Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Today’s college students are reputed to be well-versed in the use of social media. Do you think that heavy use of social media helps or hurts your ability to communicate in writing and face to face with important people you will encounter in the work place, such as authority figures like employers and colleagues, who are older than you?


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Losing the computers was actually better for me. I didn’t feel like I had to be entertaining everybody.” — Reid Stowe

That observation is from solo sailor Stowe, who just set a world record by spending 1,152 consecutive days at sea in his 70-foot, gaffed-rigged schooner, Anne. Stowe regularly posted updates, photographs, and paintings on his Website until the last six months at sea when his two computers failed.

It is amazing that, via technology, a man alone at sea for over three years could stay in touch in both words and images. Stowe had a message for the world with his voyage. A sculptor, painter, and musician, Stowe tried to inspire the world with his marathon voyage, an achievement that he says was only possible through the power of love.

But when he lost his computers, and thereby his ability to show and tell the world what he was doing, he seemed to gain even more. He says he was able to write deeper essays and paint richer paintings. “I was receiving illuminations, one after the next,” he says. “It was incredible.”

But what about the rest of us? It seems like so many of us are obsessed with communicating constantly, whether or not we really have something relevant for the world to hear. For example:

  • Constantly texting or talking on cell phones
  • Obsessive tweeting
  • Multiple daily status updates on Facebook
  • Checking email minute by minute
  • Blogging, even when we have nothing really to say

 Why do we do this? Is it healthy? Just because we can does not mean we should.

What drives us to report our every move? Back when we did not have this capability, we seemed to live full enough lives. We actually hand-wrote letters and mailed them, sometimes taking weeks for a turnaround reply.

Take Twitter, for example. Experts tell  us to share useful information. Accordingly, people tweet their latest hot piece of info, a link supposedly of great value. Add it up, and thousands of people are referring thousands of people to thousands of pieces of information. Can anyone keep up?

What is the reasoning behind this? Are people really tweeting to share valuable information, or are they tweeting merely to be seen tweeting? I tweet, therefore, I am.

You’ll see similar behavior on Facebook. Some people will update their status several times a day. What motivates this constant need to tell the world what we are doing?

Reid Stowe proved that even when alone at sea for over three years, ceasing to communicate constantly via technology can be a blessing, not a curse.

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The major advance is the internet, and after 20 years (has it really been that long?) we are seeing parts of our society crumble around us as the new processes — effortless information sharing, hierarchy-destroying collaboration, online community-building and citizen journalism — begin to take hold.   Ron Shewchuk

This quote from Ron’s timely and insightful comments to my post on Atlas Shrugged got me thinking. I am reading about conversation analysis (CA) in my Advanced Qualitative Research Methods doctoral class. CA is a qualitative approach that has become highly relevant for examining educational phenomena related to discourse supported by many tools and resources for computer-mediated communication.

Joan M. Mazur, writing in the Handbook of Research on Educational Communication & Technology, 2nd Ed (2004), reminds us of the easily observable aspects of discourse, such as words, gestures, sounds, and body language. Each is key to understanding the structure of the discourse.

But obviously, written discourse is different. Written discourse, Mazur says, is multimodal, and an analysis of written text gives us opportunities to study a range of communications and representations within one text, called the semiotic landscape.

For college instructors like me, there is plenty motivation to understand written discourse. I am a Baby Boomer teaching mostly Millennials. Whereas the youthful motto of my generation was “never trust anyone over 30”, Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles says, for the Twitter generation, the new slogan seems to be “don’t trust anyone over 140 characters.”

Think of the language used in computer-mediated contexts like email, Twitter, text messaging, digital videoconferencing, chat rooms, threaded discussions, and instant messaging. Communicating on the Internet contains a new hybrid language of “written speech” with its own evolving semiotics, such as emoticons, and its own verbal structure, Mazur says.

Problem is that communication technologies affect the quality and conduct of conversation. Emoticons, Mazur says, those iconic representations of emotions that are peppered into text-talk to indicate a range of affective responses, have become so routine that many word processors (and WordPress) default to an automatic insertion of the graphic yellow smiley face when one types  a colon followed by a closed parenthesis.

That’s where CA comes in. In a broad sense, CA means any study of people talking together in oral communication or language use, including computer-mediated communication technologies.  The central purpose of CA, Mazur says, is to investigate the norms and conventions that speakers use in interaction to establish communicative understandings.

