Business is a conversation

Marco Polo
Public domain image. Marco Polo doing business.

Lost in the mists of time our ancestors came up with an astonishing idea. Better to trade with neighboring tribes than to club them over the head and take their stuff.

Trade has flourished ever since.

In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo, along with his father, Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, went on a 24-year business trip to the Far East. He later recorded the journey with the help of a ghostwriter. You can just imagine the out-of-office message tacked to Polo Inc’s front door.

Today, you can’t get away with being out of the office for two decades. Business trips are much shorter, or even eliminated entirely with the help of videoconferencing. Technology will always change. Yet the high value of communication remains constant.

Idea exchange

It’s easy to think of marketing as a modern invention. But it isn’t. A Florentine businessman, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, published his business book, Pratica della mercatura (Practice of Marketing) in 1349. In it he wrote of the need to keep communication channels open and for safe passage across the ancient trade routes from Cathay (China) across India, Africa, and Europe. The marketplace has always been a place for traders to exchange, not only goods and services, but new ideas, administrative processes, and learning.

And this is still true today. Clarity matters. Effective communicators listen for not just what’s being said, but what isn’t being said. Listening, understanding, and economy of expression are the hallmarks of great communicators.

Business communication is functional

To say what you mean, and mean what you say is only one-half of the equation. You might know what you mean, but does the person you’re speaking to?

Poor communication is expensive. Ask anyone who has had a bad experience with outsourcing customer service operations. Misunderstandings cost money. You can’t be an effective leader without being an accomplished communicator.

Marco Polo took his time. He learned the languages of countries he visited. He paid attention to differences, local customs. His observations were shaped by the practical concerns of the merchant/businessman. What goods and services does the district produce? Do they use paper money or coins? Do they bury or burn their dead? What are houses made of?

The results of these questions are sometimes amazing. However, this list may appear dull to twenty-first century readers who are used to a more lively writing style. How you say what you want to say makes the difference between engaging your listener/reader or having them abandon you.

Be kind to your reader/listener

Albert Einstein said that things should be as simple as possible but no simpler. This is because cognitive effort can sap your energy. Who hasn’t felt the effects of concentrating for long periods of time? You can avoid listener fatigue by speaking to values, principles, and beliefs your readers already understand.  And when you do present new information, use metaphor to speak in terms of something already familiar. Yet the task of making the complex simple is anything but straightforward. Oversimplify and you miss the point. Make it too complex and you exhaust your readership.

Trust me, I’m an expert

Noam Chomsky, a linguist, cognitive scientist, and political critic, once remarked that any news item in the media had to be predigested by its audience; otherwise it would not be understood, and therefore rejected. Communication has to “make sense.” It has to fit into a preexisting belief about the world.

When Marco Polo returned to Venice, few people believed his stories of opulence and sophistication of the East. Generations before Kublai Khan the Mongol Empire ran a vast postal system. Thirteenth century Europeans just couldn’t get their head around such advanced communication systems. They couldn’t imagine what Marco Polo was talking about because they didn’t have any such experience.

When we don’t have direct experience, then understanding is based on trust and credibility of the communicator. Think about who you will listen to? Who will you ignore? How do you decide who has credibility and who doesn’t?

Trade is the lifeblood of an economy. Communication is an art that will always be in high demand. Whether speaking or writing, your ability to generate and organize your thoughts—and so persuade others—will only get better through practice.

Business is a conversation. Know how to speak its language.