6 Communication Concepts That Boost Understanding

Communication is a bit like those old Atari games. Easy to learn; hard to master.

For our support team here at Userlike , communication is their meal ticket. In our training – for our own support team as well as the training we offer to our customers – we rely on a few powerful communication concepts with a wide range of applications.

These are the six communication concepts that we believe offer the biggest bang for your buck.

The Iceberg Principle

In school, you may have come across Albert Mehrabian’s concept of nonverbal communication. According to his research , communication is more than 90% about how you say something (with gestics, mimics and voice) and not actually about what you say.

This 1981 model is still up-to-date - but it doesn’t teach you much about written communication, which lacks visual and acoustic aid.

Graphic showing that more than 90% of communication is non-verbal.

If you want to know how Mehrabian’s communication model translates to a written context, famous writer Ernest Hemingway bequeathed a great model to today’s text-crazy generation: the Iceberg Principle.

Picture of an iceberg.

Hemingway knew that the words he wrote were only the tip of the iceberg - underneath it all lie senses, thoughts, feelings and subconscious mindsets. So, like voice and body hugely impact oral communication, your writing style matters to how your written message is received.

The original Iceberg Principle has been transferred to many different communication scenarios . And it also applies to support channels like email, live chat and Facebook.

A 2015 Forrester study showed that the emotional response you create with your message is the most important aspect in customer service. It also says that training your support team to set a positive tone will improve your customer’s satisfaction .

The Negativity Bias

How many times have you been bummed by a sassy email from a colleague? Or felt rejected because a text went unanswered for three days? Even if the sender didn’t mean to disrespect you, it’s likely that you interpreted the situation negatively.

These cases are an example of negativity bias. John Cacioppo, a PH.D. at Ohio University, found that negative messages have a stronger impact on our brain than positive ones. As social beings, we are extremely focused on communication dynamics. Due to the negativity bias, we lean towards a negative interpretation if the message is left ambiguous.

In this video, Leah from Userlike shares some tips on how to avoid the negativity bias in customer support:

To avoid the pitfalls of the negativity bias, make sure your writing doesn't ring negative in the recipient's ear. Simply reread your message before sending it - how does it sound?

A Salesforce study found that a shocking 54% of customers don’t believe companies have their best interests in mind . So, when messaging your customers, be aware that the negativity bias will be at work.

Processing Fluency

Processing fluency describes how easy or hard it is to intake and process a message.

Compare these two examples:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety."

"Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony.”

This is a prime example for the impact of rhythm on cognitive fluency. It’s taken from Gary Provost’s Make Every Word Count ; a bible for the art of writing.

But rhythm is by far not the only aspect of cognitive fluency. Depending on the medium you write for (e.g. blog post, email, chat), you have different options for improving the processing fluency of your text:

  • Message structure
  • Technical structure (headlines, paragraphs, punctuation, lists, bullet points, quotes, clean font)
  • Visuals (graphics, pictures, videos)
  • Repetition

Princeton University’s Daniel Oppenheimer has something astonishing to say about the impact of fluency on people’s judgement of the text :

“People judge fluent statements to be more true, more likeable, more frequent, more famous, better category members and to come from a more intelligent source than disfluent statements.”

So let’s take a look at three commonly used techniques to effectively structure your message:

What - So What - Now What. This technique is mainly used in sales scenarios to persuade your potential customer, but it’s also handy to keep this technique in mind for effective team communication via email and chat.

What: Sum up the idea, problem or question concisely.
So What: Address why the issue matters to your audience.
Now What: Give your listener a concrete way to move forward to the next immediate step. Give clear instructions.

Problem - Solution - Benefit. This communication technique is great for persuasive speeches as well as customer support.

Problem: Begin by presenting the problem - a clear point of frustration.
Solution: Present your solution to the problem in detail.
Benefit: The "benefit" is what the person gets out of the "solution." A good solution will give your audience or speaking partner something back in return.

Feature - Advantage - Benefit. This easy sales technique can improve your team's confidence in their selling ability very quickly.

Because it has…..FEATURE (product characteristics)
You will be able to…..ADVANTAGE (use case)
What that means to you is…..BENEFIT (e.g. money saved, time saved)

Pro tip for live chat. In the realm of live chat, an easy way to keep structure and improve processing fluency is to break the content down into multiple short messages.

