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The Science of Human Communications


As an engineering student, one of my most satisfying realizations was when I learned how much of the physical world could be modeled as mathematical systems.  When the phenomena being described became ever more complex, the mathematics rose to the occasion.  First, came calculus.  When that did not suffice, triple integration along the x, y, and z axes was introduced.  The time came where deterministic systems no longer applied and, at that point, along came differential equations and non-linear mathematics.  It seemed as if the entire universe could be modeled if you were able to uncover the underlying principles.  That is, until the realm of human interpersonal communications came into the picture. 

To a mind that thrives on order, logic, and analysis as that possessed by most engineers, this domain can be frustrating and overwhelming.  But it does not have to be so.  While it is true that human interactions cannot be completely reduced to a set of inputs, processes, and always predictable outcomes, there are definitely organizing principles and an underlying order to interpersonal communications.  The key to demystifying this domain is to change perspectives. 

We must see what others see and identify their needs, first.  Once that is done, we can then address those needs in order to increase the likelihood that our message will find a receptive audience.  In simplest terms, this is what it takes to become an effective communicator.  The best way to illustrate these principles is to apply them to a specific type of situation.   

The situations we will consider are those times in which you wish to exert greater influence on snap decisions made by your colleagues or team leader.

Influencing Snap Decisions
Everyone makes snap decisions.  Sometimes, these decisions are about trivial matters that should not use up our valuable time.  For example: Should I use Verdana Size 12 or Garamond Size 11 for the document?  Should I send a text message or an email?  Do I back up my files online or to an external drive?  Do I want tuna or chicken salad for lunch?

Unfortunately, we also make snap decisions about important matters.  “Who should be on the project team?”  “What language are we going to code in?”  “How often should we schedule teleconference updates with all sites?”  We make snap decisions because we have so many things to decide in a given day.  Since everyone makes snap decisions, we can have a better chance of influencing others if we have clear, strong messages that can be easily understood.  Honing your message to reach the intended audience therefore becomes crucial to your success.

Whether you are participating in a discussion, a casual conversation, or an email exchange, craft a clear message.  A clear message:

  • is short
  • uses simple language
  • is focused on the needs of audience. 

Keep It Short
Limit your key message to one sentence, preferably less than 17 words long.  Engineers are trained to think in great complexity and in technical jargon that is often incomprehensible to all but the inside few.  While that is arguably necessary to completely explain a design issue or technical point, it isn’t helpful or effective when conveying other messages.  Consider breaking up the content into smaller sentences to help your listeners or readers.

If we talk for twenty minutes in a meeting, our audience will remember only a few essential comments.  The audience needs to be able to grasp your message quickly and efficiently.  Ask yourself, “Will my audience be able to repeat this message to someone else after this meeting?”   If it is unlikely that they will be able to do so because the message is too long, too vague or too difficult, it is unlikely you will have the impact you desire.

Read the following and then turn your eyes away from the page and try to repeat it to yourself.

“Everyone’s active participation in the firm’s events is crucial to helping us develop a conscious and cohesive firm culture that we can all be proud of and that will help us attract high quality associates.”

You cannot do it.  It is too long.  You have to translate what it means to you.

Now try the same with the next sentence.

“We hope to see you at as many firm functions as possible.”

Save the “why’s” and the details for other sentences.  Allow the key message to stand on its own.

Similarly, “We need to use open-source software,” is clear and direct.

“Using open source software will prevent us from being beholden to one player in a mission critical function that cannot afford any variance in future upgrades or releases.”  This statement is simply too much for a listener to digest in one gulp.  And if it does resonate with the listener, your message will not be given the same consideration as a message that does.

Use Simple Language
There are two language traps engineers fall into.  The first is when we try to show how smart we are.  The second is when we fail to recognize unnecessary jargon.

Big words do not impress anyone.  Big ideas do.  Exec-Comm recently surveyed more than 1,400 business professionals regarding what impresses them about other people’s communication skills.  When asked to rank the top three communication skills from a list of ten items, not a single person ranked “Using sophisticated vocabulary” as a top three choice.

In a professional setting, you do not get graded on being smart.  People assume you are smart.  You get graded on having impact.  That means getting people to take action based on your ideas.  Get to your content.  Your goal when communicating is not to be cute or clever.  Your goal is to be clear. 

Avoid unnecessary jargon.  Because we spend so much time with other technical people, we forget how much jargon has crept into our vocabulary.  That’s not a bad thing.  However, jargon becomes problematic when we fail to recognize it as jargon and use it in inappropriate settings.  Challenge yourself - first, to always recognize jargon, and second, to eliminate it in instances where it will get in the way.  And unless you are writing your thesis, do not try to use jargon to impress.  It may have the opposite effect.

Focus on the Audience
Your message is never about you, and it is rarely about your content.  It is always about how your audience – your listener or reader – needs to use your content.  To craft an audience-focused message, ask yourself before the meeting, “What does this audience need to get out of this meeting?”  Let’s say you are meeting with your team to organize a testing schedule for your new company-wide network. 

A self-focused version:
“We need to make sure that the financial group can connect to the outside world.  I support them and I know how important it is to keep them happy.  If they have any issues on day one, I will never hear the end of it and they will complain to senior management about how my team screwed up.”

An audience-focused version:
“We need to make sure that the financial group can connect to the outside world.  Their work affects all other departments and if we get this right, it will make our entire team’s life much easier with the rest of project implementation.”   Always consider following-up with, “What is your perspective on this?”  By asking that question, you will keep your focus on meeting your audience’s needs.

You cannot control how quickly someone will form a judgment based on the information you are providing.  By taking the time to analyze your audience’s perspective and needs and then responding to them as you craft and deliver your message, you will take the first step toward becoming a powerful communicator. 

And you will have also taken an important first step toward applying your analytical skills to the science of human communications.   I wish you much success!

Luis De Los Santos is a communication skills consultant with Exec-Comm, LLC in New York City.  He received his degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University in 1987.  He welcomes your feedback.

Contact Information:
Exec-Comm, LLC
Karen Rodriguez
NEW YORK, NY (April 1, 2010)

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