This is the opposite of a nuts-n-bolts post, in some ways. It’s a “foundations” post, describing one of the underlying theories of communication that I’ve found useful.
It’s not useful because it’s rock-solid disprovable or experimentally predictive. We’re not talking Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics or Relativity.
But because the field of performance and presentation can get so bogged down in tiny prescriptive details – do this, don’t so that, sound like this, look like that – it’s helpful to have a few root-level ideas to turn to when we’re getting overwhelmed by complexity.
One of my favorites: meaningful communication is the balance of old and new.
Part of my overly-fancy education included being miserable for a year at Wadham College, Oxford, England. It sucked but I learned tons. My 20th century classical music don dragged me through hideously complicated aesthetics and philosophy books. (Pity him, not me; he was a Jehovah’s Witness and I was truly God’s challenge for him.*) One of those books stuck with me: Leonard B. Meyer’s Music, The Arts, and Ideas, which has a section about Information Theory.
In the broadest view, I.T. looks at how we get information from a source to a target. In digital networking, that means we deal with language, coding, transmission, redundancy, decoding, and interpretation, among plenty of other concepts.
Same in people.
If your communication has too much new – like if you use jargon or a language your audience doesn’t know – then the communication falters. There’s not enough redundancy in the system, so it’s less effective than it could be. Over-my-head jargon might impress me, though, so maybe that’s valuable to you, more than delivering other content would be. (I had a teacher who said we’re always communicating SOMETHING, but it might be the fact that we’re shitty at communicating.)
Conversely if there’s not enough new – like say someone is simply repeating a mantra 108 times – then we are no longer primarily communicating. Instead we might be performing a RITUAL, which can also be valuable. Ritual is different from communication in the way that giving a homily is different from reciting the mass, though both are done by the priest within a single Catholic service. They both have meaning, but the communicative power of a homily is much greater.
Why should we care?
Because when we want to improve our performance and presentation, we can look at these two vectors – new and old – to see which one needs our attention at the moment.
Can I improve my communication by increasing the old?
Better understanding the language of the audience; using their jargon.
Using examples from their experience.
Repeating myself or rephrasing.
Using cultural references they recognize, e.g. through shared demographics, or business history.
Using pronunciation, speed, clothing, and gesture that they recognize as normative.
But maybe I want to improve my communication by increasing the new.
Creating moments of anticipation, uncertainty, and revelation
Presenting extremely unusual examples, or miracle stories
Proposing an appealing shift, or breaking a convention
Opening to spontaneous interaction
In many contexts, old against new is a tension that feels like a war.
Churches have long experienced a form of culture conflict called The Worship Wars, where advocates for music with drums and guitars exchange insults with organists and hymn-lovers. When I say “long experienced”, I mean it. According to Karen Armstrong, there were New vs. Old complaints in ancient Asian sacrifice practices – “No, no, it has to be THIS kind of goat!” through early Judaic ceremonies “You kids and your newfangled shofars, harrumph!”, from the Nicaean councils up through today.
However in his book “Beyond the Worship Wars” Thomas Long re-frames Old vs. New as “Vital and Faithful”. Note the lack of “versus”.
This is a gorgeous way to think about your communication.
How is what I’m doing vital – alive, active, flexible, in motion, exciting, juicy, green and growing? And how is it faithful – true, solid, strong, accurate, respected, supported, reliable, and real?
And again, it’s about the audience’s definitions, not mine. It doesn’t matter if it’s old to me. My audience might still need a primer. And it doesn’t matter if my ideas are lightning-bolt thrilling to me, unless I can complete the electrical circuit and light YOU up, too.
*I don’t remember that professor’s name, but I do remember the book. Now THAT’s a teacher.