For communicators, listening is key. A few tips to improve your skills.

There is very little that is natural about communication. Word associations. Metaphors. Our vision of the world is like a kaleidoscope of moving bits of glass, settling in a slightly different configuration every time we pause to ponder.

In fact, most of concepts, symbols and metaphors that we process as we communicate are of a conventional nature. This means that, for example, the word “cat” is not intrinsically linked to what it represents – the furry, meowing creature that sleeps 18 hours per day. Rather, the string of sounds, “k a t” is a symbol that we have arrived at arbitrarily: as a speech community of anglophones, we agreed conventionally that it should be understood to mean what it means. In fact, if we all decided tomorrow to change our interpretation, we could call cats by another name – fripples, or sniggles or whatever.

So words are pretty arbitrary. Famous Swiss professor and founder of the field of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, called this the arbitrary nature of the sign. This concept has huge implications for the field of communications.

Let’s think about this for a second.

If all signs (words) are arbitrary, then there are very few natural readings of what we are saying. Hmmm. The implications of this are powerful. This means that to truly understand what others mean, we have to be very conscious of several things:

  • Our co-communicator’s personal history and experiences;
  • The dialect or variety of English that she uses;
  • The person’s socio-economic station;
  • The person’s experiences with people who look and feel like us.

Think of how complicated this process is. We all have a wealth of experiences that we had stockpiled. Some of them are simple, like what our favourite foods are or the colours that make us feel happy and cheerful. Others are very deep and complicated – the mixed feelings we have about failed relationships, the sadness we have experienced at the loss of a loved one, the conflicted feelings of guilt at things we have done that we now regret.

These deep feelings and ideas are very difficult to communicate to others. Often we do not have enough of a grasp of our own perspective on them to put them into words. Nonetheless, these deeply-seated thoughts shape and colour our interpretations of the world. They influence our reactions to other people. They trigger fear or trust responses in us.

Now imagine how challenging it would be to take that kaleidoscope of tumbling and rolling personal experiences in your mind and fit it onto the jigsaw puzzle of language and language and words. It’s tough – it requires many many words to paint an adequate picture. Honesty is key, because once you introduce a lie into that stormy ocean of words, it has to be true forever and that can become exhausting and very, very complicated.

So what does this mean for effective communicators? Several big points:

  • Honesty is the best policy. It will make you feel solid and authentic to others, if your language is always consistent.
  • Self-knowledge and self-reflection is key. Tell yourself the story of yourself. Evaluate your many experiences and how they fit in with one another.
  • Listen carefully to what others are saying. Keep the big picture of what they are saying your mind – it will allow you to understand communication that may seem unusual.
  • Be a compassionate listener – remember that everyone says everything for a reason. That reason may come from their experiences, from their state of mind, from how they feel that day.
  • Remember that words are arbitrary and reductive. Even in the mouth of an expert communicator, they are an impoverished representation of the complexity of what is going on in that person’s mind.

Keep these things in mind as you develop your skills as a communicator. They will deepen your understanding of others and enrich your life and practice.


The study of how we understand one another.

I have always been fascinated by hermeneutics, which is the study of meaning and understanding. What does it mean to mean something? More importantly, how what does it mean to understand something that someone else is communicating?

In my PhD thesis, I explored whether it was possible to use the structures in a text (syntax, mostly) to help decipher its meaning. I wanted to understand how we understand the writing of others – not necessarily from a neuroscientific perspective, but more from an interpretive, subjective one.

Why? Because when an average person understands what another person has said or written, they don’t achieve that understanding by consciously knowing the brain processes that are functioning under the hood. Rather, the person feels more or less confident that they understand. Sometimes, they even know that they have understood – but that is actually quite rare. Think back to the times you have heard or read what others have said or written to you.  Be truthful – did you feel 100% confident that you fully understood what the person really meant?

I have always be fascinated by the subjective process of arriving at understanding. Is it measurable? I think it is. How is it measurable? Now that is a great question!

