Impact V Nuance: Communicating in the Digital World

As with so much to do with human behaviour, there are strengths, and there are strengths overdone.

We see it all the time. The person who can really master the detail needs to be mindful of not overwhelming others; the person with a facility for humour needs to avoid being too flippant; the person who can cut through the proverbial BS and speak directly needs to watch out for not being too hard, too strident, or perhaps too binary at times.

And the periods of lockdown showed us how very true that is of communication generally, and specifically communication online. I want to talk through six different ways that I’ve observed this.

The first, and the subject of this piece, is as old as the internet. The point is that the online world gives us myriad ways to reach people – through email, through video, through blogs; meanwhile, digital tools makes us all video and music producers, web designers, bloggers, vloggers and podcasters.

And of course we have the platforms to host all that stuff and also to market it to our long-suffering friends and to the friends of our friends, and hopefully to their friends too. And studies have shown that if you can reach over 10% of a specific community, then what you sent out there will keep on spreading. Like a virus.

So you can have a real impact, an extraordinary reach, without needing the resources of a corporation, with its marketing teams and its agencies under contract. Among today’s stars and influencers are people who found their audience literally from their spare bedrooms. Or just their bedrooms.

And so it is that, without all of this ‘facility’, without digital, the damage to our organisations would have been dramatically greater during lockdown; the fact that we’ve been able to keep going – talking, making decisions – has been due to digital.

“Studies have shown that if you can reach over 10% of a specific community, then what you sent out there will keep on spreading. Like a virus...”

But the flip-side of this ease is that it can be very easy to forget that that our communication is largely stripped of nuance. Online, it is a 2D world. It’s the equivalent of gesturing through a car window. You can’t convey subtlety, or not as well.

The outrage we feel at, or cause by, a seemingly insensitive email wouldn’t have happened if we’d sat down and talked something through. And rather than picking up the phone, we respond, stabbing out something we think is salient but which is probably pernicious, answering something that wasn’t really there in the first place. And so it quickly escalates, making a keyboard warrior of us all – brave online in a way that we wouldn’t be in person, rudely gesturing through the windscreen in a way we wouldn’t have done if we were sitting next to that person.

It’s the same in forums, or in the comments section of an online newspaper, in a WhatsApp group – or anywhere people are likely to meet and interact online. If you want to test this idea, try discussing politics on Facebook, or whether there should be a new Waitrose in town, or something big like Black Lives Matter.


And this phenomenon is multiplied in at least three ways. The first way is by the closed groups we form – the groupthink echo chambers where we bring our own choirs together and essentially preach to them. Dissenters beware. So much access to different perspectives, so brutally reduced to a single view on the world.

The second is a long-recognised phenomenon to do with what’s called computer-mediated communication (CMC). Through various simulations, we know people are more like at best to exaggerate, at worst to lie, when communicating through technology compared with talking face to face or even writing something on paper and handing it over.

The third is to do with what happens when we make a public commitment to a certain position or viewpoint. Once we’ve done that, it can take hell and high-water to get us to change our minds. This is something that Robert Cialdini talks about very readably in his book Influence: the psychology of persuasion, citing a number of studies that show it in action. We dig our heels in and act, sometimes irrationally, and against our own interests, in defence of an openly stated position. And the thing is that we’re making more of these public commitments than ever before because of the ease of doing so online and that nature of the platforms we participate in.

“Through various simulations, we know people are more like at best to exaggerate, at worst to lie, when communicating through technology compared with talking face to face or even writing something on paper and handing it over.”

In summary:

Online is a great place to have impact, to have reach, and to be able to interact across a number of platforms and channels – literally helping us to keep our world turning during this unprecedented period.

But beware the lack of nuance, beware the echo chamber that can shut out other views of the world, beware the vehemence of the strongly held opinion because we mustn’t lose something that is so precious for humankind: our ability to talk, to collaborate, to enjoy difference and come together with others in a way that makes us greater than the sum of our parts.

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