Forget data science. We need communication science.
[I believe words and music are inextricably intertwined. For a fuller reading experience, here is the soundtrack for this Chapter. For the fullest reading experience, you can listen to me reading it out loud.]
Since the birth of the World Wide Web, we have become completely obsessed with digital technology. It’s reached the point where the most highly-valued skills of the 21st century are software engineering and data science — reflected in both salaries (literal value) and Glassdoor job rankings (perceived value). Everyone wants to learn how to code. Everyone wants to add ‘machine learning’ to their CV. Everyone wants to launch, or work for, an AI-driven company.
I myself fell into this trap, multiple times. More on that in a later Chapter.
We need to stop obsessing over data science. We need to start obsessing over communication science — because communication is the most important skill of the 21st century. And now, due to the mind-boggling multitude of complex problems we are facing (not least of which is COVID-19), we need it more than ever before.
Governments around the world have failed to communicate both the implementation and easing of lockdown rules — engendering mass confusion, outrage, and the further spread of the virus. Organisations have disappointed and angered their customers, users, and employees. Some #BlackLivesMatter protests have been anything but peaceful. Fake news is threatening our media systems and democratic institutions. Echo chambers are amplified by the design of social networks. Marketing has become synonymous with selling the dream, not the reality.
Let’s face it — communication is broken in every single domain. And we need to fix it, fast. Because the complex problems on the table before us (pandemic-inducing viruses, economic recessions, climate change, socio-political movements, terrorism, cybersecurity, and globalisation, to name but a few) are going to get more complex. And they can only be addressed through the collaboration of diverse groups. The more diverse, and the more multidimensional the diversity, the better.
Because we are all inextricably interconnected. The systems we have constructed have bound us together more closely than ever before, on top of the natural systems that have always existed. We might think we are independent, especially in the lead-up to Brexit, but nothing can be further from the truth. COVID-19 has illuminated our interconnectedness to the extreme, and the consequences are lethal. [Quantum entanglement is relevant here: what Einstein dismissed as ‘spooky action at a distance’. 21st century technology has allowed us to prove Einstein wrong. The ‘spooky action’ is real, at every single level — from particles to people to planets. And it is beautiful.]
The greatest irony is that while our connectedness is now centre stage, and while we recognise the importance of diversity, information silos are becoming more and more entrenched. What we have is diversity in principle, but not in action. The collaboration we so desperately need is only possible when we have a deep understanding of perspectives completely different from our own — which leads us to the definition of communication.
What is communication?
Communication is not (just) about putting words on a page, giving a speech, or sending a tweet. It is about transferring information from your brain to someone else’s, through whatever means possible. When thoughts and feelings are both transmitted, it is all the more resonant.
Communication is also about building and maintaining relationships, which in turn engenders trust. But because of our diverse backgrounds and experiences, we literally do not perceive the same information in the same way. There is always an arc of distortion between intention (what we want to communicate) and impact (how our audience interprets our communication). Even those with whom we are most intimate cannot fully understand us all of the time; Virginia Woolf captured this perfectly in her debut novel, The Voyage Out.
Too much of our communication is reactive, not proactive. When it is uttered, it is too late. The trust has been broken. The relationship is no more. All it takes is a moment, to make or break a connection.
Communication is not just about the presence of information, but also about its absence. Not communicating is communication. We all too often forget this.
Communication breaks down silos and boundaries. It unites. It connects. It is the force that literally enables quantum entanglement. It is spooky magic.
Communication creates what political scientist Joseph Nye calls soft power. In the information age we live in, soft power is what matters most. The power of persuasion, as opposed to brute force (hard power). The power of attraction, as opposed to coercion. The power of winning hearts and minds. The ability to influence through relationships and networks (which I define as relationships at scale). [I had the pleasure and privilege of moderating the Q&A of Joseph Nye’s talk for the Ditchley Foundation last month.]
And the science of communication allows us to communicate effectively over and over again — at scale.
What is communication science?
Before I define communication science, let me take the opportunity to excuse the title of this Chapter. Communication is, of course, integral to data science. It is what distinguishes a bona fide data scientist from a data analyst pretending to be a data scientist. So we shouldn’t fully forget about data science.
As a matter of fact, two months ago I chaired a webinar on data science research. Although the questions I planned for the five panellists were focussed on computational skills and methodologies, the answers I received consistently emphasised the humanities and social sciences. Communication came up again, and again, and again. And I am so glad it did. [It must be noted that I invited four of the five panellists, and had met two of them through the Oxford Internet Institute, so the focus on human behaviour was not entirely surprising. But still.]
