Tuesday, May 27, 2014

If You Have to Explain It, It’s Not Working…

My father was an artist, but once he settled down to raise his family he earned his living as an advertising and design executive. He had a tremendous eye for print advertising, and he enjoyed talking about the critical interplay between the design of an advertisement, and the message it was trying to convey.

He said a successful ad had to do three things:
  • Grab the viewer's attention
  • Stand on its own
  • Speak for itself
If it couldn't do those things, if someone had to explain it to the viewer, then the ad wasn't working. Maybe you've seen the E. B. White quote about jokes: "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process." My father would tell you that although White was writing about jokes, he could easily have used the same simile to write about advertisements.

I was thinking recently that most of us probably assess business communications using roughly the same standards my father used to evaluate advertisements, but with a twist. We have been traumatized by years of exposure to lame jokes, rootless speeches, painful presentations and ill-reasoned papers, and we are under pressure since the volume of communications we see seems to be growing steadily. Circumstances have forced us to adapt and develop into discerning judges with low patience, high expectations and absurdly short attention spans.

So when we consider whether a particular communication is worth our time and attention, we decide very quickly. If it's not important, if it doesn't engage or enchant us, we ruthlessly shift our attention elsewhere. That shift can be quite noticeable at a live presentation. Next time you find yourself in the audience at a presentation that isn't going well (easy to do, unfortunately), take a look around and you will see audience members whip out their smart phones or tablets and begin brazenly swiping through screens just as if they were home sitting at their kitchen table. Some might even attempt "quiet" telephone conversations from their seats. Once this happens, it is as if these audience members have exited the room. They are no longer listening, so they have no chance of receiving or remembering or using the information embedded in the presenter's message.

No matter what you think about this behavior, it is the new normal and it is happening all around you--at conferences, in meeting rooms, in offices, in cubicles, on video conferences and on teleconferences. It even happens one on one. I used to work with a particularly exasperating CEO who would schedule a meeting with me, ask a question, and then never lift his eyes from his Blackberry as I answered. He was an unapologetic multitasker--confident he was absorbing what I was saying while he was clearing his email. Of course in his mind he was also a fabulous public speaker, and I suppose under the right circumstances (convention of robots?) his lifeless, monotone expostulations might have been well received.

When it comes to multitasking, here's the reality: humans cannot read and listen with comprehension simultaneously. If you are talking to someone and they are reading their email, they cannot process what you are saying. Douglas Merrill describes why in his blog Why Multitasking Doesn't Work:
When you’re trying to accomplish two dissimilar tasks, each one requiring some level of consideration and attention, multitasking falls apart. Your brain just can’t take in and process two simultaneous, separate streams of information and encode them fully into short-term memory. When information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory for recall later. If you can’t recall it, you can’t use it.
What's the solution? That depends upon whether you believe there's a problem and, if so, how you perceive it. If you think folks are justified in tuning out of presentations that aren't working, turning on their devices, and dropping out of the audience, then you might believe the solution has something to do with requiring presenters to deliver more engaging presentations. If, however, you think the electronic devices are the problem--that they are enabling unwelcome and inappropriate audience behavior--you might support a ban on audience electronic communication devices at presentation sessions. Or maybe you think that both solutions, applied together, make sense.

I tend to look at presentations the same way my father looked at ads. I think people who presume to stand in front of a group (or a microphone, or a video camera) to deliver a message have an obligation to deliver it in such a way that it works, i.e., the message grabs the audience's attention, stands on its own, and speaks for itself. I also believe audience members should give a presenter their undivided attention, but I suppose a legitimate question is for how long? I watch a new TED talk each day and I admit that even when confronted by a talk that is by definition limited to 18 minutes, I will move on if the speaker hasn't hooked me in the first minute. I don't pretend I am multitasking, I just move on to something else. While that approach may be fine for TED talks, where what's being communicated is usually potentially interesting but not particularly important to me, shouldn't the standard be a bit different in a business presentation setting?

I think so. If we want business communication to work better, we could start by being better presenters and listeners. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, has said: "A successful talk is a little miracle--people see the world differently afterward." My father would have said the same thing about a successful ad. And whether the ultimate objective is to entertain, direct, inform, inspire or convince, isn't that really the whole point of communicating, even in business?

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on Property Casualty insurance claims and operations. He can be reached at dean.harring@theclm.org or through LinkedIn or Twitter.

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