Houston; 6:47 a.m.:
In a suburban home, a boy runs into the kitchen. His mother is preparing breakfast while shouting towards the staircase to her daughter, who is talking on her cell, telling her that she is going to be late. Her husband sits at the kitchen table, staring at his Smartphone. He gets up and walks over to the refrigerator, while still staring at the phone, shakes his head, and starts to type.
Los Angeles; 7:57 a.m.:
Traffic is everywhere. People are behind their steering wheels, their left hands leisurely covering their left ears, as if we can’t see the device in their hand, talking while frequently looking to the left and right, no cops, good, when does the traffic light change? There, the young guy in the convertible, phone in his right hand and typing, while occasionally looking up.
Chicago; 11:14 a.m.:
A meeting room on the 23rd Floor of a skyscraper crowning the skyline of the windy city. In the room are two men and one woman, sitting at a table. A third man is standing in front of them, talking. A projector, proudly erected in the middle of the table, throws a colorful image on the wall behind the speaker, who changes the visual in a monotone frequency, about every 1 minute and 16 seconds. The man sitting close to the door is staring out the window but seems unmoved by the magnificent view of the city. The person on the opposite side is looking down, with his hand under the table; below the line of sight, he is typing a message on this mobile device. The woman at the far end of the table has her head directed towards the illuminated wall but her eyes are on the half opened laptop in front of her. On the wall, the glimmering pictures seem to change with every click of the small device in the presenter’s hand. But they really don’t. It is the same composition of bold header line and left-hand center box, with several lines of words all beginning with a bold dot; the right-hand center box shows a picture or a linear graph which at times has a positive slope but then, somewhat unexpected and certainly disturbingly, a negative slope. Finally, across the bottom, in a print so small that it is difficult to read, we see a date on the left and a short series of words in the middle, something like a description. Both never change. On the right,we can see a very small number which increases incrementally, with the monotony of a clock, each time the presenter clicks on the control button. Then there is another constant, located in the upper right hand corner; it is a colorful, mostly roundish conglomeration of forms and shapes. It seems familiar. Where did we see it before? Yes, down in the entrance to the building, then again in the office lobby, and on the non-descript posters along the corridor to the meeting room; they were spaced 74 inches apart.
New York City; 4:16 p.m.:
People rush down the street, looking at their cell phones; they are happy or indifferent but many seem confused or irritated. Some are frantically typing messages on their slippery black communication tools; others speak into their phones, covering the device with their other hand. The man across the street yells into his cell phone as if he is watching the World Series. Over on the right, a young woman has a cable hanging from her ear like a vine in the jungle of Borneo. And then there are the ones who somewhat autistically speak with themselves, having an inconspicuous apparatus stuck in their ear. We hear brakes screech and a car horn blast on the left, where an executive in a slick pinstripe suit is crossing the street while staring at the display on his phone. He looks up, disturbed by the noise, confused, lost, and finally upset, gesturing an obscenity towards the cab driver who pays him back in kind.
Now, go back to the first paragraph and replace Houston with Madrid. In the second paragraph, delete Los Angeles and insert Bangkok. In the next paragraph, take out Chicago and put in Hong Kong. Finally, change New York City to Dubai. The remaining text remains unaltered. Read it again. Think. Next sequence: Madrid becomes Tokyo, Rome replaces Bangkok, Los Angeles now reads Rio de Janeiro, and Dubai changed to Munich. Read it again. Think again. Tokyo becomes Shanghai, Rome becomes.....
Never has the world communicated as much as we today; constantly, day and night. We talk and type while we are walking, driving, writing, reading, running, watching, building, hugging, crying, playing, eating, and soon, who knows, even while sleeping. We talk and we type. In February 2010, the U.N. telecommunications agency reported that the number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide have reached 4.6 Billion. One year earlier, the Radicati Group estimated the number of e-mails being sent per day to be a staggering 247 Billion, or 2.8 Million per second. And that was two years ago. Facebook now proudly states that it has over 500 million users communicating while, in February 2010, Twitter posted 50 million tweets per day. In September, a mere seven months later, the activity rose to 90 million per day. Since October of 2007, Apple sold over 41 million iPhones over the past three years since inception. Let us think about the following:
With all the talking and typing,
are we still listening and comprehending?
