Communicating Amid a Fractured Narrative: The Secret Nobody Tells You

In the days before the Internet, and particularly social media, it was hard to get a real clue about anything.

  • If "they" told you something was true - parents, school, job, media, religion, government, university, etc. - you generally believed it. Especially if it was in a book. If you didn't, it was your fault for doubting or not being smart enough to follow.
  • Alternative versions - the grapevine, etc. - had their place too. But that was always "the grapevine," and most of the time the official version trumped "gossip."

In short, before there was cyberspace, there was certainty. And even within a debate, the outer boundaries of that discussion - its framework - was more or less clear to most people, even if they inhabited different cultural realities.

All of this has fallen apart. Narratives still appear on television, in the paper, on the Internet, wherever. But instead of reading them uncritically, people now see them as only an opening gambit. No longer do they ask "What is the story?" but instead "What is the story behind that?"

In addition to social media these kinds of questions are the result of:

  • The success of civil rights, feminism, and other identity movements. People who were once silenced, then became marginalized, then became alternative voices, and now are part of the mainstream. So there is no "one way to think" or believe or do things.
  • The various "post" movements in academia - post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism - which all relate to the first bullet here. Basically these mean that there is no longer "truth" but only "how truth is represented."
  • Broad exposure to other cultures nationally and internally as a result of the ready availability of global travel.
  • The growth of humanitarian, environmental, and social responsibility movements, which have led people to question whether institutional authorities are acting responsibly.
  • The growth of the self-made family and the breakdown of the nuclear one.
  • Broad revelations of systematic child abuse by religious figures, across faiths.
  • The combination of a highly educated young workforce and the lack of opportunities commensurate with their skills - there is a lot of energy out there needing to be harnessed productively. 
  • Generally, the gap between the very rich and the very poor and the decline of the middle class, which might otherwise have been absorbed into a mainstream narrative with less angst.

To manage communication effectively in such a chaotic environment - in an environment where people seem to await the communication only so they can question it - one has to think in a more complex way about success.

The most important thing to know, in my view, is that it is no longer possible to communicate superficially and externally and ignore what's going on inside the organization.

In fact, you actually have to flip the traditional priorities on their head:

  • First - organizational cohesion - meaning leadership, management, and teamwork.
  • Second - consistent and coordinated internal communication to frontline staff.
  • Third - communication to the outside world, with a particular focus on being responsive to inquiries rather than simply "deciding" what you want to say.

To make this transition, the act of transmitting information that we think of as "communication" has to also turn on its head. This is done by getting to Stage 5 in the below scheme as fast as possible:

  • Stage One: Say whatever you want to say.
  • Stage Two: React to questions.
  • Stage Three: Offer information in advance.
  • Stage Four: Communicate with feedback in mind.
  • Stage Five: Make operational changes that will reduce negative feedback in advance of communication.

The difficult thing that communicators need to do, as they navigate this information environment, is basically to ignore the official rules and old ways that didn't work - and be calm and strong about adopting methods that do.

The rule of thumb that I go by is - try something; get feedback; modify; try again. If I know in my heart and my gut that a course of action is the right one - then go for it.

Of course humans being human, this path can be perilous because nobody is perfect, you can never have enough feedback, and you don't know what you don't know.

At the same time communicators should have more confidence. When I get scared I sometimes think about the 1971 poem by Philip Larkin, "This Be The Verse." What he is saying here is - your parents (on a broader level, "management") are inherently biased and flawed:

They (mess) you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had 
  And add some extra, just for you. 

But they were (messed) up in their turn 
  By fools in old-style hats and coats, 
Who half the time were soppy-stern 
  And half at one another's throats. 

Man hands on misery to man. 
  It deepens like a coastal shelf. 
Get out as early as you can, 
 And don't have any kids yourself.

Larkin offers a pessimistic conclusion - "you won't do better than them, don't bother." I don't agree with that. The whole of human existence is only the story of trying.

Although the fractured narrative - and perhaps the frailties of the organization - are challenging for communicators, that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Hell no!

Instead what we need to do - that is different from traditional management of the past - is to move TOWARD the fractures, not away from them. This is the secret of successful communication today.

The breaks in the narrative are the breaks in the organization. By non-judgmentally inhabiting, exploring, examining, and living in the alternative realities that threaten to break things apart, you can start to experience the possibility of bringing them together.

For me, when communication unifies seemingly disparate groups - actually making a real difference on the ground, not just on paper - that is the greatest feeling of all.

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