Data science, however, is not the same thing as communication science. The reason I am advocating communication science as a 21st century discipline is because it emphasises our humanity above the data we generate. It is human-first, not data-first. It unites qualitative and quantitative approaches. ‘Data’ and ‘science’ both have strong quantitative connotations. ‘Communication’, on the other hand, has a qualitative edge.
Science is appropriate because, thanks to the internet, the impact of communication can now be quantified at an unprecendented scale. Natural Language Processing is an entire academic field dedicated to this. On the industry side of the fence, marketing is becoming increasingly data-driven: every category of messaging is being A/B tested, from social media posts to email subject lines to CTA buttons on landing pages.
My DPhil research at the Oxford Internet Institute was literally a four-year exercise in measuring the rhetoric and resonance of Brexit tweets. Which content and context features influence engagement (and does content even matter)? How can messages be expressed and delivered most effectively? I collected millions of tweets, hand-coded thousands for the presence of rhetorical features, and trained machine learning models to detect them in my overall dataset. To complement this data science approach with human insights, I interviewed over 20 campaign leaders from both sides of the debate to understand the strategies they were consciously using.
One of the main contributions of my research is a rhetorical framework that can be used to improve the resonance of any message. I apply it every single day to every single form of communication that I produce or consume (including this one).
A communication scientist, then, thinks strategically and systematically about communication. Communication scientists constantly strive to reduce the arc of distortion between intent and impact, in as many different contexts as possible. They build and test frameworks and hypotheses with data, both qualitative and quantitative. They adjust their communication based upon audience feedback. They create new frameworks and hypotheses. And so on and so forth.
Just as data science can be learned, communication science can be learned. There are many resources out there: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is an excellent start. There are many frameworks to play with: Radical Candour and the Johari Window, to name but two.
But before you dive into any of the frameworks, you must understand the one secret formula that undergirds all communication. This formula allows us to not only measure, but also control the impact of our communication.
Here it is:
Happiness = Reality / Expectation
It really is that simple. Communication is directly related to happiness because it sets expectations. The more accurate our expectations are compared with reality, the greater the likelihood of happiness. Which means that through communication, we can literally engineer happiness. This means that communication scientists can (and should) also be called happiness engineers. [Note again the blend of qual and quant in the title.]
There’s one more very important element to mention: design. The rhetoric of design is far more powerful than the rhetoric of content; the medium quite literally defines the message. But more on this in a future Chapter.
What are we doing wrong?
The fundamental issue we have is that we aren’t aware we have a communication problem. We’re not talking about it nearly enough. We don’t recognise its importance to the extent that it needs to be recognised.
It’s even worse than that, actually: we think we’re doing a decent job. What we fail to realise is that communication is not a tick-box exercise. Just because you have a communications manager does not mean that you are doing it. Just because you are doing it does not mean that you are doing it well.
In organisations, two barriers get in the way:
- The communications manager does not have access to accurate and multidimensional information, due to the presence of silos. Crossfunctional teams might be put in place to reduce silos, but more often than not they are dysfunctional in practise.
- The communications manager does not have enough leverage to influence process, and thereby culture, change—they are usually boxed into one function (most often HR or Marketing).
An even more fundamental issue is our education deficit: communication is not embedded in school curricula. English literature is not communication. Political science is not communication. History is not communication. The biggest irony is that even university degrees in communication do not represent communication.
In short: we do not teach communication, and yet we expect everyone to know what it is and how to do it. This is absolutely terrifying.
The impact of this lack of education is all around us, and we feel it every day. Have you ever left a work meeting feeling worse than you did when you entered? Or read an email that annoyed you? Or watched a presentation that didn’t engage you? Or had an argument with a friend or loved one? So many of these negative feelings could have been prevented had communication been better. It really is as simple as that (but communication is not so simple).
We are overly obsessed with the content, the what of what we are communicating. We hardly pay any attention to the how, or the for whom — our audience. We have no empathy for them.
The education is there, but it is extremely restricted. One of the most eye-opening (or should I say ear-opening) courses I have ever taken is the peer support training programme delivered by the University of Oxford’s Counselling Service. It basically taught me the value of active listening, and how to put it into practise. It transformed the way I approached conversations. Unfortunately, only a handful of students from each college could enroll; it was not delivered at scale.
