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Defining communication: In conversation with Amazon Alexa

Tuesday 9th June

Defining communication: In conversation with Amazon Alexa

The art of communication

Imagine your last performance review.

Rarely is our knack for picking up on verbal and physical cues at a more heightened state. It’s often a time of bubbling emotions, when powers of communication are put to the test…

Now imagine having that performance review with Amazon’s Alexa:

Derek: (quiet; withdrawn) guess I’m happy with my performance. But I think I’d maybe, maybe, urm, be quite keen for a tad more support. Here and there, perhaps.

Amazon Alexa™: (lacking a human form) Your 2019 performance was (uncomfortable pause; unclear if it’s a technical problem or for effect) unsatisfactory.

Derek: (trying somehow to make eye contact) Well… I’ve definitely struggled in some areas, I suppose, but, as I say, I don’t feel particularly well-supported…

Amazon Alexa™: (repeats) Unsatisfactory.

Derek: (sobs)

Amazon Alexa™: (much too cheerfully) Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Today’s forecast is four degrees and cloudy.

This is, of course, pretty ridiculous. But trying to have any kind of meaningful conversation with your second-generation Amazon Echo will show you that communication really is a human skill.

Human connections

Hopefully, you sensed Derek’s nervousness and frustration. If you’d been in the room, you’d have probably guessed this from his body language alone. That’s because humans, according to Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman, are biologically excellent at understanding non-verbal communication.

You would also know that a comment about the weather was out of place (however British).

These responses need no training – they’re instinctive. So, as automation triggers a huge up-skilling effort in the next decade, it will be increasingly important to recognise that everyone boasts the basis of key soft skills, especially communication.

Passing conversation

Some would disagree with this. For example, departing LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner believes that communication skills are actually in short supply. An analysis of 940,000 US job listings suggests that it’s really the most sought-after soft skill on the market.

We agree that it’s hugely valuable. Good communication skills slash the time required to innovate and initiate new projects, while they can also ensure constructive resolutions to conflicts that can otherwise linger. Really, the benefits of good comms have been covered ad nauseum.

However, at this stage, it’s important to ask – what is it you are looking for from your communicators?

What’s your definition?

As our fictitious conversation earlier proved, good communication isn’t just about clear speech and snappy prose. If this is your definition, then you’ll soon have a team of able writers and speakers…

But, if your priority is to build collaborative, supportive and trusting teams, you’ll have to broaden your definition to include the network of other traits that triggered your sympathetic response to poor Derek. These might include:

  • Empathy
  • EQ
  • Self-monitoring (one’s ability to adapt behaviour to the context and audience)

Your definition will also govern your assessment strategy. Ultimately, a writing test, presentation, or high-pressure interview simply can’t mirror real conversation, and are better geared towards finding excellent writers and speakers. Instead, solutions that accurately monitor authentic behaviour might be a better indicator of real communicative ability.

Broadening your definition of “communication” to include the above traits will help you establish teams that are able to adapt, understand and support each other when things go sideways, rather than excelling only when they go according to plan.

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