Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 30;   August 3, 2022: Significance Messages

Significance Messages

by

Communications about important matters must provide both the facts of a situation and the significance of those facts. The facts often receive adequate attention, but at times the significance of the facts is worthy of more attention than the facts.
A hotshot crew conducts burnout operations on the Derby Fire

A hotshot crew conducts burnout operations on the Derby Fire, Montana, 2006. Severe drought conditions had contributed to extreme fire behavior. We can regard a particular fire as the facts of the situation. And we could address the causes of fires by controlling access to forests or by managing the fuel supply. But if the significance of a string of fires is that they are consequences of climate change, limiting forest access or managing fuel supply are unlikely to have much effect on fire damage. The significance of climate change is more important than the facts of any particular fire.

Photo by Dan Borsum, NOAA-NWS-WR-WFO, Billings, Montana, September 6, 2006, courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

When we must communicate to others something very important, getting it right matters more than usual. Paradoxically, in those situations, we're at elevated risk of not getting it right. We dance around the points we most need to make. We find it difficult or scary to say what we really think. Instead, we lead our listeners close to the points we most need to make, and leave it to them to make the rest of the journey on their own. We give our listeners the information from which they might possibly deduce a significant message, but we don't articulate that message ourselves.

The significance of a set of facts is the way those facts relate to their consequences. The more complex and technical is the subject matter, the more important it is to be explicit about the significance of the information we're providing. I use the term significance messages to denote communications for which clearly stating the significance of their factual content is as important as clearly stating that factual content. Too often, we communicate facts, but we don't actually communicate the significance of what we're saying.

For significance messages, that is a recipe for communication disaster.

An example of a significance message

Project Marigold has encountered yet another setback. Its target date has been delayed twice already, and the project manager is preparing a report to the Executive Committee announcing a new, delayed, target date. The project manager has written a statement that makes the main point:

Version 1: Marigold's completion date needs to be delayed until Q2, due to changes in project objectives. Last month, for example, we reduced Marigold's budget by 15%. That change required that we reconfigure the PineTree Module, and the consultants we need for that work aren't available until next month.

This is a simple message, but it doesn't emphasize the fundamental point that project objectives have changed repeatedly. Here's a version that illustrates the importance of focusing on significance.

Version 2: Because we keep changing Project Marigold's objectives, we must expect impact on its completion date. The latest change, a 15% budget reduction, requires a delay until Q2, because we must reconfigure the PineTree Module. The consultants we need for that work aren't available until next month.

Both versions Too often, we communicate facts,
but we don't explicitly communicate
the significance of what we're saying
provide facts justifying the delays in Project Marigold. But Version 1 emphasizes the reasons for this particular delay. Version 2 emphasizes that there is a pattern of unstable project objectives that accounts for the series of delays. Version 2 also implies that unless Marigold's objectives stabilize, there will likely be more delays.

Last words

There's a simple test you can use to determine whether your communication has given sufficient emphasis to the significance of the facts you've provided. Read the text and ask the question, "So what?" If the answer to that question includes material not contained in your communication, then the significance of the data probably isn't well enough represented. Go to top Top  Next issue: Covert Verbal Abuse at Work  Next Issue

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