Maps, Maps, Maps, Maps

There are a gazillion ways to communicate, but one of my favorite methods is maps.

Early in our relationship, Suzanne and I divided certain responsibilities. The divisions fell predominantly along lines of competence. It fell out quickly that I often mispronounced words. I mean I really, completely, embarrassingly mispronounced words. I knew the words from print, but often had not heard them spoken. “Chasm” and “abyss” come quickly to mind, and they represented the location of my stomach after hearing their correct pronunciations.

During our courting, we also learned that I kick butt with maps and directions, while Suzanne struggles. Maybe it comes from my Midwest upbringing, with our easy grid of North-South, East-West streets that give a constant sense of bearing. Or it could be a genetic thing. My dear mother-in-law lived in Vienna, Va., for nearly 30 years and thought that every time she drove into DC, she was heading north, not east towards the rising sun. Bless her heart.

So, the family phrase became, “Suzanne is in charge of pronunciation; Paul is in charge of directions.” You have no idea how many arguments you can head off with that simple understanding.

My real point is I love maps, and I hold an inordinate amount of pride in my ability to navigate using one. But the future of printed maps is in doubt. Why? Global positioning systems (GPS). Instead of spreading the Rand McNally on my lap and determining how long my bladder can hold out until the next rest area, I just punch a few keys on the dashboard monitor and not only come up with a time, but six alternative destinations that provide bathroom solutions and snack possibilities.

Before

So, you’d figure that now that any Tom Dick and Mother-in-law has my vaunted capabilities, I’d be miffed about this changing technology. Perhaps, I should lament the death of printed maps and rail against the heavens because electronic media has usurped my distinction.

After

Truth? Let me answer with a quick question. Have you ever driven through the Catskills? After dark? Trying to find an obscure hotel? Now that’s a place you can get lost for a long time. Just ask Rip Van Winkle. Even with my over-the-top superior mapping and navigation skills, I fell in love with my rental car GPS, which we quickly named “Ingrid” for her Teutonic efficiency.

Next time you think about your love of books and magazines and all things print, remember that love may prove as fickle as a high-school crush.

There’s something I love even more about electronic media, though. It saves space.

Before
After
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An Email Conversation

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She wrote, “I would like to get the chance to speak with you further.  Please let me know when might be a convenient time for you.”

He wrote, “My schedule today [Friday] is wide open, so whatever is convenient for you will be fine with me.”

She wrote, “How does Tuesday at 11am work for you?”

He wrote, “Tuesday at 11am works fine. Do you want me to come into the office or are we speaking by phone?”

He waited.

He waited.

He waited.

He called and left a message.

And he waited.

And he waited.

And he waited.

Monday afternoon at 3 o’clock the issue was resolved. By email.

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That is a verbatim transcript (without the images) of an email conversation I had. Words matter. You may have heard that here, but sometimes spoken words matter more than written words.

A phone conversation would have resolved this appointment in 5 minutes, prevented any miscommunication, and provided a foundation for a better formal call.

Too often I see people in the workforce trying to do the job only by email. We once had a young woman attempt to set up an entire event for 150 people in a city two time zones away without ever making a phone call. Not to any vendors or the hotel or participants or sponsors. It took her five times as much effort, and we only resolved several major issues at the last minute.

Why did she do this? Because people hide behind email.

Pick up the phone. Reach out and touch someone.

Postscript: The Tuesday phone conversation lasted less than ten minutes. We could have done it Friday and would have been 2 working days ahead of schedule. That ain’t peanuts.

What Is New Is Old Already

The pace of change in communication has become so breathtaking that even the most dedicated followers are struggling to keep up. In the early 90s, when I was a young editor at Remodeling magazine, I could recite the location and area code for every major city in the country. 415? San Francisco. 312? Chicago. 303? Denver.

I could do that because I spent hours on the phone, accomplishing what every editor does today with a simple internet search. And, back in olden times, we knew those area codes, because every city only had one. Now, every city has multiple codes, and they often overlap.

Okay, as my son would say, “That’s a nice story grandpa, but what’s it mean?” It means this. Those changes, while fundamental, were really quite simple compared to what’s happening now. Watch this video from 2007. (It’s only 7 1/2 minutes.) It has been one of my favorites for its vision of what a dedicated community of users can achieve with content integration.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas paints a future that shows how our understanding of the world can deepen and become more sublime through the collective involvement of individual contributors.  As he says,

“We can do things with the social environment. This is now taking data from everybody. From the entire collective memory, visually, of what the earth looks like and link all of that together… make something emergent that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

What’s cool about this vision of the future from more than two years ago? It’s already happening. Here are two examples.

I went to Photosynth.net today and created a detailed view of the front elevation of my house. (Click here to see.) It took me less than 10 minutes to accomplish, including taking the photos. More effort would only have led to a far more dynamic and interactive experience, but consider how much I accomplished with so little effort. That speed of change is awe-inspiring and nearly impossible to track.

What’s cool about this vision of the future? Go to Google Maps or Bing Maps. Look at the photos posted in popular tourist areas. They’re pulled from Flickr and other sources, and they give you a view of the environment we’ve never been able to capture or navigate. Consider this image I found on the photo options for Google Maps. Each point or arrow moves you to a new view, greater detail, or a different perspective.

We see the same thing being done collectively now that was just a vision of the future in 2007. As Aguera y Arcas said,

“It grows in complexity as people use it, and the benefits become greater to the users as they use it.”

