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If you don’t know the purpose of your communication, don’t bother communicating...

Updated: Mar 4, 2018

Martin Hilbert from the Annenberg School of Communication at USC published a study in 2010. His research revealed that “we are exposed to daily information equivalent to 175 newspapers and we broadcast the informational equivalent of some 20 entire newspapers per person per day”.

Today these numbers have most likely increased and communication overload is real. It is becoming an issue as the brain needs to select, simplify and remember/forget more and faster than ever before.

We know that meaningful communication is about establishing a connection with the audience. We know that people on the receiving end have two questions: what does this piece of information mean for me? Why should I care?

So unless you have a clear purpose for your message (the “Why” it is important for your audience), you are only contributing to communication overload. By creating noise your audience will, at best, quickly forget, at worse totally block off your message.

Creating frustration or respect. With just one message.

A few years ago two large and international companies in different industries, one Dutch and one American, announced a travel freeze in their respective organisations. In both cases the announced objective was to reduce their costs and estimated savings were in the millions of Euro. While the messages were quite similar, they differed on two points:

  • The Dutch company announced that the decision was effective immediately.

  • The American company mentioned that the freeze was going to save 200 jobs.

The employees of the Dutch company got extremely upset. Conferences, trainings and meetings involving travel which had already been paid for but could not be reimbursed at such short notice were cancelled. It created an uproar. The decision was considered short-sighted and employees criticised senior management harshly for a long period of time. Decision makers had, in their own words, "not anticipated such a strong reaction”.

Employees of the American company were not pleased but the main sentiment was relief. Relief that their job had potentially been saved by this decision. They went as far as to express their respect for those who had looked for an alternative to job cuts.

Two very different outcomes to the same decision! Why?

It’s your agenda so why should your audience care?

On the surface the business decision (cut costs) and communication purpose (inform employees of the decision) were the same. The REAL purpose was for employees to accept the decision with minimal disruption to the business. Only one succeeded: the company which looked at the decision from the employees’ perspective. They answered the questions ‘what does it mean for me?’ (You are not allowed to travel anymore) and ‘why should I care?’ (Because by not travelling you are saving your job or the job of your colleague).

Before you communicate, ask yourself:

  • What is the (real) purpose of this communication?

  • Will my audience care about this topic and why?

  • Which result (action/reaction?) do I want?

If you can’t find the answers, be honest with yourself: your message has no purpose (pleasing the boss who asked you to communicate doesn't count here!) and will be a meaningless sound bite. You will save yourself and others some precious time by not communicating this time around...

Do you have examples of purposeful/purposeless communication to share or other thoughts on the topic?

This article was first published on LinkedIn in January 2018

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