If you think about it, this process of arriving at knowledge of how we understand one another is central to theory of communication and public relations.

In a series of blog posts to come in the next few weeks, I will be exploring this idea.

Stay tuned and click on the “Discourse Analysis” link to your right to keep track.

Public Relations and the Social Media Revolution

Mass broadcasting systems permitted the marketing revolution of the 50s and 60s. Now, the social media revolution is opening up the same radical possibilities for public relations.

PR is the business of building relationships, in Canada that means preferably symmetrical relationships between an organization and its various publics. In the past, it was very hard to measure how these relationship-building processes operated and what the value of their outcomes were. To many members of the executive suite in organizations, PR seemed like a magical process that was hard to value.

Social media changes all of that. PR is a symbol-industry. It deals entirely in mental representations. That is to say, PR’s currency is the representations of the world that are formed in the minds of the publics that the practitioner deals with.

Mental representations are images held in the brain which are the result of translations of sensory input. So, when you pet your cat on your way out of the door, your mind forms a mental schema of the feeling, the meaning and the context of what it feels like to pet the cat, when you petted it, what it did when you petted it, etc. Our reality is shaped by the mental representations we store from our experiences.

The quickest way to access what is going on in people’s minds is through language communication. It is where people express their “inner life” most clearly, with the most fidelity to what is actually going on in their minds. Visual arts production is more complicated – it involves layers of visual metaphors, colour allusions, shapes, etc.

But language is clearer. While there is certainly not a one-to-one relationship between what we think and what we say, language has the closest relationship to our thoughts of all of the communication modalities (painting, drawing, dancing, singing, etc.).

So how does this relate to social media?

Well, social media permits us real-time access to people’s evolving mental landscape through that truest representation of what is going on in their minds – language. For the first time, we can watch relationships evolve and follow the shape and colour of those relationships as they develop, rise and decline.

But wait, there’s more! Anything digital can be measured. One of the strengths of marketing professionals is that they have been able to provide precise approximations of the value of their contributions to an organization’s well-being. The measurable nature of social media provides to PR the same window to dive into a new world of measurement.

Social media is a huge opportunity to justify PR as a core strategic function. Time to jump in with both feet.

We live two lives, in two realities: physical and online

People no longer live one life, but many. Physical. On-line. With whom are we really communicating?

You may think that this is a silly topic, if you’re someone who hasn’t grown up on-line or thrown yourself into the world of the Internet and social media. But you would be mistaken – a significant proportion of the population, young and old now have two very distinct lives: physical and online.

As a parent or a friend, this means that you have to become savvy to how other people may have several different presenting selves or personas – each which is as real to them as the one they live in physical space.

In a world of symbols and representations, that is, the world of communication and the internet – there is no real distinction between the physical and cyber-reality. It is all symbols flowing through wires into your brain.

Let’s think about this for a second. You touch the stove and it feels hot, right? So you take your hand away quickly. Your pet saunters over and you grab it. It feels soft and warm in your arms. This all feels real, right?

Well, the answer is… sort of. The fact is that you are feeling emotions and sensations because your brain is processing the outside world as information. As Bishop Berkeley, a British philosopher implied, reality exists in the mind of the beholder.

So, what does this mean in terms of cyberspace vs physical-space? Well, the fact is, since our eyes and ear pull create nervous impulses that are translated in our brains as information, and if reality lives in the mind, it would seem that, for the mind, cyber-reality and physical reality are similar – two streams of information which blend and blur in the electric storm of the brain.

This PBS Frontline documentary lends significant insight into how teens are living in two parallel realities:

The young people seem to live in two separate realities with two very different moral codes. Parents are present in physical reality but neutered in virtual reality. Also, the interview demonstrate that the young people don’t really understand that what happens in cyber-reality can have consequences in physical reality. This must be terrifying for parents of children.

