Homing in on the signal: blocking out the noise

It’s easy to forget how simple communication really is.

At its most basic, communication can be a single sound, smell or touch that reliably conveys meaning to the receiver:

  • The church bell crashing into Cinderella’s dreams, telling her “Get up, you say, time to start another day”
  • A faint recognized smell of infection, stomach acids, perhaps misery, telling a mother that her son – this time – isn’t  playing sick to get out of a day’s school (apparently dogs can be trained to sniff out some cancers)
  • The handling of fruit on a market stall to check freshness and ripeness (buyer beware – while this is invited in many countries, in others including Germany it’s not well received!)

In semiotics, or the science of signs, at its most fundamental, communication is about a shared cultural meaning. A ringing bell is an arbitrary sound that has no meaning in itself. It’s only within certain recognized contexts, through shared experience and assent of the group that, just like Cinderella, I understand a particular combination in my Bavarian village to mean “6 o’clock – time to going.”

To that visitor from Mars, a ringing church bell, it’s just meaningless noise – in every sense. Meanwhile, the neighbor who’s earned a sleep in, also ‘opts out’ and ignores the signal as irrelevant to him.

Each day, every one of us sends and receives millions of signals, so we all use this necessary human skill to focus and prioritize what is important to us, and in doing so consciously or increasingly sub-consciously deselect and ignore what we consider to be irrelevant.

In the modern world of high-tech, multimedia communications, ‘noise’ has more exclusively come to mean the sheer quantity of messages that are competing for our attention, most of which we ignore if only to maintain our sanity! While this consideration is also valid, it’s not the most important one.

Anyone with a responsibility for business communications shouldn’t lose sight of the word’s original semiotic meaning, and so be sure that they are creating dialogues in the most relevant and meaningful way to meet the information needs of their audiences.

To give a recent client example, the report Online Government Services and the Offline Generation suggests that three quarters of older citizens in the UK would choose offline over online services, while simultaneously:

  • 55% of councillors do not believe accessing services by internet is difficult
  • 94% of councillors say: “my council is encouraging more people to use the local council website for information about local services”
  • 86% of councillors agree that more people using the internet to access their services saves their council money

How seriously should local authorities take findings like these of ‘digital disconnect’ between them and older people? In an aging population, such as that found in the UK, the information needs of this group can’t be ignored.

As I said – it’s easy to forget how complicated communication really is!

Ronna Porter – OnPR GmbH

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: