As I started working as a systems and software engineer, I realized that building software was much more about communications than it was about engineering. Good writing and good speaking were clear differentiators in my superiors and the engineers who were the most valuable to our organization. They could sell an idea; they could convince and influence others; and they could build teams. Most of all, they could save time and money by avoiding scrap and rework caused by miscommunications. I developed a passion for the English language, including the power inherent in its effective usage and the humor associated with both its intentional and its unintentional misuse.
Communications involves the exchange of information between a transmitter and a receiver. Although this is a nerd engineer’s viewpoint of a non-engineering concept, I think the physical analogy works well. Consider the following examples of communications where there is an obvious mismatch between the transmitter and receiver.
- An AM radio owner wants to listen to FM music stations.
- A radio station transmits in French, even though there are few French-speaking people within its range.
- A professor delivers a graduate-level talk to a middle school class.
- An amateur sits down at a poker table with five professionals, who are licking their chops.
- A southern conservative talks politics with a Cambridge liberal.
- A woman from Venus chats with a man from Mars.
These situations involve obstacles to a meaningful exchange of information between the parties. The differences between transmitter and receiver are so stark that we know the information exchange will be rough and erroneous because the transmitters and receivers are not adjusted to each other’s context. No one who values their time would attempt any of them, except the last one. John Gray’s classic, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, is an enlightening treatment of the different contextual perspectives between men and women. It provides a great analysis of male-female communications and the importance of synching up your transmissions with the receivers of the opposite sex.
For high-quality communications to occur, the transmitter and receiver must be in synch. In everyday life, this can be hard to achieve. Nevertheless, you should do whatever you can to get better in synch, whether you are the transmitter or the receiver. This is especially true for stressful communications like a father/daughter talk about a touchy subject or a yearly personnel performance review, and for high-stakes communications like an interview, a sales presentation, or a PhD oral exam. The transmitter generally has more responsibility for knowing the receiver’s preferences than vice versa. The person doing the speaking or writing is in control of the words, style, delivery, and tone. That person can adjust to the context of the audience best, whether it is a one-on-one conversation or a one-to-many presentation. If you are on the receiving end of a communication—reading a newspaper, magazine, book, or internet site—adjusting to your context means knowing the transmitter’s frame of reference.
Consider what it takes to do the New York Times crossword puzzle. For the first few years, it was quite difficult for me because I didn’t understand the style of Will Shortz, the editor (transmitter). I did hundreds of puzzles before I learned what to expect from him and his biases in editing crossword puzzles. Understanding his style made a huge difference.
Whenever you listen to a presenter or a commentator, or read a nonfiction work, it is extremely important to understand the author’s perspective and background in order to understand the author’s biases and to qualify or interpret the information for your use.
Here are a few transmitters with obvious biases:
- A political party leader giving a speech on why their candidate is the best choice.
- A product salesperson describing the pros and cons of competing products.
- A child’s parent discussing their child’s accomplishments.
- An alleged criminal providing an alibi.
What is the likelihood of getting objective and fair assessments from these transmitters? Zip. Although these are extreme cases, most people transmit and communicate with their own innate biases. Everyone communicates within the larger context of their personality, their background, and their immediate specific purpose for communicating.
William Zinsser summarized the perspective of most receivers well:
Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for attention. At one time those forces were relatively few: newspapers, magazines, radio, spouse, children, pets. Today they include a galaxy of electronic devices for receiving entertainment and information—television, VCRs, DVDs, CDs, video games, the Internet, email, cell phones, Blackberries, iPods — as well as a fitness program, a pool, a lawn, and that most potent of competitors, sleep. The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who has been given too much trouble by the writer.
The main point is simple: Know with whom you are communicating and adjust your communications to your receivers and transmitters. This is true whether you are engaged in personal conversations such as talking to your spouse or speaking at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or engaged in professional exchanges such as delivering a professional sales presentation or presenting a yearly performance assessment.