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December 16, 2008

Using a personal voice

When addressing a group that is unaware of its membership (a blog, a BCC, a mailing list), it is often best to use a personal voice and address the group as if it were an individual. Avoid phrases like “all of you”, “sorry for the mass mailing”, or “some of you may know”. These phrases tend to distance the recipient from the message, and make it harder to convey emotional content.

On the other hand, do not try to intentionally trick recipients into thinking that the message was only sent to them and no one else. In some cases (blogs, message boards) the platform itself will make that obvious. In other cases (BCCs, mailing lists) use subject lines and headers to hint at the one-to-many nature of the message.

Reply one to one to follow up conversation to the extent that is possible, even if the reply is brief. Extend the personal voice to these conversations as well. Avoid referring to other people's responses with phrases like “You are the tenth person to say that”.

This sort of language breaks the promise of the personal voice.

December 17, 2008

Addressing a Community or its Members: Levels of Communication

There are four main levels on which a central persona can communicate with a community or a subset of its members.

Broadcast Level

Generally this is top level, one-to-many communication around which the community is naturally organized. The broadcast level often consists of a blog, TV show, video blog, a welcome message, announcements, mailer, or a splash page.

The broadcast level is the primary place where a central persona expresses opinions and shares information. It is also where a central persona can reflect a simplified image of the community back upon itself.

Structural Level

The structural level includes the organization, format, rule sets, design and layout of anything within the boundaries of the community. Changing any of these elements can be considered communicating on the structural level.

Communication on the structural level can be used to:

:: signal new opportunities for community activity (opening a “current events” forum, adding voting, comments, etc..)
:: alter the framework of community identity (creation of sub groups, rankings, private areas)
:: accommodate wide spread requests or complaints
:: co-opt rogue sub groups (creation of new labels/ status to accommodate the group)
:: intervene in a crisis situation with a small group of members (changing status, modifying avatars, banning)

Structural communication is the most direct display of power available to a central persona... e.g. “Playing God".


Community Level

The community level includes all the tools that the community uses to communicate: threads, comments, reviews, gallery uploads, response videos. A central persona should avoid communicating at this level if it is possible to use a structural approach. For example it is better to append an existing comment/thread with a remark than it is to post a new/separate comment under the moniker of the central persona. In my opinion the central persona is not a member of the community, but rather is part of the structure of the community.


Personal Level

The personal level includes any direct communication with a member or small group of members that is not visible to the rest of the community. This is best used as a means to organize high level community members, or to reach out to valued community members in times of crisis. A central persona should avoid using any personal level communication beyond valued/trusted members.

January 21, 2009

Some Quick Notes on Approaching a Single Day Consultancy:

If I find myself in the boardroom of a company that I am only vaguely familiar with, and I am asked to consult on a problem that I am only just learning about, I find it is useful to keep some basic approaches in mind:

Approach 1:: Ramming Your Square Peg Into Their Circular Hole

Although this is the silliest form of consulting it is often exactly what is expected of you. It comes from the notion that an idea is more valuable than the process by which the idea was generated. In this case you have been brought in because someone in the company has heard about your IDEA and thinks that your IDEA might be valuable in solving a problem that the company is facing. The success of these consultations depends more on the judgment of the person that invited you than it does on the quality of your idea. You are expected to explain your idea and then repeatedly frame their problem from the perspective of your idea. Sometimes it is a perfect fit, while other times you will struggle to spark a glimmer of synergy that you hope will burn just long enough so that you can get back to the airport.

Approach 2 :: Repeating Only What You Understand

This approach is painfully simple but is often more effective than (1). Here you might explain the IDEA that got you in the door only to the extent that it makes people in the room respect you as someone who is intelligent and open minded. Then you say that your IDEA might apply, but that you would first like each person in the room to explain exactly what they think the problem is. You will find that certain aspects of the problem cause people’s voices to trail off at the end of long rambling sentences. When everyone is finished, repeat the problem back eliminating anything you didn’t understand. Rinse and repeat. This helps isolate the confusing parts of the problem and allows you to tackle those confusing parts from the perspective of what is understood, rather than letting confusion co-mingle with clarity.

On a side note, psychologists use a different sort of repetition to negotiate communication problems between individuals. One person begins by stating what they perceive to be the problem. The second individual is asked to repeat back what they heard. Often the first attempt is not a repetition, but rather an interpretation. For example: “I think you don’t respect my ideas” is repeated back as “You think that I should stop whatever I’m doing whenever you want something done”, instead of “You think I don’t respect your ideas”. Individuals are asked to go back and forth until they focus only on what is being said and nothing else. I have never mediated this sort of approach, but have heard it works quite well.

Approach 3 :: Riding The Elephant In The Room

Sometimes you might get the feeling that the problem that is being articulated isn’t the real problem. This often happens when there is something distasteful that people are uncomfortable bringing up – for example a negative attribute of a product being marketed, or a tough relationship with an outside person or team. It can be tempting to try and bring these issues directly into the open by yourself, but this can be jarring and counterproductive. It’s better to find a way to get the rest of the room to do the talking for you. One thing I have tried (and wish I could try more often) is joke writing. First I talk about the process of finding humor in a thing – for example using exaggeration, inverting relationships, finding metaphors and puns, increasing stakes, or switching contexts. Then everyone is asked to brainstorm and extend jokes about the project using these guidelines. The room is “safe” in that none of the information leaves, but it is also agreed that no personal information is to be used. In the search for funny, taboo subjects become excellent fodder – those subjects are the areas where the most tension is ready to be released. After the room has loosened a bit, and some themes have emerged, you can point them out and try and tackle them directly.

About Communication

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