The arc of distortion

Ever said something that was completely taken the wrong way? Of course you have, we’ve all experienced that feeling. The classic Two Ronniesfour candles’ sketch is a great comedic example of how a message can be simply misinterpreted.

For communicators this is an issue we need to be extremely mindful of. Misinterpretation around a sensitive topic such as pay, crises or financial reporting could lead to an impact on our people that doesn’t even closely represent out intention. Many of you will have seen the cartoon below in relation to project management, however it also has resonance in an internal communications arena too:

All I wanted was a tree swing

All I wanted was a tree swing

The picture shows how one brief can be interpreted differently by various audiences. For impact the cartoons show extreme examples of how each group can make a statement match their own needs / beliefs / situation – this holds a key point. This phenomenon happens everyday to you, me and the people around us. Our sensory input does not happen in isolation – it’s affected by our current environment, past experiences and perceptions of the future too.

It’s affecting you too – right now 

For example, as you’re reading this now you may be sat at your desk, on the train or lounging in your PJ’s on the sofa. Regardless of where you are, take a second to consider what’s happening around you – the conversations in your office, the monotonous drone of the train or the TV on in your living room.

These are tiny elements of your current environment that are impacting you right now. Multiply that up by all of the variable factors (plus your unique history, beliefs and values) and it is very difficult to imagine that even this blog will be interpreted the same across the board.

The arc

The academic model used to describe this is called the ‘arc of distortion’ which clearly shows how the intention of a communication can vary greatly from its impact. This ‘gap’ is created by those variables discussed in the earlier paragraph and managing them is impossible.

The arc of distortion

The arc of distortion

However, we can lessen this gap through the way in which we deliver a message. This is a key responsibility for us as communicators – being aware of the possible interpretations of the messages we send and doing what we can to minimise that ‘gap’. Here are 3 steps as a starter for 10:

  •  Know your audience – understanding who you’re talking to is a key starting point. You change the way you talk to your friends and your family because you’re intimately aware of their needs and attitudes. Get to know your audiences at work too.
  • Clarity, clarity, clarity – at the heart of it is a clear message. Get rid of jargon and get to the point. Leaving as little room for interpretation as possible is a great way to minimise the ‘communication gap’. Reducing the word count of your messages is a good way to do this.
  • And finally, check – ask your audience it they ‘got it’. Research throws up time and again that face to face interaction is best. That’s because any misunderstanding can be cleared up on the spot – try getting your (well-briefed) line managers more involved with the internal comms process to provide a more personal touch.

 How have you reduced the gap in your business?


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