The Most important ingredient for delivering communication is…
At the risk of sounding trite, I will say it anyway — when it comes to delivering communication, context is the most important ingredient. Don’t agree with me? Read on.
Let us consider this example from an insightful interview of a restaurant critic conducted by a scholar of sociology. I read the interview last year, but the memory of it is still fresh in my mind. I am paraphrasing the story below, with my immense gratitude to the food critic Pete Wells and sociologist Dr. Josh Page.
Imagine yourself at a restaurant that is serving dinner to its patrons on what looks and feels like a nice evening. The weather is perfect, the food is tasteful, and the service is impeccable. You happen to notice three different couples dining at the restaurant. The first couple is on their first date, awkward and nervous. The second couple are really into each other, and cannot wait to go home. The third couple is undergoing a nasty breakup; this might be the last time they will eat together. Let us also imagine that the three couples order the same item from the menu. Do you think the three couple will have the same experience from their dinner? You are saying, “probably not.” Why not? Because their contexts are very different from one another. In this restaurant example, the context colors their experience. If you had to talk to the couples, you are better off adapting to their individual contexts.
Let’s consider a situation from work. If you are a business professional, you manager projects. Let us say, you are managing a project and your intend to deliver a request to your team: the team needs to work additional hours in the next couple of weeks. Consider the following two scenarios. In the first scenario, the business is doing very well. Your organization just had the most profitable quarter. Your client is very happy with the project, and is even considering giving your team additional business in the near future. When you ask your team to do a little additional work, how will they react? Most likely, they will gladly accept the request anticipating a potential reward. Now, here is the second scenario. Your company just had its second round of layoffs in one quarter. The project team members have lost two most knowledgeable colleagues to the layoffs. In this situation, you ask your team to work additional hours; same request as the first scenario. Will you get the same reaction and the same results as you got in the previous scenario? Probably not. The team members might even think you are asking them to work longer hours so they can be laid off too. If you were creating a project communication artifact in the two scenarios, you will need to consider the contexts of the two very different project situation.
When I started delivering communication artifacts (e.g. memos, reports, emails, presentations) to my colleagues, I focused on the fundamentals, e.g. make sure the message is clear, follow the corporate recommended format, ensure that the artifact is created with the medium in vogue ( e.g. two page memo sent via internal mail) etc. What I did not know, however, is why the impact of my communication was unpredictable and, bluntly stated, all over the place. It all came to me when I was describing my frustration to my wife, a wonderfully competent communicator, “Why did it not work? I did exactly what was expected. I got there on time, I was prepared with the message, my mind was clear about what I was going to say..”
“You are not in the moment and with your audience. Do you know what is going on in their world?”, she said. I thought to myself, “why do I need to know what is going on in their life? Aren’t we here just to do the work and act like professionals?” Then, she said something simple yet profound, “context is everything.” I have never forgotten those words. Remembering and practicing this insight in my communication delivery has not only increased my impact on others, it has also brought me closer to the people I work with. I achieve more impact with less effort because I take time to slow down and understand the context.
Remember this when you deliver any form of communication next time — context is everything. It will change your work, and might even change your life.