What is communication?

One communicator's musings on my craft.

What is communication? Communication godfather Louis A. Allen may have described it best: “Communication is the sum of all things one person does when he wants to create understanding in the mind of another.” It can be in the form of a tweet, a blog post, an advertisement, etc. But, when it effectively conveys the originator’s idea, I feel like it’s more than that.

As a former Opinion section editor of my college newspaper, I can’t help weighing in on this one, especially because the plethora of complex definitions and flowcharts describing “communication” found on Google weren’t that helpful. I’d say communication is much like a simple algebraic expression; it’s a combination of symbols, variables, elements and processes that combine to produce an outcome. When done right, it’s known as strategic communication. 

Here’s how I’d write out my formula for strategic communication.

Here’s what I’m thinking.

Message includes words, sounds, visuals or feelings. It’s the essence or substance of the communication. Thus it can be read, heard, seen and/or felt.

By felt, I mean the thing that’s conveyed between two people who’ve known each other for a long time. I can walk into a room and without saying a word or doing anything, my husband can tell when I’m angry or sad. Psychology refers to this as “nonverbal interpersonal communication.”

Intent is the goal of the communication, though sometimes the stated goal is not the same as the intent. For example, a company may send wellness communications to employees so they can “live healthier, more fulfilling lives.” While that’s certainly one goal—who wouldn’t desire improved wellbeing for everyone?—the intent is to reduce healthcare claims from chronic diseases. 

In my invented formula, Message plus Intent is multiplied by Medium. The medium is the communication mechanism or format. This includes written, spoken, acted, audiovisual, etc. I like to think of the Message plus Intent being multiplied by the Medium because the appropriate medium is most impactful. 

Think about the different impact levels between receiving an email to “Sign up for your benefits by Friday!” versus a short video with moving graphics and music with the same message. Adding a link to the benefits website optimizes the impact of this communication.

Now, let’s talk about Barriers. These are critical to consider since barriers “subtract” from the success of the communication, depending on how strong the barrier is.

Comprehension is a significant barrier today, with strong language and cultural differences in parts of the country. The same word in different languages can change the Message. 

Relevance is another important consideration. The audience is always asking, “Does this matter/interest me?” For example, if you want employees across the company to calculate what they’ll need for retirement, this barrier generally will be stronger for employees in their 20s than for those in their 50s. One size does not fit all.

Time can be a barrier. Think about what your audience will be doing when they receive your communication. How frustrated will employees be if they missed the Monday raffle for free tickets to a sold-out sporting event because the notice came on Friday afternoon? Instead of a morale win, your communication just created some resentment—aka, a communication barrier.

Arguably the biggest barrier I commonly see is bias. This is the audience’s prior exposure to you or some element of your communication. Bias can be unconscious, but sometimes not. Let’s explore conscious bias first.

Let’s say that at an important meeting, the head of the organization bypasses the long line of attendees waiting for pre-dinner cocktails and goes behind the counter to get his drink from the bartender. It’s likely that the thirsty queue-formers will perceive his behavior as self-importance. How will this influence the way they process communication from him in the future? Perfect example of conscious bias.

But what about unconscious bias? It’s trickier. Also called “implicit bias,” these pre-conceived judgments are usually formed early in life. I would argue that we can’t escape unconscious bias completely, and they’re not always wrong, but we can form beneficial views through the modeling of positive behaviors by people in positions of authority. Consider this: How powerful would it be if a CEO appoints someone with autism to an executive position?

Celebrated self-advocate Dr. Temple Grandin said, “The word ‘autism’ still conveys a fixed and alarming meaning to most people—they visualize a child mute, rocking, inaccessible, cut off from human contact. And we almost always speak of autistic children, never of autistic adults, as if such children never grew up, or were somehow mysteriously spirited off the planet, out of society.” If Dr. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, had been a victim of unconscious bias, her ground-breaking improvements in animal science probably wouldn’t have been realized. 

These are just a few examples. It’s impossible to remove all possible barriers from every member of your audience, but you should plan for them. Practicing consistency, integrity and transparency in your communication will go a long way toward minimizing barriers.

Because human beings are delightfully unpredictable, I like to refer to communication as a formula of some sort. For me, it’s the best way to factor in key elements, account for variables and come up with a solution that is effective in today’s world. “Message plus Intent, multiplied by Medium, then divided by Barriers” is a much easier formula to remember than a complex illustration or the 75-word paragraph that shows up in my Google search. 

Effective communication can seem elusive⏤this formula works for me.

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