I seems “listening” is in the process of migrating from being a primary cognitive function to an increasingly rare talent - like walking on a tightrope 25 feet high. In business we observe every day after many meetings, phone calls, and messages that our people remain uncertain, questioning, wondering, and confused; many are going a step further by misunderstanding, which results in mistakes, possibly aggression or capitulation. We experience similar patterns of behavior when looking at consumers as we need to add, to the active communication, the countless passive messages we are exposed to: The television in the kitchen in the morning, the magazine we flip through on the train, the radio during our car ride, and the internet pages which are part of our life throughout the day. In any given 24 hours, we are exposed to up to 12,000 images.
On a personal level, we need to step back and think about the balance between talking, typing, and listening. When was the last time we sat at the breakfast table with our partner and our children without reading the paper, answering e-mails, speaking on the phone, or with the TV set barking in the background? Instead of listening to our loved ones and thinking about what they have to say? There is a significant difference between talking and having a dialogue. Relationships are built on understanding which requires the art of listening.
On a professional level, we are faced with a significant leadership challenge. We are spending a considerable amount of time initiating or responding to communication. At the same time we observe and often discuss how we can get people engaged and motivated to contribute to the goal. A common strategy is to increase communication. While generalizations often lead to inadequate opinions, I am compelled to argue that, in most cases, an increase in communication is not the appropriate solution to the problem.
Let’s talk about written communications, which seem to have quickly replaced verbal interactions. We must resist the immediate and often careless response to the messages we receive. It has become quite common to skim through an e-mail message and respond or forward the message to the next person; this is very linear: in it comes - out it goes. While doing this, we fail to consider the level of knowledge, or the state of mind of the recipient. We do not consider let alone validate what response, either in understanding or action, we want to trigger. I believe the “Forward Message” button is, opposite to common belief, an ineffective and often dangerous function. I will address this subject in a future discussion.
Next, radically reduce your distribution list. By writing to large groups, the responsibility and ownership becomes unclear. When you have something to say, ensure that you clearly target the recipient.
As stated before, your frequency of communication can lead to a listening and understanding deficit. Countless messages in a short period of time, often in a single day, will only result in the individual piece of information not making it into the consciousness of the recipient.
When sending text messages, we often do one of two things: short, often abbreviated groups of words, leaving the recipient wondering what you mean, or long and winding dissertations, possibly solidified by several attachments. Both will most likely fail to achieve the purpose of your message. Precise communication fosters precise understanding.
When you need to make a truly important point, consider your approach. First, think about the distribution of documents versus a personal presentation. When you resort to letting your constituents study the material on their own, you have no control over their understanding. Alternatively, in a personal interaction, you will be able to read their reception, gauge their understanding, clarify uncertainties, and ensure unity of mind. Second, reconsider your form of interaction. With PowerPoint having completely captured the corporate world, we have standardized our thinking. It is frightening to see how our cognitive processes have been pressed into a universal template. This results in lateral thinking, oppressing our mental agility. If you then resort to simply reading the bullet points to your audience, you will surely miss the mark. There is no law which requires a header, a bullet point section on the left, a right hand picture from stock, and the footer at the bottom indicating occasion, date, and slide number. Consider breaking out of this format and you will pull your audience out of the expected and grab their attention, making them actually listen and process your information. I recommend the use of images but they must serve a clear purpose: The creation of an emotional reaction. Emotions not only stimulate thinking, they will enter into our long term memory, which is a prerequisite for motivating people towards a specific goal. At times, you should use strong images. Surprise or even shock is a valid communication tool, even in a meeting room.
