Matching message to audience (Guest commentary)

Three different communication styles

Everybody knows the communication mantra: The message needs to be adjusted to suit the audience. That’s great in theory, but how can it be applied?

That’s exactly what communications firm McLuhan and Davies was wondering some 20 years ago when it asked the questions: How do people actually communicate? How do they process information? How do they, in fact, think?

We wondered if there was a connection between these communications questions and our studies in left- and right-brain research. Could the findings in some way be applied to the broad field of communication skills development?

A series of focus groups and workshops was organized to find this out. This process resulted in the development of a communications assessment tool in which participants were asked a series of communications-related questions to try and assess whether they were a right- or left-brained communicator.

In retrospect, this was a naive and rather simplistic notion. What the research discovered was that the act of communication is clearly a whole-brained activity — everybody can handle both left- and right-brained communication.

But more significantly, it discovered that people communicate in three distinct ways. The research unearthed the following:

•a formal structure exists for all communication;

•this structure allows everyone to use three distinct communication styles;

•all three styles are needed for perfect communication;

•80 per cent prefer one style, although everyone uses all three styles; and

•the three styles broadly involve analytical, interactive and visual communication.

Moreover, the research showed what typically happens in a situation is that an expert in one style tries to communicate in that same style with everyone — often with dismal results. It’s rather like being challenged to a game of ping-pong and showing up with a tennis racket.

It therefore follows that individuals need to understand all three communication styles well so they can match the message to the audience. The three styles, along with their traits, are:

Analytical: The most widely understood style, and probably the most obvious. People with this style prefer the written word, numbers, logic, facts and details. They are at their best one-on-one.

Interactive: The style that represents people skills. People with this preferred style love the communication process. They like to be involved in dialogue, seeking input from all, probing towards consensus. They tend to prefer the spoken word and value evidence that everyone buys into a given decision. They are at their best in HR and consensus-building/teambuilding roles.

Visual: A rapidly growing communication style in the workplace, and one that is not widely understood. Above all, people with this as a preferred style communicate fast. Speed is the critical factor. Speed of thought and speed of decision-making. They talk fast, need variety, action and change. They respond favourably to colour. They are at their best where gifted conversational skills are in demand.

Understanding the key aspects of these styles will profoundly affect how an individual is able to adjust the message to an audience. Since everyone uses all three styles of communication, all three need to be accommodated when presenting the message. Then, the message can be adjusted to reflect their bias.

If the audience is strongly analytical, the following needs to be done:

•provide a key part of the message in writing;

•provide evidence of facts, details and proof;

•insert some kind of structure into the message, such as numbers and headings; and

•respect the audience’s need to reflect on the details — give them time to absorb all the details and fully understand the nature of the issue.

If the audience is strongly interactive, approach them as follows:

•make it clear their input is welcome, if possible;

•ensure they are treated as equal partners in the dialogue;

•understand that consensus is a real priority in their mind; and

•allow extra time so all stakeholders can be involved.

If the audience is strongly visual, approach with the following bias:

•deliver the message quickly and verbally;

•be prepared for discussion on the topic;

•prepare support material that is brief, colourful and visual and uses as few words as possible; and

•get to the point — set the message up so the information can be absorbed quickly.

Roger Davies is CEO of Toronto-based communication consultants McLuhan and Davies and author of PAWTALK! – Achieving Quick, Clear, Honest and Persuasive Communications.

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