The Advantage Blog

  • Christopher J. Dominic

DOES IT WORK OR NOT? COMMUNICATION STYLE VERSUS EFFECTIVENESS


Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to watch segments of both the Republican and Democratic presidential debates with friends. Regardless of which debate I’m watching, someone always comments on the candidates interrupting each other. Once, out of curiosity, I asked, “What is it that bothers you about the interruptions?” The person’s answer, “I think it’s rude.”

Sure, it seems rude. Many of us were raised with the understanding that interruptions are rude. But others were raised in households where everyone in the family routinely interrupted each other. I commented to the offended viewer, “Okay, but if the candidate gets a bump by looking strong, it might make sense for him or her to do it.” (While Donald Trump is notorious for this, there are many Democrats who have used this tactic as well. If an example doesn’t come to mind right away, take a look at the 2012 Biden versus Ryan vice presidential debate.) It was at this point that I drew the look of disgust that I read to mean, “What is this country coming to?”

This moment took me back to an experience I had with a mock jury exercise in New York City a few years ago. One of the attorneys was from the Midwest, and was perplexed that two of the three mock jury panels tended not only to talk over each other, but to do so at substantial volume and with animated gestures. Mock jurors’ mouths opened wide and their arms gesticulated for a level of dramatic effect that dropped a jaw or two in the closed circuit room. In one jury room, two to three people were speaking at any given time, and for extended periods of time. Our attorney was even more surprised when it became clear at the end of the day that the juries had done a thorough job. As they left, they slapped each other on the back and laughed. One of them said it was the most fun they’d had all week. Our clients told us that this experience drove home the point that “venues are different, and those differences matter.”

The disconnect between what happens in the debate or in jury deliberations, and the reaction of the viewer, is an example of communication style contrasted with communication effectiveness. In persuasive speech, the ultimate measure of performance is whether or not the audience did what the speaker wanted them to do. Did they vote for whom they were asked? Did they award the amount of money requested?

If the bottom line is effectiveness, why do we have so many opinions on style? When there are multiple ways to get the job done, why do people care how it is done? One of the reasons is we fail to recognize the difference as a stylistic one. Think about it. Does something bug you about the way somebody speaks, writes, or dresses that you logically know doesn’t have any effect, and yet it still annoys you? A classic example is the social, outgoing attorney confusing a quiet, reticent personality as someone with less interest, less drive, less competitive spirit. However, there are scores of attorneys with a reserved personality who are passionate about their work, and are consistently effective at persuasion. The trouble comes when you fail to identify this style versus effectiveness distinction. At best, it is a waste of time to attempt to change anyone’s stylistic choices, especially when they are effective. At worst, it can take a toll on the person whose style is mistakenly considered ineffective. So how do you prevent wasting time and annoying your colleagues (possibly friends and family as well) with your attempts to be helpful? Identify where your perception may be different from the perception of the audience you hope to persuade.

Some management consultants use a scenario to make this point. In a workshop I once attended, I heard this example, “Imagine you have an employee, let’s call her A, who comes into the office 15 minutes early. She quietly reads some postings on the bulletin board next to the time clock, then punches in right at 8am. Meanwhile, employee B comes into the office moving fast while saying hello to everyone she sees. She laughs loudly, and maybe hums a song as she clocks in while in motion right at 8am. The performance standard is to clock-in at 8am. Which one do you think is a better employee?” Half the audience raised their hand for employee A, and the other half raised their hand for employee B. From an effectiveness standard, both employees are identical. Yet they demonstrate different ways of getting the same job done.

Put this concept into action next time you assess a speaker’s delivery, an employee’s actions, or another’s performance. Ask yourself whether it’s a difference in style or effectiveness, and then let that determine how you evaluate the performer.

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