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Have I made myself clear? The challenges of contemporary business communication

Peter Caulfield
Have I made myself clear? The challenges of contemporary business communication

According to a long-time business communications pro, the average person suffers from an information illusion.

“We believe we’re well informed, but we’re so inundated with so much information from so many sources that we don’t have time to make sense of it all or even to absorb it,” said Byng Giraud, president of Sedgwick Strategies Inc., a Vancouver consultancy that “helps get major industrial projects to yes.”

Giraud said many people don’t really understand, and don’t realize they don’t understand, subjects that are controversial and about which they may have strong opinions that are difficult to change.

 To help them comprehend complex subjects, people need to be made partners in the important decisions that affect them, he said.

“But too often they’re lectured to, so it’s no surprise they don’t listen, or even rebel,” Giraud said. “Effective communications partners with the target of the communication. To make the people feel like they’re involved in making decisions, the authorities should do focus groups or allow some aggressive question-and-answer sessions.”

Giraud said American academic Baruch Fischhoff has studied extensively the field of what is called risk perception and communication.

According to Fischhoff:

  • Even perfect messages take time to be understood. Often message recipients will take a shortcut and look closely at how trustworthy the communication and communicator seem to be.
  • If that first impression is bad, they may look no further and discount some or all of the message.
  • Even with a perfect message, a poor delivery can discredit the messenger. People want to be both spoken to honestly and treated respectfully.
  • It pays to ask people what they want, and the sooner, the better. Just asking redefines a relationship in ways that recognize the public’s existence and competence.
  • “One of the miracles of democratic life is the ability of lay people, often with little formal education, to master technical material when sufficiently motivated.”

Vancouver planning and development consultant Michael Geller also recognizes the challenges of contemporary business communication.

“You must present differently to different audiences,” he said. “Tailor your pitch to the background and expectations of the audience you’re talking to.”

Geller said many industry leaders overestimate the public’s knowledge and understanding of planning, development and construction.

“Most people haven’t heard of such concepts as floor space ratio or site coverage,” he said. “All they can relate to is a building’s height. There’s too much specialized information for the public to understand.”

Early in his career, Geller took media training with a Vancouver public relations company.

“Media training is good, but you don’t want to appear too slick, which can look insincere to some people,” he said. 

When talking to the media, find out the story angle before agreeing to be interviewed.

“You have a right to know,” said Geller. “And if you’re being interviewed on television, check the background behind you; it shouldn’t interfere with your message.”

Geller often uses pictures to make his point.

“I like to build a story around a visual,” he said. “For example, show a rabbit inside an aquarium, to get the audience’s attention, and then work up a narrative around that.”

Business communication has had to change with the times, just like the Journal of Commerce (JOC) and the Daily Commercial (DCN) have, two publications which have covered Canadian construction for over 200 years combined.

Both publications supplemented their hard-copy editions with websites in the 1990s.

“We wanted to reflect the changes in the ways project data and news was being delivered,” said Vince Versace, JOC and DCN national managing editor.

The initiative was so successful that, in 2007, both websites were opened up to the public.

At about the same time, both publications began to use social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. LinkedIn and Instagram in order to reach their audience in new ways.

As digital communication technology changed and readers’ habits changed with it, both publications dropped their paper editions and went entirely digital. One of the publications’ most successful innovations is The Construction Record, a 30-minute podcast that is aired every Friday.

“The size of the audience has increased every year since it started in 2017,” said Versace. “Today we’re booking podcast guests two to three months in advance of their appearance.”

The content of The Construction Record is new and innovative, Versace said.

“The podcasts are able to get into the background of a story and look at where it fits in the bigger industry picture,” he said.

Another benefit, said Versace, is that podcast audiences like to hear the journalists speak and explain what they’re writing about.

On Dec. 11, 2020 the 100th episode of The Construction Record aired.

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