For PR pros, this is both an opportunity and moral hasard. As the relationship-builders for organizations and individuals, we have to be at the frontlines of understanding how people are building their identities on-line and what this means for the practice. How does one create and organizational “avatar” (an online identity) that interacts in cyber-reality in an ethical yet persuasive fashion?

To achieve this, PR pros have to become familiar not only with what is being said online, but also how it is being understood. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy is at the core of PR practice.

Summer 2010 residency for MCM733:CommTheory complete

Yesterday, we completed day 5 of the summer residency for MCM733: Communication Theory, offered in the Master of Communication Management Program at McMaster University. It was an excellent class – quite intense, quite a whirlwind, very engaging. The class was very active – we had many in-depth discussions on how a solid grasp of communication theory can inform public relations strategy.

The class members were engaged and focused. Although the topic is quite involved, we had many moments of levity and a lot of good laughs. Many of the stories that were told brought the theories down to earth and the abstract concepts down to practical application. Kudos to the class members for tolerating 4 hours of me for 5 days in a row:

  • Joe Distel
  • Rebecca Edgar
  • Karen Humphreys-Blake
  • Brett McDemott
  • Heather Magotiaux
  • Sylvie Plante
  • Frank Vasallo

I look forward to reading the papers they will be writing in the next three months.

Video: Public Relations and Edward T. Bernays

Public relations was born out of idealism, elitism and a desire to perfect democracy. The founder of the field, Edward T. Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He created the field and named it on a whim. This video, produced in the United Kingdom and called The Century of the Self, while quite critical of Bernays and public relations, is an excellent overview of the profession’s early history. The conspiratorial nature of some of the voice-over is forgivable…

MCM733: Communication Theory!

Today we had our first introductory class in MCM733: Communication Theory. It went very well!

We worked through the following questions: “What is communications theory? and why is it useful to public relations practitioners?”

I focused on the idea that theory provide vision, language and strategy.

When you use communication theory, you stand on the shoulders of deep thinkers and the accumulated research and case studies of hundreds of graduate students, practitioners and theorists. You can build a vision for your campaign based on their experiences and insights.

Language lends credibility, and having a solid grasp of the terminology and descriptive language of theory makes you sounds smarter, more organized and more grounded when doing presentations to other professionals whose fields have established terminology and practices, like marketing, finance, etc.

Strategy is build based on a solid understanding of an organization’s context and culture, as well as its financials and relationships. What communication theory provides the practitioner with is a framework, a set of concepts and processes that have been tested in labs, case studies and philosophical inquiry. A good understanding of a theoretical model can translate into intelligent strategy that is expressed in a coherent way.

Here are the slides for the rest of the week:

I look forward to the rest of the week!

We remember what we hear and feel, not what people say.

I have always believed that humans have feelings and that these feelings impact our reasoning. Current trends in neuroscience seem to be bearing this belief out.

For me, my thinking about emotional cognition started during a philosophy seminar in which we discussed René Descartes notion that cognition is purely rational. Cogito ergo sum. He also says that animals are not capable of thought. Quite frankly I have always believed that Descartes’ idea that animals are complicated biological robots with no minds demonstrates that his rationalist view of the human mind was profoundly flawed. You’ll see why I bring this up when you watch the last video of the three in this blog post.

Emotions make up a huge part of the way we think, make decisions and reason. Our emotional memory of the past regulates and channels our interpretations of what we see and hear and see other people do (to us) in the present. Antonio Damasio, a prominent neuroscientist, has always said that emotion is profoundly linked to human cognition. Here he discusses why emotions make for better decisions:

This rule applies to how people are affected by brands. In the words of Frank Luntz, famous American communications researcher and strategist, it is not what the content of what you say that people remember, but rather what they heard. Clothaire Rapaille, French cognitive scientist and market researcher adds that it is how something makes us feel that influences our retention of it. We tend to block out negative experiences on focus on the good times. Here is an excerpt of The Persuaders, a PBS documentary by Douglas Rushkoff, featuring Rapaille:

To get back to how animals process emotion, I encourage you to watch this heart-breaking video of a cat who refuses to believe that her friend is dead. If you watch it with the music on, it will make you cry – it will mark you and you will remember it. If you watch it with the music off, then the effect will still be strong, but less pronounced.