Mazur says researchers have isolated three basic facts about conversation: 1. turn-taking occurs; 2. one speaker tends to speak at a time; and 3. turns are taken with as little overlap between them as possible. It is important to understand the concepts of computer-mediated communication since so much of our discourse occurs online now.

Torill Elvira Mortensen, writing in the Handbook of Research on New Literacies (2008), says the human being is an animal that desires meaning, much of which comes from communication. Like Ron says above, computer-mediated information flowing through the Internet is an opportunity for individuals to find, share, and contribute information. Weblogs, or blogs, are especially effective at allowing the individual to express him or herself.

In fact, blogs change the concept of the sender-message-receiver model conceived in 1949 and still used today. Mortensen says a new image of the user emerges from the personal publishing power that the Internet gives the individual, and it needs a new theory to explain it.

Online communication is conducted in text and mediated through a channel that is separate from the human body. The communication world off line offers real substance, but the online world offers nothing but symbols structured in some kind of text. Therefore, Mortensen says, the study of human behavior online is a study of the human exchange of symbols online.

Interpreting texts, or hermeneutics, seeks to help us find the meaning in texts. But how language is used now and will be used in the future of computer-mediated communication is wide open. Doubtless, there is much work for researchers in discourse analysis.

Yes, I know. If I was really hip, I’d have said this in 140 characters or less.

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In studying narrative inquiry as part of my Qualitative Research Methods class, I was struck by some similarities with my training in communication/public relations. The shared essence is storytelling.

The qualitative researcher seeks out the narrative, which may be oral or written and may be elicited or heard during fieldwork, an interview, or a naturally occurring conversation, according to Susan E. Chase, writing in Denzin and Lincoln’s Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (2008).

Chase says a narrative may be a short topical story about a particular event or specific characters such as an encounter with a friend, supervisor, or physician, or it may be an extended story about a significant aspect of one’s life like schooling, work, marriage, divorce, childbirth, illness/injury, war, etc. Or, narrative can be on a person’s entire life.

Throughout my career, I have embraced the concept of  “communicator as storyteller.” For example, if the employee communicator is trying to explain why safety on the job is important to both employees and to the organization, then one of the best ways is to find a person who is actively engaged in safe operation of equipment and let him or her tell the story.

In this example, the narrative is crucial to credibility and, I believe, readability as well.

My valued textbook Public Relations Writing (2008) by Thomas H. Bivens, discusses the information strategies of exposition and entertainment. Bivens says two of the most-used forms of exposition are narration and description. As Bivens explains, narration is simply storytelling. Storytelling is useful for both informational and persuasive strategies.

But is there a difference between how the qualitative researcher gathers and uses narrative inquiry and how the communicator gathers and uses stories for organizational media?

Chase views contemporary narrative inquiry through five analytic lenses:

First, the researcher treats narrative, either oral or written, as a distinct form of discourse. It is retrospective in making meaning, for it shapes and orders past experience.

Second, researchers see in narratives verbal action, as in doing or accomplishing something.

Third, stories are both enabled and constrained by a range of social resources and circumstances.

Fourth, researchers treat narratives as socially situated interactive performances that are produced in a particular setting for a particular audience and a particular purpose.

Fifth, the qualitative researcher using narrative inquiry views herself or himself as narrator developing interpretations and seeking ways to present and publish the narratives studied.

This is instructive for the communicator as well. The communicator frequently seeks out a narrative that is retrospective, such as how an employee learned to operate equipment safely over a period of years. This is, as number two above says, verbal action of how the employee accomplished safe operation.

Are stories in the workplace constrained by a range of social resources and circumstances as stated above? You bet they are. In using the narrative of an employee, the communicator might find out that the culture of the organization, and the resources it provides, are not conducive to safe operation of equipment.

Workplace stories are indeed interactive performances of time and place and audience, as in number four above.  The employee narrative is a snapshot in time and can have tremendous value to the organizational communication audience.

Finally, the communicator definitely interprets the collected narratives in order to edit them and publish them in organizational media. Here the organizational communicator has an advantage over the qualitative researcher — the communicator often is responsible for his/her own media and has full authority to publish, whereas the researcher must seek publishers.

