‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’

Conor Kenny, author of What Are You Saying?, on why clarity in messaging is vital

“Do you understand? I don’t want you to do a thing if you don’t understand it” – Kristin Cashore

When a vicious tidal wave unexpectedly surges out of the deep blue sea, panic grabs us, fear follows, and we are momentarily paralysed. We do not know what to do.

Nothing reflects these human traits better than the dreadful veil Covid 19 has covered all our lives.

This pandemic is different. There is no blueprint and its deadly march is fertile ground for misunderstanding and misguided reactions. Never before has communication been so important.


What we write, what we say, and what we do says a lot about who we are and when 2020 is consigned to the history books, this is how we will be remembered. That is then, this is now.

It would be great if we were as reliable as some German machines. We are not, we are bound by our emotions and sometimes emotions get in the way. That is our free will but it is also the threat.

Our words are powerful. They have an impact. They create comfort and fear. In the wrong hands they can lead the masses over a cliff. Used well, they can marshal a multitude into a shared direction.

This is the immediate challenge for leaders and the danger of misunderstanding can have terminal results. To deliver effective messages, there is no room for revenge, or political point scoring. The goal is not only our words and messages but for leaders to pursue the greater good even if their own egos are misguiding them into a selfish populist agenda.

George Bernard Shaw said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. This has never been more relevant and we have witnessed the chaos caused by ineffective instructions and messages.

However, governments are run by people, just like you and I. When something so unexpected happens, it’s easy to criticise, easy to find flaws and oppositions will seize their soundbite moment. But does that bring us to a place where fear will subside?

Communication has many purposes and forms, but the ultimate goal is simple. It is to deliver a message that is understood.

If there is room for ambiguity then there will be different perceptions simply because what we see, what we hear and what we do depends on where we stand.

Simplicity must always override the complex, even if the overwhelming desire is to sacrifice understanding for vanity.

Vanity may be very enjoyable but it does not do much for anyone else.

“If we chase the things that ‘tickle our ears’, we’ll probably end up finding out that they’re going to torture our lives, ” said Craig D Lounsbrough.

The goal of effective communication is ultimately to make something happen. From doing nothing to doing something and everything in between.

What we do, or do not do, is intrinsically linked to our own motivation. Consensus will never be easy when agendas, emotions and opportunists get in the way.

If we communicate to stir emotions, that is a dangerous strategy. There is a fine line between our interpretation of fear and danger. Danger is very real, fear is a perception and a choice. Inevitably, an emotive message will fall on some deaf ears, create terror in others and leave some ambivalent. We may be able to instruct people and legislate but we can never control their emotions.

Motivation must have buy-in, without that, there will be resistance and, in extreme cases, rebellion.

Language changes. Over the years, words are sometimes diluted and substituted for easier, softer and more politically sensitive expressions. In my lifetime (so far!) “died” has moved to “passed away” and now to “passed”. This is the evolution but perhaps some words have lost their clarity in favour of ease. Similarly, a world of cliches has become the norm and the thing about cliches is that although they are easy and enjoyable, that is why they have become just that – cliches. For some, they work, to others “boiling the ocean” makes no sense. Again, ambiguity reigns and where there is confusion, there is no majority.

Businesses have unwittingly sacrificed clear messages for a simplicity they believe works. It does not. How many times have we all watched a small white van drive by promising solutions as their only message? Solutions to what? Even advertising has fallen into this murky trap. What exactly is a magical experience? What do we really mean by “For a fresh perspective on life and a new outlook on living”? When they actually meant really nice apartments for sale.

Communication is more than words. It is our tone, our presence, our voice, our accent, our mood, our intent and, of course, our body language. Whether we like it or not, how we communicate sets the compass for what happens next and a useful guide before we talk, write or communicate is to remember the words of George Bernard Shaw above.

If we do not, we may just be the ones living the illusion and wondering why our audience did not understand.
Conor Kenny is the author of four books. His latest, What Are You Saying? … and why you're not saying it is out now.