Communication is much richer, subtler and more complex than just a straightforward exchange between a receiver and a sender.
This complexity can cause confusion—even with simple face-to-face communication. Communicating on behalf of a company is even harder.
Professor Albert Mehrabian‘s studies in the 1960s sought to demonstrate the crucial importance of nonverbal communication. He argued that communication between two people consists of the context of words (7 percent), the tone of voice (38 percent) and body language (55 percent). Although many professionals dispute those numbers, the crucial importance of nonverbal communication is undeniable.
The question for communicators is this: How do you overcome communication barriers (including lack of nonverbal cues) when dealing with diverse, often dispersed, audiences?
Context of words
Communication between two people requires a measure of empathetic compromise. Often, a language adjustment is required so that the message is perceived and understood to the fullest. Just as a professor would deliver concepts differently to a group of freshmen from his rendering of ideas to grizzled grad students, communicators must convey information (verbally and nonverbally) according to the specific audience. Without this effort to meet in the middle, messages get mixed, muddled or misinterpreted.
Assuming Mehrabian’s communication ratio is correct, however, the “context of words” is just 7 percent of the equation.
Tone of voice
The “tone of voice” accounts for a much bigger piece of the comprehension pie (38 percent), so the onus is on communicators to craft personalized communications that strike the right notes for the right people.
On any given day, this may vary from vendors, board members, international colleagues, execs and front-line workers from all different backgrounds. Each of these groups would call for a different word choice and tone of voice. Therefore, it’s so important for communicators to spend time with colleagues to understand how they prefer to consume information and to find out what matters most to them.
The medium is crucial as well. Conveying a certain tone of voice via text is possible, but an actual voice leaves less room for error. This is where video and audio content can make a huge difference. If you can see someone’s face as they speak—or hear their actual tone of voice—you stand a much better chance of building rapport, establishing trust and communicating clearly.
According to Mehrabian, body language accounts for a whopping 55 percent of interpersonal communication. Of course, the digital revolution has drastically changed how we communicate. Communicators today are tasked with conveying information to remote colleagues and diverse audiences around the world—all on a multitude of platforms.
Whenever and wherever you can, communicate via video to capitalize on this crucial nonverbal component. You don’t need a videographer on staff; a smartphone and a willing participant will do. Make sure your execs are comfortable conveying messages via video. It helps immensely to place a face with a message, and it dramatically lowers the chances of creating a costly miscommunication.
Words can be easily misconstrued, but being able to see a person’s body language provides invaluable context for what someone’s trying to say. This is especially true if you’re using humor or discussing a sensitive issue. Be as precise as possible the first time around so you don’t have to recommunicate a clarifying (or apologetic) message.
The most important thing
The underpinning for successful communication—regardless of the medium, setting or message—is that actions and behaviors must match words and promises. If there is inconsistency between company policies and the way people are treated, that’s how reputations are tarnished. If you say one thing and do another—or if your body language contradicts the words exiting your mouth—your credibility vanishes.
Communicators must work to reduce the gap between the way companies want to be seen and how they are actually perceived by stakeholders. It starts with aligning all verbal and nonverbal communications, and making sure mixed messages are clarified.