Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What messages are you sending?

First, I apologize for the lack of posts over the past few weeks. I experienced something so profound, with the surgery of my son, that anything else seemed insignificant. But, now I'm back in the groove. I feel a renewed passion about communication, and I want to share a story.

For the past few years I taught in a summer program, the PPIA Fellowship Program, also known at Carnegie Mellon University as the "PPIA Junior Summer Institute at Carnegie Mellon." The acronym PPIA stands for Public Policy and International Affairs.

In any event, students from around the USA in their junior year of college who are interested in public policy and international affairs are recruited to attend PPIA on a number of different campuses, CMU included. The students tend to come from very diverse socio-economic backgrounds and circumstances. For example, one of my students had been living in a car because he had been awarded a protection from abuse against his parents. He was passionate about public policy, as are most of the PPIA students, the majority of whom reflect a minority background.

The courses CMU offers include Policy Analysis, Economics, Quantitative Methods and Professional Communications. My CMU colleague Chris Labash and I taught the Professional Communications to the 30 students who comprised the summer class. He taught the Professional Speaking and I the Professional Writing.

So, last summer I'm standing in class talking about communication - sender, receiver, message, medium, noise and so forth - acting every bit the professor and expert at communication. I'm stressing the need to understand the audience and I'm using business examples and a student in the back row raises her hand and says, "You don't understand us at all."

As you might imagine, that remark caught me completely off guard. I stammered some inarticulate response and completely lost my concentration and flow, struggling through the rest of my presentation wondering how I misjudged the audience and how I might ever get them and my credibility back.

Well, at a moment like that one learns the value of feedback, so I asked the student to stay after class and tell me what she meant.

"How could you understand us." she said (it was not a question). "You are older than us, you wear the Polo clothes, you probably live in the suburbs. You talk to us about communicating and you use examples from your consulting and your business; we don't know anything about all of that. We want to hear about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama and people we admire."

I knew instantly that she was right about the content of the lectures. I had taken my regular Professional Writing course and tried to teach it to these underclassmen (women). And, I had been called on it. But, the other part really puzzled me and I tried to explain to her why.

"I grew up in a small town in a lower middle class family whose father was often laid off and usually ugly drunk," I said to her. "We ate surplus cheese and drank surplus milk when we lived on welfare. I have felt shame and deprivation and I know exactly where you are coming from because I have lived it. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I had to face the jealousies and questions about whether or not I would think I was better than everyone else. They actually asked me if I would still talk to them. So, I think I can understand and communicate with anyone who is marginalized."

"That may be," she said, "But you don't send that message when you're standing in front of the class. You don't seem like us at all."

"I understand what you mean about the content," I said, "and I will adjust the content according." And I did. I used the Obama/McCain messages, I used King's "Message from Birmingham Jail," I used Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

But, I was too far gone to change the subtle messages I was sending, messages about my education, my socio-economic status, my business background. However, I came face-to-face with something I should have understood - we give messages even when we don't know it. What we wear, as much as the vocabulary we use, sends a strong message. Often those messages conflict with the messages we want to send. If we want to relate, or fit in, as we always do, we need to think about everything that creates our message because we are always sending messages, consciously or not!


  1. Hi Professor - At work, senior managers are stressing the importance of dressing right, based on the client work culture. As we continue to be independent external advisors for our clients, we also ensure that our presentation facilitates a cordial atmosphere to work closely with our client peers. Your point is right on! Thanks! :)

  2. This is an insightful incident, Ed! How many times are we guilty of not customising our content to the audience?! Or guilty of using terms and acronynms that we just assume that everybody else around us also knows!

    But its important that the messages (verbal and non verbal, or explicit and implicit) are consistent. Otherwise, we'll just lose our credibility!

  3. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  4. This story took me back to your class on percentage statistics on the receiver's end- 7% verbal (words), 37% tone of voice and a hefty 55% body language; not just our gestures but the very way we carry ourselves sends strong signals across!