My last important learning before I left Ernst & Young was the astonishing discovery that almost none of what business presenters say gets ‘correctly’ understood, internalized, or learned by their audience. By ‘correctly’ I mean what the audience thought the message was, is almost always radically different from what the presenter intended the message to be. I base this conclusion on entirely anecdotal evidence: Throughout 2003, as a result of consternation about how so little of my presentations was sinking in, out of curiousity I began systematically debriefing with a few audience participants in each presentation I attended (whether or not I had been one of the presenters), as soon as possible after the presentations, and then fed back to the presenters what the audience said. The result was usually anger or stunned disbelief. Here are my totally unscientific findings from this ‘research’:

  1. Regardless of the length of a presentation, audience members will recall no more than one important message or significant finding from a presentation, and, unless it is reinforced later, will forget even that one message or finding in about one week. They’ll retain impressions about the speaker, but not what was said.
  2. The only time a majority of the audience agrees on what the important messages or findings were, is when one or more of the following occurs:
    • the message/finding is emphasized at the very beginning and/or very end of the presentation
    • there is significant two-way conversation about the message/finding during the presentation
    • the message/finding is said repeatedly during the presentation, ideally by more than one person
    • the message/finding is conveyed by means of a story, joke, example or anecdote
  3. In the absence of one of the above four ‘aids’, the probability that more than a small minority of the audience will understand what the presenter was actually trying to convey is close to zero.
  4. Powerpoint slides with bullets, artwork & photos don’t help understanding or retention. Charts, tables and ‘top 10’ lists can help, but only if they’re simple, elegant, compelling, useful to keep, and properly explained.

The good people at E&Y are very intelligent, motivated individuals, and some of them are quite good at making presentations clear, articulate and interesting. So I confess I was amazed to discover the almost complete lack of communication that occurs in most presentations. Given what I’ve read by Nancy Dixon and George Lakoff on the importance of adapting your message to each listener’s ‘frames’ if you want to be understood, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Lately most of my meetings have been one-on-one, so I’ve started to look at conversations with the same skeptical eye as presentations. How much do we get out of them really, and are they truly about communicating or actually about something else?

So far I’m just listening to others’ conversations, whenever I get the opportunity. Since I’m male, you will appreciate that this is very difficult for me to do! But I’m also finding out (as most women already know well) that it can be very entertaining, if you pay attention to the whole conversation and not just to the words being said. I’m starting to think conversations are as useless a medium for effective intellectual communication as presentations. It’s too early for me to present any unscientific conclusions, but here’s what I’ve observed so far — I’d love to hear what you think about all this:

  • Linguistics professor Deborah Tannenseems to have a valid point when she says women and men (with some notable exceptions) converse in entirely different ways, and they converse differently with members of the opposite sex than with members of their own.
  • Conversations have a myriad of complex but unspoken cultural norms, styles and rituals (taking turns, pausing, nodding, apologizing for interrupting or misunderstanding etc.) When two people with different norms, styles, or rituals try to converse, or when a third person ignorant of the styles or rituals shared by the other two tries to enter a conversation, the result is both comical and tragic. A form of violence, even.
  • Most people don’t appear to listen to what they themselves are saying. Many conversations include someone saying “I didn’t say that” when in fact they did. I suspect if people listened to a tape or video recording of their conversations they would be stunned. They might never say anything again!
  • Most of the real communication in a conversation is not in the words. It’s in the nuances of body and eye language. It’s in the tone of voice. It’s in the pauses. It’s in the physical proximity or distance of the conversants.
  • Many effective conversations appear to be really interviews. That entails specific roles for the two conversants, with the interviewer’s role being the more difficult and more important. If one person is mostly asking questions and the other person is doing most of the talking, it’s an interview, not a conversation.
  • Conversations with more than two people are generally either parallel sequences of two-person  conversations, or moderated conversations, where one person is clearly directing the conversational ‘traffic’.
  • Conversations would, I think, be much more effective if we had a ritual of having each conversant state upfront what their personal objective for the conversation is. I appreciate that in some cases this must be done tactfully: “I’ve wanted to meet you since Mr. A told me that you… “, or “I’m looking for some help with…” In the absence of such a protocol, a lot of initial conversations exhaust an enormous amount of participants’ energy trying to figure this out tacitly.
  • From watching online chat (the only written medium that in my opinion is fast and immediate enough to really qualify as ‘conversation’) and listening to young people especially talk, what people seem to want most from conversation with friends is reassurance. Everyone is always fishing for compliments and confirmation, and, unless and until they clearly know and trust the offerer very well, dubious of the offerer’s motivation when they get them. Few people, it seems, are really looking for advice, debate, or ‘constructive criticism’ in a conversation. But many seem enthusiastic to offer these things anyway!
  • You can tell almost immediately whether participants in a conversation trust each other or not. If you want to observe conversations where there is trust, go out for dinner a lot, and avoid offices and bars.

What have you observed from watching and listening to conversations? Is it just me, or do most of us seem to be remarkably inept and awkward at doing something that is crucially important, something we spend so much time doing? What’s the one thing (besides improving our listening skills, of course) we could do to improve the quality and value of our conversations?

