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A picture is worth a thousand words

September 18, 2013

AND, science now shows us words rely more on pictures than we had originally thought. For the first time, researchers report that they “were able to link the auditory signal in the brain to what a person said they heard when what they actually heard was something different.” When there is a disconnect between visual and auditory information, visual dominates sound. They found that “vision is influencing the hearing part of the brain to change your perception of reality – and you can’t turn off the illusion.” What does that mean for those of us leading companies?

BrainOne thought that occurs to me is that this is one more piece of science that may point to the illusion of multi-tasking. If I’m looking at my smartphone or tablet during a presentation, which is taking precedent? Which is having the most influence – auditory or visual signals? What I’m hearing or what I’m seeing? Where’s my brain focused?

Also, if we are using a presentation package for our speech or meeting, are the images we’re using sending the most consistent message for the context of our “bullet points”? And what does this say about our need for the good old fashioned face-to-face meeting? We’ve known for a long time that we can only communicate so much information in writing and that it is much more effective to meet face-to-face when we have complex information to share. Visual cues — that is body language — count for more than the words.

My friend, Tom Northup, recently published a post where he suggested that technology is limiting effective communication. Given the scientific report above, I think he may be on to something. It may not only be “partial attention” that we’re dealing with, but compelling images being processed at the same time, images with a conflicting context to the auditory.

I suspect that while we often misinterpret written communications (text, emails, memos,) we often have the ability to go back and think about what we read and perhaps change our view or derive a more logical message. But if we are processing images on our computer screen, smartphone or tablet while chatting with someone on the phone or sitting in a meeting, how well can our brains process the auditory signals that are disconnected with the images we’re seeing?

I run into this frequently when I’m on the phone with someone who is “multitasking.” There are long pauses in the conversation, sometimes, mid-sentence, while the person on the other end stops to process something on her/his computer. I often have to repeat things because they were misinterpreted – and it’s not all my fault. And on my end, if I take or place a call, I’ve long ago learned I need to turn away from my computer so I can pay attention to the caller.

Have you thought about what to do with this information? Will you consider changing the way you and others in your company communicate, run meetings, use technology and hold each other accountable for messaging? How about your own leadership?

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