Can your communication survive data asphyxiation?

communication

Do you deal with lots of email communication? Do you have lots of virtual meetings throughout the day? Then this is for you! I came across an interesting Tweet last week that I would like to share with you.

When I dug deeper, I concluded that it was plausible. The expectation that you can be creative virtually, is like asking someone to run a 500m sprint with their toes in sand 😅. When we are working remotely, we are constantly trying to compensate for lack of non-verbal cues, such as eye contact, ambient signalling, gestures and many other factors that are simply absent. We feel watched, or just a little disconnected even though we are connected! There is a lot of interruption with muting, unmuting, “can you hear me” sort of situations. The distractions are simply jarring for our ability to think creatively. The overwhelming amount of sensory input affects not only our creative ability, but also our ability to listen, read, and pay attention.  

We are consuming way too much information.

Emails, WhatsApp, Slack, WebEx, Zoom, YouTube, Netflix, and a billion other apps. How do you even make sense of so much data? Actually, you don’t. Your brain has not evolved to handle that kind of sensory overload. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT suggests that your brain is at best like an amateur plate spinner. It is frantically trying to keep the next plate from crashing down. Are you particularly thinking well at such a time? Probably not. All you are doing is taking finite attention and dividing it. As a result, you are also reducing the quality of attention for every multi-tasking activity you take up. Don’t believe me? Try taking a call when spinning plates in the air 😁.

Information overload

This is happening all around us, I think every one of us is affected with information overload or data asphyxiation. In conclusion, we don’t listen well or read well as much as we used to. This has a negative impact on how we communicate.

Communicating with brevity is a career booster!

William Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. At work, creating a one slider presentation is harder than creating 30. It is more challenging to have an effective elevator pitch than speaking for 30 minutes. This is because brevity forces us to be creative, precise, and effective. The more clarity you can drive through your communication, the more you can get ahead in your career. I would urge you to consider a few tips.

Communicate facts, keep opinions to the minimum. Don’t repeat the points you are trying to make. Use short and crisp sentences. Don’t make open ended comments and then speculate over them. As much as possible do not “think out aloud”.

speak when silence is not golden
Speak only when your words are better than silence! – Gautam Buddha

If you are speaking in a group, speak only if you have something relevant for everyone, and valuable to say. Don’t speak just because you haven’t spoken for a long time and you feel left out. If you ever accidentally go on a rant, it is never too late to recover. Take a pause, you can use self-reminder phrases such as, “I promise I’ll stop speaking in a minute”. Enunciate!

Punchy, short and crisp e-mails can work like magic

Avoid

“I hope you are doing well”. 

At work, people expect you to get to the point immediately. It is not considered rude by most standards, so we can skip the pleasantries unless you are writing someone for the first time or are responding to someone’s enquiry.

Subject lines are a powerful lever. Many messages can be conveyed without the receiver having to open e-mail at all. As an example,

“prep for the session with Mark due tomorrow [EOM]”. 

If you cannot end your e-mail in the subject line itself, then keep the subject line actionable. For example,

“outstanding reviews awaiting your action” 

is better than

“Reviews”.

Use paragraphs, bullets, well. If you are referring to an action, put it as a new paragraph or simply start it as a new line. For example,

Hi Mark,

I actioned personnel reviews last week, and I found them complete on all counts. I am looking forward to your comments. Particularly on soft-skills.

I would love to have your inputs by 23rd September.

Abhi

Bullets, with indentation work well if you are listing actions, or capturing a structured thought process. For example,

All,
Please review the themes and confirm if they make sense
- Once you review, we can:
* Merge & finalise
* Add questions onto each theme
* Circulate back for your review
- Final speaker event is 30th September

I will be scheduling a meeting 2 days prior for a dry-run

Abhi

After a meeting, proactively send out minutes. Never send minutes that are open ended! What is the action, who is it for, when is it due? Use active tense by default in your writing. For example, instead of saying

I would like this to be completed by next week

you could say

Please, can you complete this by next week”. 

