then thanks for coming." You've presented your pitch as audience members nod their heads in seeming agreement and understanding. And when you ask for questions, nobody has any. So you feel good that you've successfully gotten your point across. But there could be a hidden problem that Mr. Wurman calls the "uh-huh syndrome," which occurs when people's fear of looking stupid outweighs their desire to understand. Nobody wants to ask a "dumb" question. So you need to facilitate communication that allows audience members to safely gain clarification without exposing their ignorance.
  4. This is something that everybody knows already. This is related to #3, but in this case you assume that some concepts are so commonly used that you don't have to explain what they mean or how they work. Organizations often run into this problem with acronyms: "The BUTA division reported that sales this quarter were above target." What the heck is BUTA? Even long-tenured employees may not be sure. And it's always someone's first day at work.
  5. If one fact is good, a million details are even better. As Mr. Wurman warns, "Accuracy or facts do not necessarily make things understandable. The cure is learning to get beyond the facts to meaning." He cites the example of barometric pressure. "I would say there is one person in a thousand who knows how the barometric pressure is derived or what it means; yet weather commentators slavishly offer it up in every forecast."

What's the best way to avoid these pitfalls? Two words: don't assume. Take the time to think about your audience--what they know, what they care about, and what they want from you. By doing so, you'll design communication that achieves your communication while meeting your audience's needs.

Published on: Jan 18, 2017