To me, the efforts of both the qualitative researcher using narrative inquiry and the organizational communicator using storytelling are similar. I believe that each can learn from the other, making each practice that much stronger.

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They’re back….

The ubiquitous Christmas letter (CLs). Doubtless you get one or two. Most come by snail mail, but with increasing frequency, some are emailed. CLs are well-meaning attempts to catch up with large numbers of people during the holiday season. They usually recount how the year was a blur of activity and frequently contain an apology for sending the CL instead of, say, a personal letter to the recipient.

Most CLs provide a look back at the year. Major events are covered in a journalistic style, minus the objectivity. In all fairness, there are sometimes mentions of sadness, pain, medical situations, and loss. That’s real. I believe using a CL to bring a lot of people up to date on such poignant issues is entirely understandable and acceptable. Otherwise, it might mean tiring individual mailing and phone time.

But to me, it’s the other topics covered that, in many ways, betray the purpose of the CL. Things like all the fun the writer(s) had that didn’t include the recipient.

“In August, we went scuba diving with friends Harley and Bernice in Aruba. It was such fun.”

“In October, we rented a motor home with friends Sidney and Penelope and drove across Canada. It was marvelous.”

“We snow boarded and partied at our mountain cabin in Puberty Rock with friends Reginald and Muffy. If you haven’t had mojitas in a hot tub in the mountains, you have not lived!”

“We flew to Bora Bora with friends Sherman and Lydia for two weeks of sun and fun. If you haven’t had mojitas in a hot tub overlooking the Pacific, you have not lived!”

The only problem is, your name is not Harley, Bernice, Sidney, Penelope, Reginald, Muffy, Sherman, or Lydia. So why are they telling you this? You have not seen them all year. But they sure managed to see a lot of other people.

Unless you are one of the chosen few friends who actually got to spend time with the writer(s), I think the CL is negative PR . The communication value is about the same. To communicate, why not simply send a card with a few hand-written lines on it. That has real meaning. People cherish that.

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There have been some interesting and instructive, if disturbing, events lately involving communication. At the top of the list has to be Iran’s leader speaking at Columbia University.

Should he have been allowed to speak at Coloumbia? You will hear fervant arguments on either side of the issue, but he was welcomed to speak. In the past, Columbia has not extended the same privilege to other voices who are a lot less dangerous than this person. Or worse, audiences have shouted down individuals who were asked to speak. Why is that? Why have others not been given the same courtesy as the highly controversial leader of Iran?

More With Les does not discuss politics. That is not my purpose. I see some recent events in terms of communication issues. Accordingly, why is it that we have lost our ability, or our willingness, to listen to other viewpoints? What are we afraid of?

For example, a blogger buddy of mine is currently talking about PRSA’s announcement that Karen Hughes, former Bush advisor and now an ambassador for the U.S. State Department charged with spreading a pro-democracy message around the world to fight terriorism, will speak at the group’s October conference. Sadly, much of the discussion centers on how she will likely be booed off the stage by conference attendees.

Booed by “professional” communicators? Why? Are we to believe that professional communicators are so afraid of this woman or have such contempt for her for whatever reason that they must shout her down at a professional forum? Is listening politely to her such a damaging ordeal that professionals cannot be expected to sit quietly by and let her speak?

This is profoundly disturbing to me. Nazis burned books. Oppressive regimes all over the world, including Iran, silence their critics in sometimes unspeakable ways. Are Americans becoming so hardened ideologically that we simply cannot listen to opposing viewpoints?

If Hughes does speak at the PRSA conference and is shouted down, then it will be a sad day indeed. If professional communicators disruptively boo her because she represents a different political ideology from theirs, or whatever reason, then it will be a black eye for PRSA.  Further, the entire profession will be cheapened and diminished. If the speaker was a known enemy of the United States like Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez or any given Al Qaeda leader, then the situation would be different. But Karen Hughes?

I hope the attendees will have the common courtesy to behave like true professionals. That does not mean blind agreement with this or any other speaker. It simply means acting professionally, listening politely, and not denigrating the event, the association, or the profession by shouting someone down. If an attendee cannot stand the message or the messenger, don’t attend. Or, simply get up and leave, and on the way out, grab a session evaluation form and register your feelings about it. That is a more professional way for professionals to act.

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