Separate the signal from the noise

Separate the signal from the noise

Separate the signal from the noise

I went to a beautiful wedding the other day. I’ve been to many beautiful weddings but this one was special. The Minister conducting it had a sense of proportion and a sense of humour.

The solemn bits were solemn enough but the whole fifty-minute service was light and joyful, as gorgeous as the couple getting married. It lifted my spirits and the spirits of all those who attended. Afterwards, I thought about it. Why was it so successful?

Many church services, including many weddings, are mostly rather ponderous noise. I don’t mean loud noise, though they are sometimes that, too. I mean rituals and mantras of a symbolic but often rather meaningless sort. What is a church service – wedding or otherwise – for? It is to share a hope, sometimes a belief, that our lives have meaning above the daily routine and that there is something beyond what we can yet see as a purpose for them.

All too often communications contain a lot of noise and very little message. It is so easy to churn out words that we increasingly do so without thinking. My early years in advertising were spent working on the question “How does advertising work?” In the 1950s nobody had really addressed that and I was fortunate to have an enlightened boss who said that we ought to find out before our competitors – or before someone declared that it didn’t.

My simple research showed that all communications have two stages to them. First is the message, what you want to say. Second is the medium, how you want to say it. Marshall McLuhan then screwed the whole thing up by declaring that the medium was the message. Of course, he didn’t mean it like that. The medium does contribute to the message but it is not the message. And today the confusion between the two has led to many false and misunderstood messages. The work I started was developed much more professionally by Andrew Ehrenberg. His work is still fundamental and standard to communications theory.

A skill needed more now than ever is that of separating the signal from the noise. The noise arises partly from hyperbole involved in promotion, partly from a wish by many to validate their jobs by inventing words to obscure meaning and suggest a spurious superiority. Lucy Kellaway has made a valiant effort to overturn the trend to nonsensical jargon – and has admitted defeat. The forces of obfuscation have overwhelmed her, she says.

The best way to deal with this seemingly intractable problem is to do what one of our Terrific Mentor programmes describes as “Sum it up; spit it out; make it stick”. This requires thought to get to first base. And here is where we find the catch for many people. There is a misconception that thinking is a slow process, the slower the better. The opposite is true. The brain works better when at full speed than when at rest. That is why we all need stimulus, call it competition if you like, to ginger our brains into working faster.

The process can be quite a painful one. You have to get used to making mistakes and learning from them. Your creative juices must learn to flow more generously, your vocabulary, to become more lucid. You will be seen as more intelligent, most of the time and more stupid, some of it. Above all you capture the confidence that is powder in a thinking shell. You become an interested, interesting human being.

There is no greater accolade than that.

The world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape
Bono, musician and social activist (b. 10 May 1960)