A few years ago, our home security provider installed new fire alarm detectors in my house. They emitted loud, high-pitched beeps at even the slightest detection of heat, smoke or steam. Boiling water set off the one in the kitchen. A steamy shower set off the one in the hallway.
Eventually, we took the batteries out and then switched to a better brand. Later, a security technician told us that lots of people were disabling their fire detectors because the detectors were too sensitive.
Wow – that’s a huge product failure. In an attempt to keep people safe from fires, the engineers created a product that was actually less effective. The bar to trigger alarm was set too low.
Communication works the same way.
Corporate America relies on executive summaries. The intelligence community taught me the concept of BLUF (bottom-line-up-front). Internet culture uses the concept of TL;DR (too long, didn’t read).
Narrative always has its place. (I started this post in narrative form.) But there is tremendous value in brevity.
When I was a stock analyst, I often formatted my research into bullet point format, with three categories:
- One or two sentences on a development.
What it means
- Translating those above sentences into easy-to-understand English and adding context and background
- Buy, sell or hold
Once I knew I had an audience who trusted me, I took pride in not wasting their time. There was tremendous value in helping others to tune out noise. There was value in what I didn’t say.
Time and attention are limited, perishable resources. If you generate too much noise, people will cut you off, filter you away, and tune you out.
This is true everywhere — at home, in the work place, on Facebook and Twitter. How much is too much? That’s subjective — it’s up to you to know your audience. Maybe you need to communicate more. Maybe less. If no one is opening your emails, or they are missing important information, it’s time to re-calibrate.
We’re all communicators now.
Calibrate constantly. Think about your audience. Strive to reduce noise.
Many engineers moving and promoting to senior roles fight very hard to grasp this concept. It is always advised that any communication to an executive should be summarized into three bullet points, and never more than five. If you can’t find a way to accomplish this, restructure your message.