How many messages have you received from your company today? Better yet, how many have you received in general today? Can you even count them all? Do you want to?
We live in an extremely noisy world with no off switch, buzzing with often irrelevant and confusing information — so much so that we’re desensitized to the myriad messages.
As a result, so much communication advice for organizational leaders focuses on cutting through noise. Essentially, how can you make sure your big, bold message gets through the cacophony of other competing big, bold messages?
Not terrible advice, but also not good enough — because in addition to cutting through the noise that’s important. It’s turning it down in the first place.
Information overload is already here
The issue of information overload isn’t new, especially as it relates to the digital contexts we all work in today. Back in 2009, Harvard Business Review was writing about “death by information overload.” It pointed out that the typical knowledge worker turned to email 50 to 100 times a day to take care of an average of 350 messages. That’s 20 hours of effort a week.
If those numbers seem low, you’re right. At that point, the iPhone was just two years old, the iPad hadn’t even been invented, and widespread, always-on communication was still in its infancy. Today, research shows that the average number of apps on mobile devices is nearly 90, with 10% of people deploying more than 200 apps. More channels for communication. More noise.
Granted, we need increasingly more information to do many jobs today. But that reality stresses us out. For instance, one study found that 73% of managers felt that they needed enormous amounts of information to do their jobs well — but 33% were suffering due to the amount of information they have to work through.
If you can remember back to the time when we could go to football matches or concerts full of people, you probably remember trying to talk to someone as the crowd is roaring or the music is blaring. No matter how loud you yelled, you might make out a few words, but it was incredibly difficult.
Our whole information world feels like a gigantic, screaming crowd. No matter how solid your message fundamentals or how clearly you communicate, you won’t cut through — no matter how many hacks you try. That’s why the initial commitment all leaders must make is to reduce the noise happening within their organizations.
First, make messages targeted and relevant.
Some information needs to be sent to everybody in the company, but most employee communications don’t fall into that category. When messages are sent to everyone, with no targeting or audience segmentation, they simply add to already overwhelming noise.
So first, decide on your audience and target that audience only via channels best suited for it. Then use reporting to see where the message landed, and only repeat or follow up with those who need it.
Most importantly, personalize information — not simply putting someone’s name on the communication but by targeting people with information that is relevant to their specific roles or interests.
Second, reduce frequency.
It’s important to consider the number of communications you’re sending. Do you really need to send out a company-wide message about a particular topic? If so, can you group it with other relevant information? Is there a place to post information instead so that you aren’t interrupting their work?
As a CEO myself, I know it can be a challenge not to send a message to my team as I’m thinking about it. So when I pause and think about how my communication is contributing to the noise my team is experiencing, I might rewrite it, send it later with other notes, or take the time to cull the message down to just the people who need to know.
Third, reduce content.
Your next challenge is to reduce the cognitive load of information. One way is to focus on the headline and a brief, human-sounding summary with a link to more information for those who need to dive deeper.
For instance, you might need to announce a significant change to your 401(k) plan. Instead of including all of the information in the communication, let people skim the headline and summary first, and then access further information if and when they’re interested.
Speaking of skimming, you can also take a cue from theSkimm newsletter, which does the heavy work of simplifying a world of information for millions of subscribers. Consolidating communication reduces the amount of content in each communication and reduces frequency.
Do the hard work upfront
It’s incumbent upon all leaders to think very carefully about when and how they add to the chaos of their employees’ work. As MIT Sloan Management Review puts it, effective leaders “create and update maps of a complex environment in order to act more effectively on it.”
In short, it’s up to leaders to create clarity from complexity.