It will help with cognitive fluency.
Which we know makes you look smarter ;)

The 7 Cs of Communication

The 7 Cs of Communication were first introduced in the book Effective Public Relations in 1952 by Scott M. Cutlip and Allen H. Center, both pioneers in the field of public relations.

It might well be the most cited list when it comes to effective communication. Even though it’s an ancient concept in terms of internet age, it hasn’t lost any validity for bloggers, YouTube personalities or online support agents.

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Today, you can find various versions of the 7 Cs online, in which new Cs have been added. This is the original list:

  • Clear. A clear message has a main objective and is laser-focused. Keep it simple and avoid putting too many ideas into any text – be it an email, paragraph or sentence.
  • Concise. Be responsible with your reader’s time by focusing on the essentials. Avoid repetitions and redundant filler words like "for instance," "you see," "definitely," "kind of," "literally," "basically" or "I mean."
  • Concrete. When your message is concrete your audience easily gets what you want to say. To be concrete you can work with examples, facts, statistics and details.
  • Correct. It goes without saying that a message should be grammatically correct. Still, a common slip is misspelling names or technical terms. From a content standpoint, correctness implies that your examples and study figures are not only well-researched, but placed in the right context.
  • Coherent. Coherence means that all points are relevant and connected to the main goal. Plus, the writing style should be the same throughout the message.
  • Complete. Every message has a goal. Provide your audience with a complete stock of relevant information, and give them additional information if it might answer potential follow-up questions.
  • Courteous. A courteous message shows respect to the recipient. It is friendly, considerate and open-minded. There are no hidden undertones or passive-agressive sidenotes.

Expectancy Violation

Have you ever thought about norms in social media? Indeed, even a rather unregulated platform like Facebook comes with unspoken expectations. Think about that marketing guy who posts 10 times a day, or that friend who pours her broken heart all over her page.

Facebook users tolerate a certain amount of status updates and displayed emotions; everything above that is a negative expectancy violation.

Expectancy violations happen in all types of human interaction. And they come in two forms.

  • A negative expectancy violation will decrease the attraction of the violator.
  • A positive expectancy violation will increase the attraction of the violator.

So a “violation” in this context can be either negative or positive. For instance, if the chef of a restaurant sends you a birthday cake on the house, it’s a positive expectancy violation. Or it's a negative violation if the chef sends a cake to your house and you’re unsure how he got his hands on your living address.

Transferring the concept to customer support, your clients approach your support team with specific expectations regarding service speed, responsiveness, friendliness and many other principles of good customer service .

Your service team should always focus on meeting customer expectations. That’s why our live chat software provides a set of satisfaction features , like canned responses that allow for a quick and easy resolution.

Userlike's canned responses in a support context.

Cognitive Dissonance

If you have ever tried to stop eating something you love, you have likely felt it in an emotional way. Cognitive dissonance is an emotional state that arises when you struggle with two opposing beliefs. Sticking to the food example:

“Chocolate makes me feel better.” vs. “Chocolate is not healthy for me.”

If you decide to reach for the chocolate box anyway, you will start thinking your way out of cognitive dissonance:

“I really need a serotonin boost right now.”
“I worked out today.”
“It’s better than an oily burger.”

To keep your peace of mind, no justification will be too absurd.

Whenever you're communicating, it is helpful to understand the workings of cognitive dissonance. It explains many of your communication partner’s reactions. It might also explain why they reject your idea, even if it will change their life for good.

In that case, company advisor Paul Morin stresses the importance of knowing the cracks in your opposite’s belief system. This is the strategy he suggests to overcome cognitive dissonance:

  1. Understand the individual dissonance. Understand the real risks the person faces by sticking to his attitude.
  2. Increase the cognitive dissonance. Ask a series of questions in an unobtrusive way that opens the person up for the idea that his belief system is flawed.
  3. Solve the cognitive dissonance. Make it clear that the probability of gaining benefits is much higher than being faced with potential risk. In a sales context, you can offer a risk-free trial or money back guarantee, to make the shift easier.

Overcoming cognitive dissonance is tricky, but possible.

The selected communication concepts in this post will strengthen the impact of your message. After all, your audience is more likely to accept your message when it’s presented in a compelling, clear format.