Why? The music is the cognitive bridge that translates the emotion of what we are seeing with our own experiences. We are not used to thinking of cats as emotional creatures. The music reminds us that what we are watching is tragic and beautiful.

Together, music and video leave an indelible image. Media is certainly very powerful…

McLuhan on the Global Village. Amazing.

I am continually amazed at how prescient Marshall McLuhan was about how new media would change our culture, economy and society. Listen to him in this series of clips:

Here he is, interviewed on CBC TV:

And here he is, presented by Peter Hirshberg during his TED Talk: The Web and TV, a sibling rivalry (2007) …

He saw that electronic media was going to make the world smaller and thrust our noses into each other’s lives. That knowledge would make us more aware of each other’s problems and that awareness would bring with it a large measure of responsibility. Technology would change the adolscent into a teenager: the adolescent is someone who is in life’s waiting room, whereas the teenager owns a social category all to her own – she is living her life, actively. She is spoken to directly by media, marketers and activists.

I always take great pleasure in reading McLuhan’s work. So intricate and full of meaning and insight. It never gets tired.

Happy Mothers Day! A party in King City with my family.

I like feasts like Mothers Day, because I get a chance to spend time with my extended family in a relaxed way. I like parties that focus on a person or a theme. They have a warmth and ease that regular get-togethers sometimes lack. If people have had a rough week, their trials can sometimes become the focus of the discussion and that can lead to awkwardness.

There was none of that today, though. We were celebrating the three mothers in our family: my grandmother Helen, my aunt Dawn and my mother Savitsa.

It was a day of food, bright sun and gentle conversation. We chatted about many things, while the NBA game between the Cavaliers and the Celtics played mutely on the plasma in the background. Every so often, we’d take a second and admire a particularly deft move that one of the players had done, or marvel at someone’s shoesize: “His shoes are bigger than the Toronto Sun when it’s opened up!” one of my cousin’s mentioned, and everyone laughed. It was warm and light hearted and peaceful. The sun had that wonderful gauzy golden hue that seems to come when a sunny day follows a rainy one.

The food was wonderful too: my mother made her special pâté en croûte, and sautéed spicy chicken strips. There were trays of veg too – bells of every colour, celery, mushrooms and broccoli and cucumbers. I supplied a version of my mango-lime-ginger dip that people loved. It’s creamy and greeny and fresh, with just a hint of tartness and a little heat from the ginger. I had my favourite beer, King Dark, which is actually brewed right here, in my hometown of King Township.

People stayed for a couple of hours, talked politics and culture and swapped stories from work – then they drove off into the late afternoon light and we spent the next hour cleaning up. I often get a peaceful feeling during the clean-up after a party. The conversations are still simmering in my mind, and echoes of peoples’ laughter and commentary are still bouncing around the instead of my head. I perform the manual tasks of walking back and forth from the living room to the kitchen, wash dishes or watch mutely as my father washes them, waiting for him to pass me a dish to dry with the blue and white checkered terry cloth I am holding. We’re always quiet together after a party, because there isn’t much to say and everyone’s thinking, letting the conversation sink in.

My grandmother was very happy because she’s home now, although she is still very, very ill. Her diabetes means that she can’t eat much sugar, but she could resist one piece of carrot-almond cake. I was worried that it up her sugar level and it probably did, but as she said to me defiantly: “It was worth it, Sacha!” And smiled ruefully, because she knows that a moment’s sweet pleasure may be paid for through a rough night. But sometimes you do just want that wedge of carrot cake, don’t you?

Now I’m going to take a walk around the block, and then settle in for an evening of my favourite lemon green tea beside a small crackling fire, editing a couple of more chapters of the second edition of my textbook.