The Communication Illusion

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw

I read that quote the other day, and it kind of blew me away. How often, as managers, executives, marketers and team members do we send forth messages and assume effective communication has taken place? I know that I personally have been guilty of spewing forth my thoughts and directives in ways that were clear to me but were not nearly clear enough to my audience. In the information age in which we live, it seems communication is the majority of what we do on a daily basis, so I thought I would take this space to explore my thoughts on the topic. I hope to learn from your thoughts, as well.

Over the weekend, I did a bit of reading on communication. As I read Wikipedia’s article on communication, I was reminded of the technical breakdown of communication I learned in my college Organizational Behavior class (see image to the right). While those explanations are useful, I really wanted to think about communication in more practical terms. While communication between individuals is very important in business, effective one-to-many communication can often be extremely challenging.

Technology may impede quality

Ironically, while communications technology advances have improved the speed, frequency and reach of our communications, they may have effectively reduced the quality of our communications because communication via phone, IM, Twitter, texting, etc. takes out so much subtlety, nuance, and context.

Albert Mehrabian and Susan Ferris performed a famous study to determine the proportion of the three major parts of human face-to-face communication: content, tone, and body language. According to the research:

  • 55% of impact is determined by body language—postures, gestures, and eye contact,
  • 38% by the tone of voice
  • 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process.

Although there is some controversy surrounding the exact numbers because of the scope of their research,  clearly communication is significantly aided by elements like body language and tone of voice that are not present in the forms of written communication that have become dominant because of technology innovations. Even phone conversations are missing the all important body language component.

But it’s not practical to communicate with everyone one-on-one, in person. So, how do we communicate more effectively and avoid the illusion that communication has taken place when it hasn’t?

“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

That is the subtitle of Words That Work by Frank Luntz, and those words are an important reminder of both the meaning of effective communication and the inherent challenges of achieving it. Our audiences bring with them their own unique past experiences, biases, cultures and perceptions (and frankly, so do we). When you think about it, it’s amazing we’re ever able to communicate anything at all. Because Luntz is a well-known Republican pollster and a somewhat controversial figure, I hesitated to reference him for fear politics would get in the way of my message here. But many of his communication tips transcend politics and make good sense for business communications, so I wanted to share some of his tips that I find very helpful (and decidedly non-partisan):

  • Simplicity: Use Small Words
  • Brevity: Use Short Sentences
  • Consistency Matters
  • Sound and Texture Matter
  • Provide Context and Explain Relevance

I would add two things to this list of communication tips: repetition and listening.

In my experience, repetition is critically important in any managerial or executive communication. Sometimes repetition means saying the same thing over and over, and sometimes it means slightly altering the core message to ensure the message is cutting through the biases, perspectives, etc. Either way, the key is understanding that saying something once is simply not enough given all the previously mentioned obstacles each message must hurdle.

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Just as great leaders are also great followers, I believe the best communicators are also the best listeners. By truly dedicating ourselves to listening to our audiences, whether they are staff, peers, bosses or customers, we can better understand their perspectives, biases and cultural influences. We can learn to tailor our message so that it is heard as we meant it. I believe great communication takes great listening, and great listening takes conscious effort and a huge amount of discipline, but I also believe the return on the listening investment is the ability to communicate more effectively. And the ability to communicate more effectively is priceless.

Man, it’s not easy. But the more ways we find to ensure what our audiences hear is what we intended to say, the more effectively we will communicate and eliminate the communication illusion.

I really want to learn from you. What communications lessons have you learned? What tips do you have to share?


  • By Bryan Eisenberg, September 29, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    It is also one of the reasons I am a big fan of Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. One communication challenge is that 72% of our populations is “Sensing Oriented” according to Myers- Briggs research. They like the concrete and the here and now. While most marketers fall in to the minority 28% of “Intuitive” types and don’t communicate in the preferred method of the majority of the population. They think our Intuitive words are full of fluff. “Made to Stick” is the manual on how to convert Intuitive language into Sensing language.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 30, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    Excellent data points, Bryan. Also, great recommendations on “Made to Stick.” It’s an excellent book and full of great communication advice. I would also mention your own book, Waiting for the Cat to Bark,” as another great source for understanding audiences and communicating effectively to them. It’s a book I’ve recommended often to people I’ve worked with to help them build more effective web pages.

  • By Sarah, September 30, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    Bryan–interesting stuff. I makes sense that marketers might have some Meyers Briggs letters in common (I would imagine we are disproportionately E, as well, no?) but didn’t occur to me that that could put us out of step with receivers. Good thoughts to chew on.

  • By mary parlett, August 20, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    I heard the quote Communication is an illusion on Criminal Minds last night and had to look it up today. That is how I came to your web. site.I have been dealing with the subject of communication at work for a while and becoming frustrated. It is my understanding that perception of the message takes place on the reciever’s part. It not only involves the actual message but the way the reciever internalizes it, due to culture, background ect… The person who is sending the message can only be responsible the message and the way it is presented.Help me to understand why others feel that perception is the responsibility of the person deliving the message.Again I am saying the messager is responsibe for the presentation of the message.

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