By and large, we are way too concerned about political correctness and the urge to avoid any controversy. On the other hand, we also see an increasing level of pure verbal or written aggression to impose an opinion. This is equally counterproductive. We have lost sight of a very effective form of interaction which is called “constructive criticism”, an important element for moving along the learning curve.
In an executional situation, think about your balance between typing, voice, and personal messages. Today’s communication tendency is strongly towards typed messages with face-to-face interaction becoming a relic of another time. We all do it. We send a message to the person in the office across the corridor or in the next workstation. Or, for the person in a remote location, we send an e-mail rather than picking up the phone and talking to him. As a result we lose our sensors to gauge understanding and to direct behavior. This also fosters a diminished engagement in the cause. Instead, if you walk over to a person and have a dialogue, you will get attention, the individual will become mentally engaged, and you will ensure unity of mind. In addition, you will create a personal connection which is vital for success.
Consider the difference between telling and asking. Telling is a mono-directional form of communication which does not necessarily require the recipient to acknowledge. That person can remain mentally passive, with your message never entering into his cognitive sphere. You can formulate the same statement into a question, which changes the situation into a bi-directional communication. In this scenario, the recipient needs to respond which requires mental engagement. You will create an opportunity to address differences during the conversation and foster a unity of mind or, more importantly, you will obtain vital insights which may alter your thoughts. The active nature of a dialogue will provide for a higher likelihood that it will be understood and remembered, and hopefully trigger the desired behavior.
Finally, I would like to address the implication of our communication behavior on consumption. In short, we are living in a consumption and attention economy. Let’s look first at the consumption aspect. There is an overabundance of choice resulting in retailers struggling to create a distinctive and unique offering. As a result, product creativity expressed through functional and/or design innovation is often weak. In lieu of differentiation, pricing becomes the single most important marketing tool which results in a commodization of goods. The implications are amplified by the fact that we are living in an attention economy. In addition to the intense personal communication level, as discussed before, the consumer is exposed to ever growing marketing stimulation through multiple communication channels, which range from diminishing print and exploding electronic media, namely television, e-mail, social networking, and the Internet. Beside the exposure to passive purchasing offers, the consumer has become an active advertising and information consumer by using various search tools to seek data regarding what he desires to purchase. With the demystification of brands, products, and services, any lack of differentiation becomes painfully obvious.
When visiting virtually any given shopping mall in North America, we experience a rather predictable and therefore increasingly boring environment. The tenant mix and merchandise offering is repetitive, and the offering between competitors is exchangeable.
For the purpose of this discussion, I refrain from addressing the product question. In the context of our communication overload, and the lack of attention by the consumer, I believe it becomes necessary to (a) carefully cluster and target the audience and (b) study their interest, needs, and purchase triggers. Blogs, product reviews, and social networking communities are extraordinarily useful and efficient in performing in-depth studies on these subjects. All touch points with the target must be carefully crafted. When looking at most E-Commerce platforms today, we see the usage of the same structure and visual tools to guide the visitor. Marketers justify this conformity with the need for convenience. While you never want to confuse your audience, which only leads to frustration and loss of sales, it is shortsighted to eliminate the element of surprise and differentiation and, with that, the intellectual engagement which triggers interest and ultimately results in purchase transactions. A word of caution: superficial marketing claims of differentiation are dangerous and often counterproductive as the consumer now has unrestricted access to information. In this context, consumer reviews have the highest impact as they quickly unveil unsustainable differentiation claims.
A second, often underutilized communication platform, is the in-store experience. Many stores have a standardized layout, efficient product presentation, loud promotional visuals highlighting the focus of the day, and a total annihilation of the opportunity to discover something new. Everything is placed in front of our eyes and the sales associates clerk rather than consult. Imagine entering a store where you have a unique experience that engages your senses and which never ceases to pleasantly surprise you.
In short and simple words: Retailers must focus less on plain communication and return to creating experiences. In a world of over-communication and a lack of attention, experiences become islands which will make us step out of the consumption circus and build a relationship with the retailer, the brands, and the merchandise.