Language is our playground. It should be a source of joy, not pain. But we are not playing — the swings are empty, the slides are rusty, the bouncy castle is no more. To put it even more dramatically, we are lost souls wandering around in a desert, and there is no oasis in sight. [I trust I don’t have to spell out why these metaphors should resonate on multiple levels.]
Suffice it to say, there is a hell of a lot to be done.
Who is the Rhetoric Doctor?
Allow me, finally, to introduce myself. My given name is Yin Yin Lu. In the Western world, I often go by ‘Yin’ or a variation thereof (‘Yinneth’ being my favourite). In the Eastern world, I am 律茵茵. My chosen name for all creative writing purposes is Perrine Wynkel (under this identity, I fail to maintain a blovel).
I am a creator, communicator, and connector. According to my academic degrees, I am a ‘Master of the English Language’ and a ‘Doctor of the Internet’. Professionally, I am or have been a product (marketing) manager, project manager, digital marketer, researcher, writer, speaker, editor, founder, mentor, and teacher. Language captivates me, particularly in the context of digital media.
I am a Transatlantic Nutcase. I exist in a quantum state betwixt the United States and the United Kingdom. My accent showcases this perfectly. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
To make matters more complex, English is not my first language. I was bullied in Sheffield for not speaking it when I moved there from China at the age of 3. I was bullied again in Piscataway, New Jersey for speaking it with a British accent when I moved there at the age of 7. I was teased mercilessly when I first moved to Oxford for speaking it with an American accent at the age of 19. Now, when I speak, people are just confused.
I whimsify things — whimsy is my middle name. I was a Bridesmaid at the Wedding of Irony and Circumstance (perhaps you were there too). I’ll explain more in a future Chapter, but for now I’ll tell you this: I wrote a document for work last week entitled ‘The Gospel of Mark’. Yes, I have rewritten the Gospel of Mark. No, I do not work for a church. The document is 16 pages long, including a very welcoming cover page that links to two different soundtracks. And yes, at least three more Gospels are forthcoming.
I am extremely emotive. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. I wear my heart on my face.
Why do I call myself a Rhetoric Doctor? There are two key reasons.
- I literally have a DPhil in Information, Communication, and the Social Sciences from the Oxford Internet Institute (believe it or not, I am a Dr). And as mentioned above, my research focussed on persuasion in the context of new media.
- Doctors fix broken bodies and cure people. Rhetoric has a bad rap these days — it’s weighed down by negative connotations (one glance at the media headlines says it all: ‘divisive rhetoric’, ‘fear rhetoric’, ‘political rhetoric’). I want to restore rhetoric’s former reputation, to bring back its glory. Aristotle would be proud.
Why is she writing this now?
2020 is a meaningful year for me. It is literally a new decade: I turned 30 three months ago. And with a new decade comes a new mindset and new responsibilities. I was a taker in the 2010s: I spent most of it devouring knowledge in ivory towers. I was absolutely famished and loath to leave the bubble I was in.
Now I am a giver. The bubble has more than popped (for a start, I’ve left Oxford for Reading). I want to share everything I’ve learned with the world, and then some. I want to learn through giving, not through taking. I spent my 20s trying to discover who I was. Now that I have established my identity (core strengths, weaknesses, and values), my voice is returning. And it is bigger, badder, and bolder than ever before.
I want to scream to the world about communication. I’ve got no time to lose. The decade has already begun. The clock is ticking. I’ve already lost half a year.
In fact, I did already scream to the world about communication four years ago — at the Divinity School of the University of Oxford. I wrote the talk an hour before I had to deliver it. I did not rehearse it. The below video captures the result.
The seeds of this Chapter were planted back then. They’ve just taken horrendously long to germinate. But now they’re sprouting like mad.
I want to start a communication revolution. I want us to begin communicating about how we communicate. I want us to expand old frameworks and create new frameworks, to measure impact in radically novel ways, to redefine how we define impact. And I will do it through both Medium and Yinpowerment. This is Chapter One.
I can’t do it alone. If you have a story of an epic communication fail (#commsfail), or an epic communication success, or a random theory/observation about communication, I’d love to hear it. I’d love to share your ideas and experiences as well as my own.
Thank you so much for devoting your time and attention to this Chapter — both immensely invaluable resources in this day and age. I hope it’s surpassed your expectations, and that I’ve successfully engineered your happiness over the past 12 minutes!
I am already writing Chapter Two.