What differentiates humans from animals? Beyond the obvious physical traits, I would argue that our ability to imagine abstract thoughts is the spark that created our world. In our minds, we can "see" things that do not exist in the physical realm. It's pretty magical when you stop to think about it. I have never seen a dodo bird, but I know what it looked like, how it lived and what caused its extinction. I even know when it happened, thanks to the books I've read and the people I've spoken with. As for a more practical example, I use maps every day of my life on my phone. Based on these images and information, I know which way to drive to work to avoid traffic and how long my journey will take. I am a consumer of information. We all are. We are also all producers of information.
When I moved to Japan in the year 2000, I had no idea how I would communicate with people there. Naively, I assumed enough people would speak English for me to get by. I was quickly disabused of this notion and I found myself living in a childlike state for three years. I couldn't read instructions, speak with strangers, talk on the phone or carry out business transactions. While I gained a basic degree of proficiency and could handle daily conversations and exchanges after a few months, eventually I ended up wanting to leave because I didn't feel I was in control of my own life and destiny. I had to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Living in a different culture forced me to reconsider my mental models, the way I perceived reality. There were new ideas, images, sounds, smells and feelings for me to imagine. Despite the linguistic barrier, I managed to understand my Japanese friends and even strangers who were giving me new information. Often, we used gestures. Sometimes, images or drawings. Occasionally, sounds would conjure up a mental image. Some of my favorite people didn't speak one word of English. We often communicated through gestures, by sharing a meal, drinking together or even dancing. It's surprising how much a person can understand without speaking the language.
On the other hand, I always chuckle when I hear people helping strangers in the English-speaking world; speaking louder, as if the increased volume will get their message across. However, I cringe when I see people becoming frustrated, to the point of anger toward the other. Surely the fault lies with the messenger. We are ultimately responsible for the messages we are trying to get across. There is always a way to help the person we are trying to reach. We just need to be thoughtful, creative and patient.
Taking this idea of sharing information one step further, we are not just trying to get the idea through to the other person: we are trying to cause a reaction. Maybe we want them to understand something or picture a mental image, or do something as a result of receiving our message. We are trying to convey the information and activate the receiver of the data.
On my first day alone in Japan, I found myself lost on my way back home. I couldn't read the map (this was before "smart" phones) and nobody I met spoke English. After an hour of aimless wondering along streets whose names I could not read or understand, I started to panic. How would I ever get back? Where would I sleep that night? How could I make someone realize I needed help? I ended up walking into a store and refusing to leave until someone helped me. I laid out my map on the counter and used very crude, phonetic Japanese to share the address I had scribbled down earlier that day, when it didn't seem like a big deal. After 20 minutes of frustrating back-and-forth, a customer walked in and understood my gestures about a nearby clock tower and then grasped that I was actually saying my address in Japanese. It was as if a light bulb turned on in her head. I could see the understanding and breathed a sigh of relief. I knew I would be sleeping on my own futon that night after all.
My point is that conveying information is not enough. We have to turn the light bulb on too. This is what we do every day of our lives, as a matter of course, often without giving it a second thought. The technical name for this kind of effort is "communication." However, many of us feel alienated by this term, perceiving it as an unnatural act that we have to perform. Sometimes, it makes us feel inadequate, because it doesn't feel like it comes naturally.
I activate information for a living and I am firm believer that we are all born communicators. Some of us are gifted speakers, writers, designers, teachers or musicians; others are gifted parents, scholars, athletes or public servants. We are all capable of creating messages and thinking about their desired impact. This is the key to effective communication in any form. It's true for individuals and it's true for organizations.
The next time you are interacting with another person or a group of people and you want to get a message across, think about: 1) what you are saying; 2) how you are saying it; 3) how you want the message to impact the receiver; 4) what information the receiver needs in order to act on your message; and 5) whether you're being effective. If you need extra help to get the information across, ask someone with the experience or skills to help you.
In summary, it might be time for us communicators to re-brand our own profession and call what we do "information activation," because that is really what we are trying to do. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you have to communicate an idea, a request or a call-to-action, think about what you are trying to achieve and whether you are taking the most effective approach. Don't hesitate to ask for help reading the map. We all get lost sometimes and there's usually someone kind enough to show us the way.