“You two were gone for the evening,” said one of my teammates at Startup Weekend, “and a coach came by, so we did the pitch. We agreed that somehow, it didn’t come out as well as when you or Chris did it.”
The essential human skill is communication. Language is the greatest gift your parents give you beyond life itself, and language is something we continue to learn all life long. Anytime two or more humans want to do something together, something beyond the capacity of a single individual, language is required. And even when we work alone, we structure our understanding by putting it into language in our head, using language as a storage medium for things that aren’t just kinetic.
This weekend, language was the key to everything that happened at Startup Weekend. Nothing could have happened without it.
To me, that came down to two areas of skills.
The first is a skill in consuming language. How quickly and efficiently can you process meaning out of the symbols you are given? Can you juggle lots of factors, from vocabulary, to context, to tone of voice, to body and facial expression, to references to extract meaning?
A huge part of consuming language is being able to hold a model of another person inside ourselves that we can use to determine not just what we would mean by their communication, but rather what they actually mean, what they are trying to communicate. Communications that we don’t grasp are easy to discard as just noise or filler, but discarding them means we can never extract information that we don’t already expect to hear. It is the ability to process even the bits that seem garbled at first that allows us to really get deep meaning and communicate effectively.
The second skill area, of course, is producing language. How can you use symbols and other tools to transmit meaning to another person?
It just makes sense that the better you are at consuming language the better you are at understanding language, then the better you are a producing effective language. Simply put, you have to be a good listener before you can be a good talker.
I know I was born with gifts that help me communicate. I was identifying specific voices on the radio by the age of two, and was reading Time magazine by the age of four.
But my joy always is consuming language. It’s one reason I have a penchant for British media, since language over there is valued down to local colloquialisms and literary references in a way that America seems to want to homogenize or to dumb down. I love hearing a new construction, a new phrasing, because the more vivid and textured the language I consume, the more vivid and textured is the language I can produce. I know that people who don’t always stretch their range of understanding limit themselves in their communication skills.
I often save language for later, offline processing, just to try to extract more meaning from it. This process, consuming at a slower speed, seems to me to be a key technique to get better at processing language in real time, as it happens. It can be amazing to go back and reread something you read in the past to see what meaning it holds for you now, how you can either have a deeper understanding of the author’s meaning, or how your own understanding of the meaning can be affected by your new experience or attitude.
Part of my history of writing and speaking in voices is connected to this drive. I understand how messages are related to voice, and when I want to communicate something, a voice can help do it quickly and well. Playing with different voices lets me stretch and extend my communication, and more than that, it’s wicked fun.
The biggest reason Chris and I could mentally pivot so quickly this weekend is because we listen in high definition. That means we not only were quickly able to squeeze meaning out of communications, but also that we had been doing it all our lives so we had a broad and deep base of understanding and context to draw from to create connections.
And because we listen in high definition, that also means we could speak in high definition. We knew how to create language quickly and elegantly, and we also knew how to monitor our audience to adapt the communication to heighten their intake of meaning.
I don’t know how to teach people richer skills to extract meaning, which means richer skills to encode meaning, in a plain and simple way. Practice, practice, practice is the only solution I can think of.
I do know that I pack my communication with meaning. I want high resolution communication, so I use high bandwidth. Every word has meaning to me, and I will often go back and change just one word or two to better convey meaning.
I know that this is sometimes a pointless effort, for as Anais Nin said, we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. The only meaning most people can apply to my words is meaning that they already understand, just dismissing what they don’t understand as noise. They don’t want to see the world through my eyes to give them a broader perspective in their own life, rather they just want their prejudices and expectations fed.
To communicate better, we have to listen better. And, at least to me, that means listening to people, ideas and voices that we don’t usually hear. We have to get beyond the parochial to find the universal, have to stretch our understanding to better communicate ourselves.
And communication seems like the fundamental skill, and one well worth valuing and investing in.
But then again, I love words and stories.