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11 Responses to THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT

  1. Brett says:

    While I have noticed the same thing about presentations and have taken many of the steps you advocate (to mixed success), I hadn’t really thought much about conversations in the same light. I do have a tendency to “watch” others in conversation and learn as much from the process of the conversation as I do the content. As an “outsider”, conversations are a good way to discover many things.What I had not really thought about, though, was my own participation in conversations. Looking back on a few recent ones, I realize that my productive conversations may not be very entertaining because I do go straight to the point. I’m not very good at small talk in any setting, but I have a tendency to ignore it all together when I’m discussing something “work related” with my co-workers. (I do make sure I take time to have “meaningless” [from a work perspective]conversations with my co-workers so they don’t get too upset with me.)– Brett

  2. Denny says:

    I’ve noticed:People rarely say what they’re thinking.Some people say everything they’re thinking (never an unuttered thought), so it’s nearly impossible to determine what’s worth attending to. People don’t speak the way others like to listen, so listeners don’t hear what they’d like to hear.People don’t listen with an open mind, so dialogue is rare.People digress. They don’t finish their thought. They get distracted and go off on tangents.People interrupt each other.Etc.”Communication is hard.”

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Brett: I also find dealing with the ‘small talk’ the most challenging part of conversations. I’ve been told it’s essential to establishing trust for many people. Kind of like foreplay, I guess ;-)Denny: I wonder why this is? My sense is that if the subject is really important, conversational behaviours are much better. Maybe the problem is we don’t know, or don’t care, or have forgotten what’s really important, so our heart isn’t in the things we talk about *instead*.

  4. Don Dwiggins says:

    One useful technique I’ve learned over the years is the use of questions in a conversation, with careful attention to the assumptions implied by a question. For example, when a disagreement surfaces, it’s often appropriate to enter a round of questioning each other to explore whether you’re actually disagreeing on a commonly understood assertion, or just talking past each other.Also, a point on the picture at the top of the article: the “sensory receptors” aren’t passive “faithful recorders”, but active filters; among other things, this can affect the way a conversation goes. It’s quite literally true that A may hear, at a low level of processing, something different than B said.

  5. These observations are interesting, particularly as they’re not trying to push any theory of communication.I had a few shocks when I took part in a retreat in which silence was the rule for most of the time, but for some exercises in which people in pairs took it in turns to talk for five minutes. The listener just had to listen – no nodding, encouraging or any of the usual prompts. It was fascinating from both sides, but I learned more as a listener – how hard it is to shut up, and how false a lot of these ‘encouraging’ responses can be – but often how necessary. I guess that’s why so many people go into therapy – they are essentially paying someone to shut up for an hour and not bring in ‘Oh I did that’ or ‘That’s like me, I …’.

  6. If have a simple conversation its very hard, try to have an intercultural conversation, for instance in the Latin cultural the physical aproach and the physical contact are very important and i dont know why we use to speak very Loud (specially the Italians and Cubans) this are caracteristics that seems anoying to the saxon culture and sometimes its quite intimidating for both parts so what i recomend in this situations its to study a little bit more the “non language comunication” of the counterpart in if its posible previously talk with someone else (with the same background) before our definitive appointmentMiguel E. Pancardo T.

  7. dN says:

    living in korea has taught me much about communication, particularly the ability to express myself as well as understanding others without perfect knowledge of cultural communication tools. we have differing values concerning types of conversation, interruption intervals, and esp eye-contact timing. i’ve become out-of-tune with the ‘western approach’ to communication. it has become much more difficult to speak in full sentences and carry out complete thoughts, particularly with people i don’t know. at times, i’m hyper-aware of the self who’s speaking, which disorients my train(s) of thought. communication here as a foreigner can be an interesting experience. if with koreans, we are generally super-quiet with intermittent spotlights shining upon us. but it’s pretty amazing to come to an understanding of language that releases you from the mundanity of individual words and sentences to clearly listen to a language as music and to ‘see’ personalities displayed. you come to know people for those beneath the language. i think there are two things conversations are geared towards: transfering knowledge/information; and trying to express who we think we are at the moment. the first is preordained or designed with Q&A in mind, and the second for listening. use for knowledge is concerned with how the external world relates to our internal one. i think we are inept at conversation because we don’t spend enough time thinking, and because we don’t have enough confidence in ourselves. we do not internalise the knowledge we acquire. and we don’t seem to have the appropriate language skills to have a healthy debate. my own writing skills are falling short of what i’m trying to express. i hope this has been of some interest. (lack of faith here ;)

  8. Birdie says:

    Most people are putting most of their attention on what they plan to say during the next lull in conversation while their conversation buddy is talking. So in reality, so many conversations are truly with yourself. I know I’m guilty of this.

  9. shari says:

    As always, a wonderful post with great commentors. My first thought: my mother-in-law. She prides herself in not speaking what she wants yet she expects people to understand her 100%. What??? I know, it’s strange. But the point is, a lot of people speak in code. Once you know the code, then its easy. I think this happens with the two big sides in politics: progressives versus conservatives. But in little ways, this is what happens.

  10. Ray Jefferd says:

    It is unrealistic to expect someone to understand what you are saying when they believe their job depends upon them continuing to not understand. Substitute freely for the word “job” and it still holds true.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Don: Absolutely. When I flipped the graphic to make a mirror image I was originally planning on cleaning up the backward text — then I realized that this unintelligable writing emphasized just how different each of our mental models and perceptual filters really are.Norman: I’m the same way — my wife says the only time I shut up is when I talk on the phone with my father, who I rarely see (he’s 80), and who, along with some wonderful lessons and traits, also taught me the bad habit of starting to think about my reply before I finished listening to what the person I’m talking with (to?) is saying.dN: Well put. Maybe one of the reasons a lot of us blog is that it’s easier than conversing, and gives us what conversation doesn’t — sufficient time for thought and reflection.Birdie: Mea culpa also.

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