Remember playing telephone as a kid? The person at the beginning of a long line would whisper a phrase into the next person’s ear, then she would repeat the phrase in the next person’s ear and so on. By the end, you ended up with a phrase that was very different than where the group started. We thought it was hilarious!
That game of telephone is a perfect example of signal loss—the details that are lost when you communicate. It’s not so funny as an adult.
We see signal loss at work in organizations all the time. The CEO says one thing at a town hall and two days later, employees have different views on what was said. Despite our best intentions, what we intend to communicate is not what the receiver understands or remembers.
Can we avoid signal loss? Probably not. Both communicators and receivers bring too much baggage to the table. As communicators, we struggle to share details from the receiver’s perspective and simplify messages so they’re memorable. As receivers, our attention is often elsewhere: getting ready to ask a smart question (and not listening), being certain we know the answer before the communicator is finished or simply not being interested in the topic. You can probably imagine an employee thinking, “This has nothing to do with me.” Layer on all the information competing for employees’ attention and you have the perfect storm for missed details, bad assumptions and misunderstandings.
If we accept that signal loss is part of the messy business of communication, what can internal communicators do to mitigate it? And plan for it?
Here are three simple strategies designed to help your messages stick in our information-overload world:
1. Simplify and visualize. “Make it short. Eliminate jargon. Use visuals.” All ideas you probably heard before, but we still struggle to execute.
The point of simplifying and visualizing is to make communication easy for the receiver. The moment your audience must work to understand you (“I’ve never heard that term before. I don’t understand his point.”), barriers go up and communication breaks down.
Start by answering two key questions: What do you expect the receiver to do because of your communication. What will be different? Then, get to the point quickly and make it the star.
Here’s a simple example. Imagine you have a new process for end-of-year conversations (part of a performance management program). In your email to people managers, cut to the chase: explain the new process as steps with clear instructions. Then turn that stepped process into a graphic. Save context and the history of end-of-year conversations for other communication channels, such as training or an overview brochure.
2. Reinforce and translate. When it comes to communicating, you may have heard the advice, “repeat, repeat, repeat.” Guess what? Employees find repetition annoying. “I heard from the VP of Sales about the Q3 results, then the same information was repeated in the weekly newsletter and again on the intranet.”
Let’s improve that repetition idea with “reinforce and translate.” So, if the VP of Sales talks about Q3, don’t repeat the same information. Instead, reference it and build on it. In a division town hall, it might go something like this, “Yesterday, the VP of Sales shared the Q3 results. Let’s talk about why those results are important and what they mean for us.”
3. Engage and involve. This third strategy shifts the playing field—from one-way to two-way. From talking at employees to having a conversation—probably the best way to avoid signal loss, since the communicator and receiver are building ideas together and checking for understanding.
The strategy is simple: Don’t tell, involve. Ask questions of your audience. Facilitate an exercise to gather input on a process. Or brainstorm questions about an upcoming change initiative.
Leave the game of telephone to the kids
Signal loss may be part of the messiness of communication, but helping those who need to communicate will reduce some of the wrinkles. There’s a lot to gain from working hard to avoid a game of telephone.