What Plato can teach us about communicating

The Greeks have given us many a good thing over the last few millennia: the Olympics, theatre and Hercules to name a few. Long before modern day linkages to economic meltdowns and ‘hard-to-beat’ football teams, the ancients also taught us a thing or two about communication.

Roughly 2500 years ago philosophers mused over the concept of ‘Rhetoric’ – the in thing for communicators in the times before Christ. Leading the generation of the idea was the bearded genius Plato and his disciple Aristotle who developed the idea of applying persuasive means to make an argument more compelling.

Plato: Philosopher and communicator

Plato: Philosopher and communicator

At the time this was used by the orators of the day in public speaking and debate with the fundamental aim of helping to shape conversations. This is an important point: Rhetoric is synonymous with discourse between parties – it is a tool that can be applied to help develop understanding.

And so our linkage to modern day communications is apparent. Plato suggested a number of elements that should be considered in the development of rhetoric:

Ethos: this concerns the credibility the speaker. Increasing trust in our leaders is a great way to encourage belief in our messages. Aristotle suggested that intelligence, character and goodwill constituted this credibility. How are your leaders/communicators perceived?

Logos: this considers the message itself and the ‘logic’ which underpins it. If the message ‘doesn’t add up’ it is likely that the idea will be rejected or ignored. Being objective and backing up your arguments with facts or statistics is a good way of increasing your message’s Logos.

Pathos: is the linked to the emotional response in your audience. Creating an emotional connection with your colleagues either through the context of your message or the performance/delivery can make it more meaningful. Have a think about how you currently communicate. Are you making an emotional linkage?

Kairos: “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved” – Kairos is all about timing. Finding the right moment to deliver message can amplify its resonance greatly. Ensuring your stories aren’t outdated or clashing with competing messages is good health check.

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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?

How’s Your Balance

I love football. But sometimes having my ear talked off about football can cause my eyes to glaze over (mentioning no names – Dad). It’s not that I am not interested in the general topic it’s just that the same message (Nottingham Forest are rubbish) delivered over and again, in slightly different format (chat, rant, rave) becomes a little boring. I tend to switch off and let my mind wander.

This scenario is not isolated to me visiting my parents on a Sunday. It’s in the world around us, and it’s also in our very own businesses.

In a recent piece of research I found that the most common communication topic for a business is ‘itself’. ‘This is what we’re doing’, ‘Here’s our strategy’, ‘Our monthly results’, etc. When compared to all of the other communication topics (such as market news, employee news, development news, social news) business-focussed communications accounted for more than 50% of the annual total.

Employees were being hit with 1 in 2 messages being about the business!

There are many academics and practitioners that highlight the fact that the goals of the business and employee are not always the same. Using myself as an example I want to learn French, travel the world and spend more time watching (not hearing about) football. These aren’t the goals of my employer. And it’s not a problem that they don’t match however it is sometimes easy to assume that personal objectives are left at home and we adopt the business mission the minute we ‘clock-on’.

Assuming (consciously or unconsciously) that personal objectives are ‘checked at the door’ can lead to the imbalance in communications seen in my research – we just continue to talk about the business until our people start to switch off (like me on a Sunday afternoon).

How's your balance?

How’s your balance?

There is a way to address this balance – and it’s not about talking more about other topics or talking less about the business (talking about the business is fundamental). The same piece of research actually found that frequency had little bearing over employee engagement with the message. Instead we have to be smarter with what we talk about and how we do this.

The key to doing this is finding ‘common ground’. Whilst my objectives don’t fully align with those of my business – we do have shared interests. For example, we both want to see Internal Communications flourish, so immediately anything ‘Internal Commsy’ is going to capture me.

It’s really straight forward but getting a good understanding of what our people are interested in and using this to contextualise business messages is an underused skill.

Next time you review your Internal Communications, try asking:

Is there a good balance between the interests of both the business and the employee?

Have we found the areas of common ground we need to engage our people?

Things I am Learning #4

‘Communications’ is Chaos

Most of us have come to the realisation that communicating is not a linear process. The concept that A can send a message that B will receive and interpret in complete harmony is thankfully outdated.

The progression of this theory was to consider communication as a cyclical process where B can feedback to A in a dialogue that arrives at shared understanding. This “two-way” communication is still thrown around as the holy grail (sometimes) however are we missing something?

What happens when B talks to B. Our audiences do not exist in isolation. They talk: to us, about us and to each other. Social media has amplified this but in reality this has always been the case. Social media has just increased the speed and scale of conversations.

I am learning that communications is in fact Chaos. A now sends a message that can be picked up by B,C and D; Interpreted by them all (probably differently); and shared, and reused, without our control.

Comms isn’t one way or two way – it’s poly way.

Internal Communications Ice Cream Recipe

 It’s ironic that holidays, although intended to be relaxing, can be one of the most stressful events in the calendar! So why is that last year when my brother and his wife flew Virgin Atlantic to Las Vegas they came back with without the dehydrated and  frustrated stare of people who have just flow 10+ hours?

Of course they had all of the stress that comes with holiday travel, such as:

  • The arguments over what ‘you really need to take in your suitcase’
  • The clenching moment you go through the security scanner (desperately hoping not to buzz)
  • The mind-numbing time stood waiting (to check-in, to board the plane, to leave the plane, to get your bags, etc)
  • The traffic to the airport
  • And so on…

When I asked him, he told me this:

“Because we got free ice cream and pizza on the flight”

What!? Seemingly all of the other stress had been erased because of a few freebies. This one little perk had cut through all of the other events to leave an impression and this is what his emotional reaction had anchored itself to.

Black sesame soft ice cream. in Kakunodate, Ak...

As IC’ers this sounds like heaven. We often have to deal with lots of difficult messages, unplanned events, even internal crises – but how do we leave a sweet taste in the mouth at the end of the year?

The first thing is to identify what your anchor or ‘ice cream moment’ is. Establishing a set of agreed and aligned key messages will be essential in focussing you on what you want people to take away. The second thing is to find the ‘emotional link’. When I questioned my brother he explained the ice cream stood out because it was an unexpected surprise, which made him feel happy (and no doubt hungry). If we can tie a strong emotional response to the message we have a better chance of embedding it.

Here’s some suggestions for how to do this:

  • Make it fun – novelty and surprise make a big impact on us because they break us out of our usual routine. Try doing something fun for your people.
  • Make it consistent – if I fly Virgin now and don’t get ice cream I am going to have some very different feedback. Remember to keep your branding and message consistent for all of your audiences and the duration of your campaign.
  • Make it easily accessible – my brother’s experience was just a bolt-on to the experience he expected to have. No extra effort required from him. Try not to ask people to go out of their way to get involved.

And importantly make sure it aligns to the wider key message (part of a package) like any other campaign. We have savvy colleagues and they can see through ‘stunts’.

What’s your recipe for a great ice-cream?