Wednesday, July 29

Defining Terms: Critical To Communication

I serve on the board of a nonprofit organization, and one of the conversations that continues to creep into meetings is one I've learned to stay away from. The conversation is whether or not the organization wants to retain its only public fundraising event.

On one hand, it is the organization's only public event. As such, it tends to be its most visible asset and among its most likely to be covered by the media. Those who would keep the event always point out that it is profitable, but that profit varies from year to year, depending on any number of factors that include the economic climate, auxiliary fundraising, and the location of the event. More than that, they say it has become an integral part of the organization's reputation.

On the other hand, it requires significant staff time and volunteer support. In some cases, those who would prefer to let it go generally dismiss the attendance and any profit as a measure of success. And in doing so, they generally do not consider auxiliary features that may impact the event such as whether the speaker is local or national, whether the organization hosted a silent auction, and whether media coverage has any bearing on the long-term success of the organization.

What's Missing Is A Definition

As simple as it sounds, what's missing is a definition. What constitutes a successful event? Profits? Attendance? Media coverage? Public relations (as the event benefits individuals, companies, and other nonprofits)? Without a definition, the outcome of the event (successful or not) is merely defined by each individual perspective. And that's never good.

Some people tell me (some of them students; some working professionals) that measurement in communication is optional. And yet, even beyond communication, it seems to be a critical component.

Benchmarking is important too. And so is considering any number of tactics.

Knowing these things or even asking about them can make a big difference in understanding whether it is a worthwhile asset or not. For example, we might ask what factors are contributing to or detracting from the success of the event. Do national speakers attract more attendees than local speakers? Does a silent auction add tangible value as a profit generator or, perhaps, an outreach in contacting businesses that have no other means to contribute? What about the value of the event to the community and whether or not that has any bearing on the decisions being made? What do any event sponsors think? What about visibility, branding, and reputation? Was the communication handled properly? Were all elements on time? And so on and so forth.

There are any number of questions to ask. But until they are asked and answered, no one really knows whether or not the event is successful or if it is a critical function of the organization. And unless we define success with some measure, we're not communicating as much as we're having an idle conversation about what seems to be. We might as well argue about the weather.

Unless Definitions Are Universal, Communication Becomes Idle

I don't mean universal in the global sense (unless we're talking about global issues); I merely mean universal in a stakeholder sense. For the organization, that might mean the board. For something else, that might mean a community or department. For a couple, it might mean two individuals (even though couples sometimes try to infuse outside opinion). And so on and so forth.

What makes definitions so critical?

For example, if we take something as simple as "I'd like to go to the park on the next nice day," we might have any number of varied responses on any given day on whether we ought to go to the park. Some people like it hot. Some people like it cool. Some people like moderate and partly cloudy. There are a lot of "nice days" out there, dependent solely on individual preference.

However, if we define the "nice day" with something more concrete such as "when I say a nice day, I mean about 78 degrees, moderate humidity, with a light breeze," then everyone knows when we might go to the park, even if they don't agree with the definition.

Why is that important? Because without the definition, we might find ourselves debating about whether or not to go to a park when we're actually disagreeing on the definition of a nice day. Or, we might debate whether to have an event, when we're really disagreeing about what makes an event successful. Or we might debate the varied opinions of ROI for communication, but only because we haven't even defined what ROI means, or an outcome, or whatever and whatnot.

We see the same problem with Congress right now. Congressional leaders are debating about universal health care. The hold up seems like it is about health care, but it's really because no one has offered a definition. While most people want "good, reliable, accessible health care for everyone," nobody has taken the time to define it beyond the sound bite. According to Peter Fleckenstein, here are some highlights of a working definition that differs from the sound bite.

It happens a lot in politics these days. People tend to vote on sound bites; we ought to be voting on definitions.

Developing Definitions Requires Empathy

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another's emotions and feelings. We might expand that concept to include definitions. If we can do that, then we increase the propensity to have meaningful dialogue because even if we don't agree on the definition, we can at least understand where the other person is coming from. As Steve Covey once said: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Sure, there will be those times when we cannot accept or ever hope to understand a definition because it is, um, wacky. And in those cases, we might put our energy elsewhere. If we cannot accept a definition, then all the rest is idle chatter.

Make sense? Always start with a working definition. And if you don't think it's important, well, then have a nice day. And all the best.


ben on 7/29/09, 9:11 AM said...

"Always start with a working definition" ... good advice!

I haven't snooped your blog (came here from something you tweeted this morning) so don't know for sure, but the way you've treated this post, you really should be in mediation!

I've been beavering away at one aspect of "discourse on public policy" since 1975 ... no, not kidding. I noticed (though a series of workshop a few of us organized) that folk were very happy to chat and chat (read: talking their faces off) even when the set of shared facts was very sketchy. After one particularly poignant episode I realized that folk really didn't have a leg to stand on, but you couldn't tell by the volume of verbiage. Or, at least, you couldn't tell til something controversial reared its head ... at which point all the wheels came off the wagon.

Factoid: most everyone has some opinions that are highly valued, yet in studies over 60% failed to muster any supporting arguments for those opinions. And in most cases where support could be stated either the facts were wrong or the logic was specious.

So are we actually living in a democracy? or is it more like some sort of popularity contest? (I'm with the latter on that.)

So yaa ... coming up with an operationalized definition is definitely a substantial step. But don't expect folk to be comfortable with that!

p.s. I spend most of my time wading through posts and discussion such as this one, on the topic of "sense-making".

Rich on 8/4/09, 7:37 AM said...


My apologies for not responding to your contribution here sooner. It's an important one.

Generally, you (we) are very right. People have opinions without the benefit of having the facts.

There is an old newspaper quip, I recall (and forgive me for not having the time to source it today), that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. However, nowadays, people tend to grab whatever set of facts from biased sources because validation has become more important, it seems, than good judgement.

It could even be argued that we seem to be moving in a dangerous direction as objective journalism has all but been abandoned for this reason and that reason, with the danger being precisely what you point out: simple majorities are not always right.

If anything, simple majorities are the cause of a great many disasters throughout history as they inevitability become popularity contests, which is the very reason many of the founding fathers wanted to ensure a check and balance system and additional protections under a republic where as the majority was not always recognized as right.

So what to do about it?

When I served as president of a local communication organization, I would always write up an objective assessment of any proposed policy changes and board decisions with pros and cons in the hopes of allowing the board to make informed decisions. And no, the board was not comfortable with it with some stating they would rather vote for someone else's judgement over their own, even with all the facts laid before them.

Unrelated, but similar perhaps, we have some state ballot questions that aim to do the same. Unfortunately, the thinking is flawed though in that they only present biased assessments of the pros and cons, which lends to much more confusion to an issue than enlightenment. It would be nice some day if they realized presenting unbiased facts might be better than asking the public to pick from two sets of argumentative prose.

I've always considered such contests to be a guise of being objective as sometimes they only present two wingnut arguments that are equally wrong.

I enjoyed your post (and I've read others before), especially because Palus and Horth from your post have an excellent point.

More and more, businesses have a tendency to skip important decision making steps in favor of speed to market. Whereas there might be a place for that with some products, the trend to include thought leadership in the speed to market mix concerns me.

As for the comment on mediation ... thank you. I've always believed that much of organizational and business communication is built around mediation. After all, if our own internal groups cannot support a message, then what hope do we have that an external public might believe it?

All my best,

ben on 8/4/09, 12:38 PM said...

Rich - Thanks for the comprehensive reply. But let me move laterally, riffing on "medium is the message".

First thing that came to mind: would you get email notification of reply? I noted that this is on blogspot, so was reassured ... but that's not always the case: many lovely WordPress blogs lack that functionality.

Second was that I would either slight some of your comment by seeming to ignore it or reply at too much length. One's communicative gesture means what the other reads into it, yes? So too short might really act as a slight, but too long might seem over-bearing. My point: linear replies are not only clumsy, they are antique. We've had for some years the capability to thread comments. (One simple example: LiveJournal ... not new, but wonderfully well designed. see my But such resources only come into play commonly in response to needs felt existentially; when the true motives are (I'm tempted to say "posturing") something like image maintenance, then real effectiveness is of no concern. (It concerns me. My 1st job was infantry rad_op and my 2nd was SigInt. Number 3? NORAD/SAC comms for DewLine. I don't triffle with this stuff!)

So here on blogspot I see playing out just what has moved me to withdraw from the industry: either by incompetence (the thin edge of corruption, n'est-ce pas?) or mere sloth, we do notRPTnot have the tools for effective discourse.

FWIW I've for years used Hesse's glasperlenspiel as my ideal model, where salient points are treated as "glass beads" ... in all their fractal glory.

I've copied your reply to my text editor and will try to do it justice. (In the moment I realized that blogspot lacks the blockquote function that has been standard for years on even clumsy forums.)


Rich on 8/4/09, 1:27 PM said...


Sure. I look forward to it.

I especially like the concept that linear conversations are flawed. There is some truth to that, but very little conversation, online or off, is perfect.

Sometimes the medium is the message. Not all the time. Please do bare that in mind if we are moving in that direction. E.g., would you tell your employees they were laid off in a tweet or would you tell them in person? That decision would add substantial weight to that construct, I think.


ben on 8/4/09, 1:41 PM said...

Just a couple of short points:
Perfection? Dunno ... I don't ponder that much. But I know that when image maintenance is the goal there's not much ROI to caring about details. And in some matters (no, of course not all) "details" matter a lot.

What astonishes me is that some of us were working towards truly "hyper" environments ?what? 20+yrs ago and yet there's been precious little progress. I take that to indicate a lack of existential interest. (Meanwhile I hear such as Dir CIA and spokes for IPCC lamenting the fact that their experts are drowning in data. Go figure.)

As for laying someone off by way of a tweeet ... heh, that's like breaking off with someone by voice mail ... not at all what I'm focussing on. ;-)

ben on 8/4/09, 1:42 PM said...

p.s. state of the craft: my google gmail pane showed "new message from ben" before the blogspot page had reloaded in Firefox. The tech is that good.

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