Avoid using unnecessary words! For example, don’t say “really good”. Say “great” instead! Don’t say “let us make an effort”, say “let’s try” instead. These are not hard fast rules, but just some tips. Use them with discretion.

Brevity in communication doesn’t mean rudeness

Someone may respond to an e-mail as simply

“ok”. 

While the person sending such e-mails may not realise, it can come across a bit harsh. FYA is also one such response that can be considered rude. It doesn’t take an essay to be nice. If you want something done via an e-mail, simply ask politely.

“Please, could you do this by Monday? Or could you confirm if it’s feasible to complete this by Monday?”. 

This is better than,

“Complete by Monday”. 

You may have a need to be directive on some occasions. In this case, please be polite.

Use ad-hoc connects more effectively and reduce email traffic

I find this hack from an ex-boss very effective. He would respond to almost every email that is of the nature, please clarify something, with

"pls. call me"

He would also be very approachable via phone. This killed email traffic like no other. In conclusion, over-communicate on phone.

phone communication is better than vc
Phone, not video is your best friend!

Use email only to formalise something. Keep free slots in the diary to allow time for ad-hoc connects. If possible keep a couple of days in your diary much freer than others. This gives you the balance you need between meetings and other types of interactions. 

Pick up important communication in the morning 

Mornings are when your brain is fresh. Write important emails, presentations, and content in the morning. You will notice you will do it much faster and more effectively. 

Turn on your video when speaking, turn it off when listening. 

This is a great hack I have learnt on VCs. Turn off video when you are not speaking. It makes you less self-conscious, and allows you to listen more carefully. When you turn on video while speaking, you can at least get some of the non-verbal cues across. Use gestures while communicating, use your hands, it’s a great way to be more effective on video. I found head-bobs to be effective as well 😀. 

Use DND on Slack, Skype and WhatsApp effectively

I am sure that you use some form of chat at work. You have friends, colleagues, that ping you from time to time. When you are doing focused work, keep your devices and work chats on DND. This reduces distractions, and avoids context switching penalties. Sometimes no communication is precision communication. 

Keeping a back channel open on chat communication is amazing in long meetings! 

Keep a group or chat with a co-worker(s) on for long meetings. Find out if you share the same understanding or share if you think the person speaking needs to read my post 😜. On a serious note this is fun, contextual and quite helpful to exchange real time thoughts. There is a possibility that it will lead to a distraction though.

The reason this is so effective is that all people in the meeting will have same context baseline and at least parts of their attention are focused on the topic, so if you have a back channel open with them you can communicate better without losing context.  

Finally, communicate with purpose, and clarity

I am sure you have seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk.

He explains in this video how “why” is the most important question. When you communicate, without taking too much time, jump to the “why”. Then the rest can follow.

In addition to purpose, another important thing is clarity. Brevity & clarity are two different things. Imagine you are explaining a group challenge to a set of people. Assume you did great by explaining the purpose of the challenge. Now, are you touching upon all dimensions? are you illustrating data, are you providing sufficiently clear examples? And are you removing any room for ambiguity by explaining the scope of the challenge? Not only what it is but also, what it is not? Clarity might sometimes make the communication verbose. However we must use judgment when it’s needed and when it’s not.

Another important aspect of precision communication, is the flow. If our communication is not sequenced properly, you might lose your audience immediately. One of the worst mistakes people make is to jump from one topic to another without sufficient linking. One is left wondering, so how is this related to the previous thing we read or discussed?

A master communicator is also a great storyteller. A great story flows amazingly well. There is a hook, a setting, a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. More on that another time.

In conclusion, amidst the deluge of information around us, data asphyxiation is omnipresent. Most of what we write or say doesn’t have the necessary impact in an attention deficit world. Therefore, precision communication should be our tool of choice to make a meaningful impact.