I still return to this video just to experience the frisson of excitement it gives me about the future of communication and the value of connecting a community. We have no idea where this revolution will lead us, but I can promise you two things.

  1. The creation of content will be the driving force of the revolution.
  2. The revolution will provide greater freedom, creativity, and information for more people than any movement in the history of the world.

Those are good things. If the invention of the movable-type printing press eventually led to the creation of the middle-class, then who knows what benefit will arise from even further democratization of information.

Who Is Your Audience?

“Know your audience.” It’s the first rule of good communication. Whether you are a novelist, a journalist, or a public speaker, you have to know the nature of the audience you are addressing. Misunderstand your audience, and they will turn on you. Sometimes viciously.

But there are unintended audiences as well, and the most sophisticated communication takes them into account, because they can turn on you too. Consider the following video. It was prepared by the USA Bid Committee, acting on behalf of the United States Soccer Federation. The Bid Committee works to secure a bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. The audience is the members of the World Cup site selection committee, members of FIFA, the world governing body of soccer.

But there is a secondary audience. You don’t bring in Morgan Freeman to narrate and include President Clinton, Mia Hamm, and Spike Lee only to reach a couple of dozen deciders. No, the audience is much larger, and there is a great lesson here for organizations of all sizes and purposes.

When I watch this video, I feel a surge of pride in my country. The secondary audience for this video is fans of the U.S. National team, fans of soccer, and fans of sports. If you read the comments on You Tube, you see the pride the video generates. As someone said, “You had me at Morgan Freeman.” The result of that pride is increased energy and excitement for the support of the bid and greater fan support.

Put this in the context of your organization. Do you share your communication and marketing materials within your company? Do you let your employees experience the pride of their efforts? They are your biggest fans, and when you prepare marketing materials, you have the benefit of reaching your secondary audience. The consequences of this are all positive:

  1. Employees and staff can take pride in their accomplishments and see how they are valued through the representation of your product or service.
  2. You reinforce the mission and vision of your organization internally. The Bid Committee’s message is simple and delivered in Morgan Freeman’s fabulous voice, “We are the world’s home away from home.” That’s America’s vision.
  3. You give your stakeholders the language to speak about your company or organization. “The world is in us.” “Bring it to my country.” “My country loves this game.” “Bring the World Cup to the United States.”

When people take pride in their organization, they share that pride with friends and families. Your audience grows. No matter what size your business is, you can spread your influence further by ensuring that your employees have pride in their efforts.

Save the Libraries!

Libraries are the natural habitats for words. On cool, autumn days, you can peer between the shelving and sight herds of untamed language – big bullish words, gentle doe-like terms, and gamboling syllables – charging past the carrels, tumbling into corners, then spilling back down along the wall of windows.

But these habitats are in danger because as our economy falters, libraries face unprecedented budget cuts. This is happening at the exact moment when patronage has soared as more and more people use the library to job hunt, take advantage of the computers, and feed their reading jones when they can’t afford to buy books.

Some people just complain and lament our shrinking language habitats, but our good friends at Central Rappahannock Regional Library (www.crrl.org) decided to drive home the point with fun and frivolity. We can all absorb lessons about communication from this video, but chief among them are

Important messages don’t necessarily require a serious platform

and

Electronic media allows (requires?) you to show a lot of personality

Thanks to Sean Bonney and the gang in Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Westmoreland, Va., for sharing their efforts.

(I’ve posted the long version below, but if you only want the highly delicious disco segment, you can link to it here.)

Define the Message

We live in a world of muddled messages. Politicians step on themselves to clarify missteps. Sports stars crank up the non-apology apology machine. Employers alienate their staff by reciting lawyerly pabulum to avoid litigation. And parents demonstrate the opposite of what they tell their children.

We send messages we don’t intend, and we hear things that weren’t meant. This disease of miscommunication and misunderstanding is not new, and we all succumb at some point.

I once delivered a conference presentation on some of the greatest research the home improvement industry has ever seen. I’m not a bad public speaker, but on this day, the slides didn’t work, my mouth malfunctioned, and my knowledge of the research was less than golden. At the end, the entire audience was in the fog of confusion, but none of them were as confused as I.

It gets worse.

I was the host for the conference, and I had to follow myself to the podium to introduce the next speaker, who was a top-notch pro. Before I brought him up, I reminded the audience to fill out their evaluation sheets so that we could ensure the previous speaker (me) never cast shadow on that stage again.

We all have our horror stories, but we can all define our messages with greater care and avoid the unintended meaning. We can implement strategies to make our communication – whether marketing, advertising, or employee manuals – clear and concise and without ambiguity.

6 Building Blocks of Effective Communication

And if we can define our messages, we can establish ourselves as leaders. I once worked for a very smart, very direct person who became quite powerful in the corporation. His simple gift was that he could cut through all the crap and put his finger on the one or two most salient points in any strategy. That clarity, that ability to jettison the distractions, gave him a focus that made other people want to follow.  When he talked, heads in the room nodded up and down.

That skill is such a common experience among successful people that it underlies 3 of the 7 habits Stephen Covey identified in his groundbreaking “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  #2: Begin with the end in mind. #3: Put first things first. #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Define your message and you can become the leader. Your message may be a personal message that establishes goals and articulates strategies to position you as a team leader. Your message may be a corporate brand that states your values and vision as a business, making you an industry or market leader. The underlying keys to success for both internal and external communication are the same.

  1. Listen to your audience
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Say it clearly
  4. Use it consistently
  5. Make it logical
  6. Appeal to common sense