Informing People on Their Terms

In our last blog article I posted some 2007 predictions, focusing on trends in communication technology and their impact on Christian ministry.  The prediction that sparked the most comments and the one I’ve been thinking most about recently is, “Organizations will have to inform people on their terms.”

What are “their terms?”  How does an organization, whether it’s a church, a ministry, a school, a business, or some other type of organization, determine the best way to communicate with its audience (congregation, clients, parents, students, etc)?  What do you do if your audience is so diverse that includes some people who don’t even use computers and others for whom their computer is practically an appendage?

Communication Break-Downs

“I didn’t know about that.”

How many times have you heard that phrase?  You organized an event and some people never heard about it.  You moved or canceled a meeting and someone didn’t get the message.  You sent out important information and days later people are asking you the very questions that were addressed in that information.  Unfortunately, it happens all to often.

There are many things now days that seem to be leading to an increase in mis- or failed communications.

Almost every waking moment we are under a constant barrage of messages.  People talking to us, radio, TV, billboards, email, postal mail, written memos, and so forth.  Sometimes we are receiving 2 or 3 messages at a time.  We cope with this constant barrage by skimming and filtering the messages.  The result is we listen but do not hear messages.  We see but don’t understand or remember messages.

There is also a dizzying array of choices for the ways in we communicate with each other.  We can send a letter, make a phone call, send an email, text message, instant message, and so on.  The problem is not everyone is set-up to communicate in those ways.  I can’t IM my parents because they don’t instant message.  At the same time, if they send me a letter I might not see it for 2-3 weeks because only read mail twice a month when I pay bills.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

So, how does an organization overcome these barriers to effective communication?

Know your audience.  You have to know how your congregation, clients, or whomever you serve communicates.  Don’t guess.  Ask.  Surveying your audience is the best option, but short of that it’s also helpful just to ask people individually “What’s the best way to get information to you, so I know you’ll see or hear it?”  Survey people on the effectiveness of your existing communication methods.  “How often do you check our website?”  “Are you subscribed to our e-newsletter?  If yes, how often to you actually read it?”  “Do you read the church bulletin?”

Repeat yourself.  Since people naturally skim and filter messages, you can’t assume that just because you announced something verbally at the last gathering, or sent everyone an email, or mailed everyone a letter that everyone got the message.  You have to say things multiple times to get your message out.

Be consistent.  Because people naturally filter out messages, you have to train people to “tune in” to your message.  People are much more likely to see your e-newsletter if they know it will be in their in box at 9 AM every Monday morning.  People will check your website if it’s updated at regular intervals. 

Use multiple modes.  As we noted before, not everyone is tuned in to the same communication modes, so it’s essential that you use multiple modes.  This also helps to overcome the skimming/filtering problem because when you use multiple modes you are also repeating yourself.

Selecting the Best Communication Modes

The big challenge, however, is deciding which modes of communication to use.   Does a small church in a rural farm town need a website, an e-newsletter, and a blog complete with RSS feeds?  Should a multi-national ministry mail out monthly newsletters to all its supporters?  Does a business need to be able to text message their clients when they have a sale to remain competitive?  We’ll tackle this issue next week.

Until then, what barriers do you see to effective communication?  How can those barriers be overcome?

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

3 Responses to “Informing People on Their Terms”

  1. By addressing ‘needs’ of individuals, the interest level is alway heightened. Early in my training my mentor mentioned this area to me. By addressing ‘needs’ which are recognized by the reader or emphasized by the writer, the viewer (reader) will have more interest. Thank you for your question. I’m grateful to be able to share with all of you. Thanks for such a wonderful webmaster service.

  2. HOW to use multiple modes, I have a business and I need peoples see my site.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. » Evaluating Modes of Communication - Jan 25, 2007

    [...] Last week I wrote a bit about what it means to inform people on their terms.  In this day and age, we simply can assume and expect people to be looking for or listening to our communications.  People are constantly being bombarded with messages and have a natural tendency to skim and filter, sometimes missing important messages.  They also have so many different choices in the ways, tools, or modes to use to communicate that it’s impossible to get a message to everyone using the same mode. [...]