Managers, business owners, and professionals of all stripes take note – there are killers lurking in your communications. They undermine your words, cast doubt on your trustworthiness, and make people question your judgement. They can create breakdowns in communication between team members, between departments, and most certainly between your business and your customers.
The killers’ names are Inconsistency and Incongruity.
These two killers feed off one another, creating a rat king of confusion that shakes the trustworthiness of your words. They cause stress, confusion, and uncertainty among the people you are communicating to, whether you are communicating through words, action, or (usually) a combination of both.
Inconsistency and Incongruity are cousins – related, but not quite from the same family.
Inconsistency happens when “standards” are applied in a non-standardized fashion. It happens when the voice and tone of communication varies so much that readers or listeners have no clue what to expect and no way to predict how they should interpret a message’s subtext1. It happens when communication is sent out willy-nilly with no way to predict when, where, or how a communication may take place.
Incongruity happens when what you’re communicating doesn’t make sense – it doesn’t fit or match with other things related to it, like a vegetarian who goes big game hunting. Incongruity occurs when a business communicates values that clash with one another.
An excellent example of these two communication killers comes straight from Facebook HQ and their odd, unpredictable enforcement of community standards in relation to nudity.
Recently, Facebook banned a photographer for posting a gallery featuring unclothed models standing behind mannequins – the kind of plain, plastic mannequin torsos you see on display in a clothing store.
The Facebook community standards state that “we remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipples [. . .]. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”
The photographs that were removed fell within the guidelines of allowable content. There were no exposed genitals, no nipples, and the photographs would fit into any reasonable definition of “art”. Yet they were removed, and the photographer banned from posting for 30 days.
The inconsistency is obvious: they clearly communicate one set of standards, but don’t apply those standards in a predictable way, meaning that “nudity” is really whatever they define it depending on the moods and whims of the people enforcing the standards. The subtext is that
There is also huge incongruity here. The community standards define what is considered “decent” on Facebook. An art project featuring non-sexualized images of women without any exposed genitals or nip-slips is unacceptable, but crap like this is totally OK2. Few people would argue which post takes a more liberal definition of “decent.” This is the vegetarian going big game hunting.
Inconsistency and incongruity can kill your business communication because they foster mistrust and cynicism among anyone who is listening to you. We’ll all slip up and make mistakes on this front every now and then, but if these communication killers crop up frequently, then you’ll need to revisit your communication standards and strategies. Take a hard look at your messages and actions overall and ask yourself the following questions:
What are your business’ values?
What are your business’ standards?
Do the values and standards reinforce one another?
Does your business communicate those values and standards in both your words and your deeds? (Do you do walk the talk?)
If there is doubt, disagreement, or discomfort in your answers to any of the above questions, you can be certain there is inconsistency and/or incongruity in your business’ communications. If this is the case, ask yourself the following:
What message am I really sending by allowing this inconsistency/incongruity to exist?
Step out of your own head for a moment and try to answer that question from the point of view of your audience. Don’t assume your audience – be they your team members or your clients – sees things your way or has the same context or viewpoint as you. Look at it with fresh eyes. Ask others what they think.
Find those twin killers, and create a strategy and framework for dealing with them. It might be something simple, or it could end up being a major strategic project. Don’t shy away from the work – your credibility and trustworthiness depends on it.
- Subtext is the message running in the background, behind the literal words that are being said. It’s what we’re seeing when we “read between the lines.” Subtext is loaded with meaning, such as emotional meanings and implications, and it’s strongly subject to interpretation. There is always, always
- If you don’t want to click on the link, here’s a description: it’s a video promo for a spring break at a dirt sports track. It features close-ups of nubile buttocks in barely-there bikinis twerking, bumping, grinding, and rubbing up against one another.
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