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How to Avoid Putting a Stench in Someone's Ear (Noise)

The word Noise. Reduce noise.  Communicate with FINESSE!
The responsibility for effective communication belongs to the sender, not the receiver. N stands for noise when Communicating with FINESSE!

“So, what did you think about the most recent five-year management assessment?” asked the Agency Director.

I knew it was a loaded question. If the executive team had agreed with the assessment, the chief operating officer would not have asked me to review it before the report was presented to the Board of Directors.

“I had some issues with the report,” I responded. “Out of the gate, they lost me and will probably lose your Board with that multi-colored, busy graph.”

That was a safe initial response. The graph had a dozen colors, stacked bars, trend lines, and two vertical axes.

“I agree,” smiled the chief executive. “The newbie on the Board will not understand much, but the picture is one thing he might have understood. But not that one. What else?"

There were layers of issues, but I kept it simple.

"I was not convinced that the data supported having problems in 7 of the 10 areas they evaluated,” I responded. “Maybe three, but not seven. And they did not give you a good, concise summary so that your non-technical board members would understand.”

My detailed evaluation led me to this. But I simply pointed to the three areas of concern. The chief executive agreed.

He did not ask, so I did not volunteer to explain why I believed what I believed.

“Two-pager?” I asked.

“Yes, but don’t put it on your letterhead yet,” he said with a smile. “We may use it as our response. Or we may craft our own response and use yours as another opinion.”


FINESSE is the mnemonic for remembering the basics of effective communication: Frame, Illustrate, Noise, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics.

The initial report was not good from a technical perspective in the preceding story. The bad, central graphic and the heavy text made it feel much worse—too much noise.

In my presentation, a concise conclusion was provided in the beginning. There were many layers of analysis and details that could have been shared. However, the receiver (our decision maker) did not ask. Save the details for another day. Minimize noise.

The responsibility for effective communication of a message belongs to the sender. Four potential sources of noise are discussed in this article.

Forms of Communication

One way to look at potential noise is by considering that information is either communicated perceptively or interpretively. Perceptual communication occurs through the five senses – visual, audible, olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), and taste. Interpretative communication is more cerebral and can be verbal/conceptual or symbolic.

  • Perceptual and Sensory

  • Interpretive and Verbal

  • Interpretive and Symbolic

Too much appeal to one style or form of communication produces noise to the other. A balanced approach to all three forms of communication is needed where complexity and uncertainty are high.

Communication Forums

Our communication approach and response to communication forums are also sources of noise. Technical professionals often incorrectly use the same approach in all forums.

  • Internal Team Meetings

  • External Team Meetings

  • Public Speaking

  • What the Media Wants

  • What Elected Officials Want

The underlying data should be the same, but the manner of delivery in one forum may create noise in another. A simple example is the entertainment value required in public speaking is certainly not appreciated in most internal team meetings.

Attempting to Appeal Too Much To Sensory Perceptions

There is a balancing act between playing to the senses and overplaying to the senses. The dangerous result of playing to the senses is introducing noise that distracts from the signal. Too much sensory appeal also may trigger intended biases from the receiver.

Most formal communications training attempts to persuade or manipulate the receiver through the three V's:

  • Visual

    • Your document

    • Your dress

    • Eye contact, facial expression, head movements, gestures, posture

  • Verbal

    • Imagery, pronunciation, grammar, usage, vocabulary, emphasis

  • Vocal

    • Five elements of speech: pitch, pace, volume, resonance, pausing

For trusted advisors to decision makers, let the data speak for itself. Serve as a conduit between the data and the person that owns the decision. Do not obsess or overplay sensory appeal.

Patterns of Communication

Communication patterns describe the structures by which information flows in a group. Harold Leavitt is given credit for developing the most common categorization of patterns of communication.

  • Chain

  • Circle

  • Wheel

  • Y-pattern

  • Network

The military’s traditional linear communication style is an example of the chain of command. Social media is an example of a network. Most organizations use combinations of all five. Incorporating the strengths and weaknesses into the communication approach helps reduce noise.

Communicating with FINESSE

By their nature, issues with complexity and uncertainty introduce noise to many receivers. Keeping it simple is the best way to reduce noise while keeping in mind that making it too simple creates noise for some receivers. The balance is in letting the data speak for itself. Present the data in a balanced and ethical manner regardless of the immediate audience to which you are trying to appeal.

Communication is the exchange of information. It consists of a sender, a message with a form or transmission, and a receiver. The responsibility for effective communication of a message belongs to the sender.


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