Let's say you've decided to unwind after a long workweek by stopping in at the hipster bar down the street. You know the type of place: electronic music, low lighting and every staff member dressed completely in black.
It's a busy night at Hipster, so after elbowing your way to the bar, you feel lucky to find a seat. It takes you a few minutes to get the attention of one of the bartenders (who have identical spiky haircuts and thick-rimmed glasses). Finally, you give your order in a loud voice (to be heard over the hubbub) and in a few minutes you're enjoying a delicious dirty martini.
The drink goes down smoothly (maybe a little too smoothly), so it's not long before you feel relaxed. You look at your nearly empty glass and contemplate ordering a second. "Why not?" you think. "It's Friday, after all, and I can always get Uber to take me home."
So you signal to the same bartender as he passes and, pointing to your glass, ask, "May I have another?"
His response surprises you. A blank stare. He looks at you, but . . . nothing.
You conclude the bartender didn't hear you, so you try again. "May I have another?" you say more loudly, raising your glass this time.
He's not an idiot (tips are important), so he comes closer. And at that moment, you realize: He's not the same guy. Yes, he's a bartender with black clothing, spiky hair and thick-rimmed glasses, but he's not your bartender.
And this is the reason your message didn't get through: New bartender has no context. Yes, he recognizes the signals: empty glass and request for another drink. But he didn't know which drink you wanted; you could have been drinking a cosmopolitan or an appletini or a sidecar.
This lack of context is even more of a problem when you're not face to face. Yesterday, I spent some time with some hard-working HR professionals who needed to communicate a program I'll call Aspire. They needed to write an email to managers and came up with this subject line: "Help your team members Aspire to succeed."
Catchy, I thought. But then I asked: "Do managers know what Aspire is all about?"
A few answered, "Of course they do!" But as the conversation continued, others commented that they had been with a group of managers recently who were unclear what the program was and what it meant to them.
My advice: Don't assume that the people you're communicating with have context. Frame your message to focus on what matters to them. And provide the background they need to easily understand what you mean.
Now can you bring my drink, please?