My nine-month old son attended the first interview of his life in November, and boy he picked a tough one for starters. He’s now preparing himself for the worst, because the statistics, he’s told, are against him.
When you apply for a passport in this country, Australia Post does its best to keep your expectations low. At the bottom of their online instructions, they shout: “Important! Only 2 out of 10 customers get their application right the first time.” Wow.
Just pause and think about the crowds they send away each year, adding handsomely to the cost of a passport, and then ask yourself the key question: Who, exactly, is to blame?
It’s tempting to blame the 8 out of 10 because we often assume that instructions are correct and that people simply fail to follow them. This is not how I look at issues in communication and design. Instructions are pieces of communication, and it is the owners of communication that should be questioned for failure. In the case of the 2 in 10 outcome, the owners are the passport agencies, not the public. If we assume that the system itself can’t be changed (I’m being generous here), then the communication just isn’t good enough.
Engineers work on highly complex systems, but at various times, these systems need to be explained to clients and stakeholders. The passport temptation applies: we think the audience should be good enough to understand the material in its original format—the format created for engineering purposes.
As I teach communication at companies and community seminars, I come across many well-intentioned professionals who fall into this temptation. At times it is explicit (“they should make the effort to learn…”), but usually it is subtle. It is easy to copy and paste an entire engineering diagram into a public presentation, but which of the hundred components should an audience focus on? Can they make sense of the diagram and listen to the speaker at the same time? One thing is always certain: they can’t read the legend that is now a 2pt font after the copy and paste.
Let me be absolute: your audience will never understand or agree with the same things you do. If they did, there wouldn’t be much point to communicating. Always ask yourself why you communicate, and each time you do, I’m sure the underlying reason will be to change the perspective or the behaviour of your audience in some way.
Communication is about your audience, not about you. The responsibility of removing the impediments to your audience falls on you, the communicator, who wants something of value from those you speak to.