Why context matters
While there is no doubt that number is big and negative, the headline gave me little to go on. Was it going to be a positive story or a negative story? Was the situation improving or getting worse? The headline provided a fact and, until I read the story, it left me to interpret its meaning. Maybe they wanted me to read further to find the context. Maybe they thought the number stood on its own. But the important point is that without some context, I was lost.
I see this happen all of the time. Communicators try to make a point with a fact, but they ignore the context. They think facts speak for themselves when, as the headline above illustrates, they don’t.
For example, a company will say that it has contributed $10 million to a local community without explaining why it is a meaningful amount. Then they are shocked when people question the seriousness of their efforts.
I have seen companies announce free “fraud protection” services only to have them rejected by consumers because they failed to explain the problem they were trying to solve.
In the stock market, we routinely see companies announce huge profits and see their stock fall. Why? Because performance isn’t what counts…it is performance against expectations that matters.
Context matters – often more than the fact itself. When done right, context places a piece of data in an appropriate perspective. It provides a benchmark against which to judge. It helps to set appropriate expectations.
On the flip side, the absence of context can create significant failures to communicate. In my firm, we live by a simple rule. Call it Murpy’s law of communication: anything vague will be interpreted negatively. If we don’t give people the tools with which to interpret something, we shouldn’t be surprised when they misinterpret it in the worst way.
So, in a world where customers doubt company motives, it falls on communicators to explain the decision-making.
In a world where we speak in trillions of dollars, it falls on us to explain why millions are significant.
And in a world where we will be judged by how well we perform against expectations, it falls on us to carefully set the right expectations ourselves.
The next time you try to persuade someone to buy a product or an idea, ask yourself whether you have put every fact in context. What you think is implicit in your message may in fact need to be explicit. Think back to the headline above. The truth is, the deficit actually shrank a bit. So how much clearer is it to say “April Budget Deficit Shrinks Slightly to $40.49 Billion”? Your audience isn’t dumb but they need that extra information. And given that context they are much more likely to understand and appreciate your perspective and actions.