My Wife Shuts Me Out

I’m having trouble connecting with my wife. I mean that in a professional sense. As a communicator I can barely get her to notice me. She’s director of interactivity at her company and in a given day she will:

  • be in meetings more than 80% of the time while at the office,
  • send dozens upon dozens of texts from her ever-present Blackberry,
  • field well over a hundred emails on at least two accounts starting before dawn and ending when she falls asleep,
  • stay in a constant loose association with her team, friends and family on two different instant messenger clients,
  • check her websites and those of her counterparts and competitors,
  • check countless blogs (professional and personal interest) through Google Reader,
  • hit Google News multiple times,
  • watch Youtube videos,
  • scan the Facebook newsfeed twice,
  • read hundreds of tweets,
  • read a professional journal or academic paper, and
  • maybe flip through a copy of Metro if it’s lying on the streetcar seat when she sits down.

That’s how she gets the information she needs to feed her passions, do her job, and feel connected to her family, community and culture. If these were voices, it would be a roar. Were I an internal communicator at her company, I would face some terrifying competition.

I myself have a media flight path that lets me travel quickly through my trusted sources and tight filters. It takes a fair amount of time in a day. Hours, probably. The route is the result of ruthless elimination and many of the actions are so behaviourally ingrained that I usually don’t realize how I ignore whole categories of information and channels of media, including almost all forms of push-media like broadcast television and radio. I have made them invisible because they are worse-than-useless to my life.

I’m willing to bet you have patterns like these as well because we’re all facing the same information pressures. It’s Mediascape Survival 101 and, if you’ve not been driven into the wilderness by it already, it’s because you’ve got ways to shut most of it out.

I was recently made aware of writing published in 1971 by economist and psychologist Herbert Simon who coined the expression “the attention economy”. He wrote:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” (my emphasis)

I love this description because that’s exactly what it feels like – something is eating my head. I’m not neutral to someone trying to get my attention, I’m now predisposed against it. God help you if you get my attention and I feel like you’re wasting my time. However, if you add value to my life on my terms, you’re inside the walls – you’re now part of my day – I will find you for the answers I need.

At the IABC conference in Toronto last Thursday, professional communicator Steve Crescenzo (who is awesome – check him out) shared an ordered list of priorities for people’s attention. If I recall correctly they are:

  • Priority 1: what they are passionate about
  • Priority 2: what they need to do their job
  • Priority 3: what is done so well it grabs their attention
  • Priority 4: everything else

Once upon a time, people may have gotten to priority 4 but no longer. I know my personal media regime is necessarily brutal just so I can get through the stuff I care about.

Communications at work

It’s tempting to think that delivering internal communications – communications about the workplace – means we get to jump in at people’s attention priority 2. Not a chance. We’re all swamped at work and we have our filters there locked down even more tightly because we have to perform, we have to be productive. We get fired if we don’t and that means the money stops and then I can’t pay for my highspeed connection at home. Or food. And the bank takes my house and my wife gets upset with me.

At work, we only pay attention to the things that are required to perform our role and the rest of the stuff – in our inboxes, posted on the walls, screamed in our face by a wild-eyed madman – isn’t even noticed let alone understood. Worse yet, it may add to feelings of stress and frayed attention. The newsletter with company boilerplate and platitudes is garbage from inception and even the people who produce it know this.

So how do we communicate to employees?

Any message that is important enough to push internally to get business or cultural results deserves a creative solution and execution that will cut through the noise and at least squeak into attention priority 3.

Make the message relevant to the audience so that it helps them do their jobs better in a way that is aligned with business success and personal rewards and recognition. Make it clear how it will help them do their job better and be more successful. Now we’re at least targeting priority 2.

As Steve pointed out in his talk, attention priority 1 isn’t a position our messages get to all that often. That’s just how it is. If the cheques stopped coming, most people would pursue their passions rather than show up at the office. Unless someone is already passionate about what they do, our communications won’t get that priority.

What this tells me is I need a strategy to reach my wife. I need to communicate less, to only send out messages about business priorities that she needs to know, being clear about the actions she needs to take. I first get her attention at priority 3 level by doing something that is sharp enough that she is compelled to look because it’s just too good not to. Then I earn her trust and attention at priority level 2 with smart, honest communications that helps her perform her job better, involves her input, and builds understanding of how her aligned actions are making the company successful in its objectives.

I suppose I could get her attention at her priority level 1 using a picture of our daughter as the photo-lead but that’s a slippery slope towards Toddlers in Tiaras that would only work once and – if you’ve met my wife – would ultimately prove to be a Very Bad Idea.

I would love to hear about how an internal message was delivered just right or about a message that been hard to get out there – if you’ve got a story like that, please let me know. Special thanks to Steve Crescenzo for leading an inspiring talk at IABC Toronto last week and to Jefferson Wright (of the Toronto Jefferson Wrights) for bringing Herbert Simon’s work to my attention.

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