What are the barriers to effective communication? We are often asked about this in our media training courses, presentation training courses, crisis communications training courses, and the business writing workshops we provide.
Effective communication is essential not just in our professional lives but in our personal and family lives as well. Communicating effectively helps your career and improves your relationships with others. Obviously, as a communications trainee consultancy, we look at communications in the workplace, but we find that during our training courses, the conversation quite often roams more widely.
Here are five of the main barriers to effective communication – and tips for overcoming them wherever you are and whoever you are trying to communicate with.
If 5 tips are not enough, you can find 6 more barriers to effective communication here.
1. Think carefully about the audience
As we explain in our media and presentation training courses, it’s not about you – it’s all about the audience. Having a clear idea of who you are speaking to is essential in all good communication, whether media interviews or presentations. It’s the same with business communication, such as reports and online content, including blogs and social media posts.
Who are these people? Why should they care about you and what you’re telling them? Do they know about you – and, if so, how much do they know? How do they feel about you? What will tick the “What’s in it for me?” box for them? In other words, what can you tell them that will make a practical improvement in their lives? Being really clear on these things, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and thinking about it with insight and a little bit of humility is an essential building block for good communication.
2. Be clear on the message
One of the main barriers to communication is not being clear about your message. Very often, we work with organisations that have fascinating insights and comments. They have interesting ideas about a product they’re unveiling, a service they’re providing, or a campaign they’re launching and are passionate about why they do what they do.
But when it comes to explaining this to an external audience, they’re not at all clear on the message. In our Media Training courses, we spend some time helping people to home down their key message. As journalists say – we can only have one headline. You might have a number of supporting messages and other themes and ideas, but they can only be one simple, clear and relevant message that your audience will take away with them. Defining and testing it can take some time, but it’s essential to overcoming a key barrier to effective communication.
3. Source case studies and anecdotes
Another frequent barrier to effective communication is the need for more stories. As we say in our media coaching workshops, examples and stories do two things. First, they explain what you mean. In your everyday life, if somebody asks you a question or invites you to explain something, then it’s very likely that that explanation will begin with phrases such as “Just imagine…” or “For instance…”. Stories tick the all-important human box and help your audience to connect with what you’re saying. Second, case studies, stories and even simple anecdotes to prove your point. You might make a claim, but why should your audience believe it? Your proof point needn’t be very scientific, but it needs to illustrate what this means in practice in granular, practical detail to convince your audience.
Give someone some facts, and two parts of their brain will be activated – Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. These are the ones that deal with language processing. However, tell them a story, and up to seven of their brains’ regions will fire up. These might include the primary visual cortex, the auditory cortex and the motor cortex, among others. The more areas of the brain that are fired up, the more engaging and memorable your message will be.
4. Focus on the message
You might have a powerful argument and a very good reason to say what you’re saying, but if you express it in the wrong language, your audience might still not be convinced. As we say in our media coaching courses, even if the audience can understand a word, phrase or acronym you use with a bit of thought, by the time they’ve worked it out, you’ve moved on; they’ve missed what you say next.
But, perhaps more fundamentally than that, you’re literally not speaking the language. Language is about identity – it says a lot about who we are—just thinking of teenagers and their slang. It’s not that they have more complex or unusual concepts to express; they just want to talk in a way unlike their parents and teachers.
We’re not recommending that you engage in a bit of teenage slang during your presentations but thinking carefully about how the words and phrases you use will help you connect with your audience is a meaningful and clever way to remove a key barrier to good communication.
5. The curse of knowledge
Surely, knowledge is a good thing – not a curse? Well, generally, yes, it is. However, it can become a barrier to effective communication. How often has somebody tried to explain something to you in a way that seems obvious to them but makes little or no sense to you? They take you through stage by stage but start at stage three because they assume you’re familiar with the first two stages. Unfortunately, you’re not – and your audience might be in the same situation.
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias first identified in 1989 in the Journal of Political Economy by three economists. A year later, a researcher at Stanford University conducted an experiment in which participants were divided into two groups: tappers and listeners, with each tapper partnered with a listener.
The tappers then chose a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday”, and tapped out its rhythm while the listeners had to guess what the song was. Before they started, the tappers were asked to predict how often the listeners would be able to guess the song correctly.
They estimated that it would be about 50 per cent of the time. So, of around 120 songs tapped, how many did the listeners guess correctly? It wasn’t about 60…
No, it was three…
…just three times out of 120!
The problem was that the tappers could hear the tune in their minds – unlike the listeners. This meant that the tappers’ knowledge of the song caused them to wildly overestimate the chances of the listeners identifying the song correctly.
Before you set out to do a media interview, deliver a presentation or write a piece of content, it’s worth thinking again, as we say above, about the audience. Do they have the same level of knowledge that you do, or will you have to lead them into the subject? They might, at worst, think, “Oh, I know this bit,” but it’s better to do that than to leave them feeling confused. These days, we are bombarded with so much information unless we are engaged in something almost immediately will switch off and move on to the next thing. Cursive knowledge can be a severe barrier to communication; with careful thought about the message, the audience of the language you’re going to use, and those great examples, you can overcome this barrier to communication.
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At Communicate Media, our team of experienced media trainers are on hand to help you recognise any potential barriers to communication, and how you might overcome them.
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