The Misunderstood Art of Overcommunication

Most of the time, what is said or written is seldom communicated. A bulk of it is lost in translation, misinterpreted, or immediately forgotten. In order to convey our intended message, a viable solution is overcommunication. But overcommunication is often misunderstood as repeating the same thing over and over again. It cannot be further from the truth.

Each of us live in our own worlds with varying priorities. The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think. They’re often far too absorbed in their own subjective experiences to give their full attention to your talk, email, or presentation. Least of all, you can never expect them to pick up on cues related to your intentions.

The only way to get your idea across is by “overcommunicating” it. A bad example of overcommunication is saying something over and over again. No matter how well your intention is or how strong your message, it is irritating, and does more harm than good.

People love things that are different, even if they aren’t novel. Most of all, people despise the obvious and the boring. Therefore, to overcommunicate our ideas, we have to find ways to make them non-obvious. A good way to achieve the same is to spice things up via narratives, phrases, and labels.

Narratives are real-life anecdotes, stories, parables, or fables that reinforce what we are trying to say. For example, famous business lessons are conveyed using case-studies which run like a movie with a happy or tragic ending.

An excellent story (with a happy ending) is that of the Airbnb guys in their early days. Brian Chesky gave a talk in 2010 where he narrates the first 1,000 days of Airbnb when they were powerless and obscure. How they racked up unpaid credit card bills to cover expenses, and how they sold packaged cereals to get themselves out of debt, thereby calling themselves “cereal” entrepreneurs.

The story is fun and super interesting, yes, but the whole point of the story was to communicate that creativity solves problems. But instead of saying just one sentence, Chesky “overcommunimates” the idea with an interesting narrative. The resulting impact is 10x.

But you don’t necessary need a long narrative to make an impact every time. Often, powerful phrases can get the job done as well. For example, rather than saying something boring and obvious such as, “Don’t give up”—something that people have heard so many times that they’ve grown numb to it—a popular Y Combinator phrase is, “Be like cockroaches.”

In this one short phrase, there’s a good advice wrapped in a powerful analogy. Even though you are saying less, you are definitely overcommunicating this idea with a powerful and catchy phrase.

Another form of overcommunication is labelling the phrase with a catchy term. If you refer being like cockroaches as having a “Cockroach Mentality” it works equally well. This is very powerful in written communication.

Overcommunication doesn’t necessarily mean saying the same thing in different ways. The core idea is to say it in a way that it makes tremendous impact. And a good impact can easily be felt. Why else do you think catchphrases such as, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,” or “Hasta la vista, baby” or are so popular? People love a good line.

Now, this needs practice; a good deal of it. And it’s impossible to come up with stories, phrases, or label on the spot. This needs preparation and planning as well.

Your first and foremost job is to be on the lookout for relevant stories and examples. This not only means reading a lot but also drawing connections to whatever you are trying to communicate.

To overcommunicate well, you also need a shift in mentality. You have to start by accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re talking about. Therefore, if you want someone to completely understand something, you need to appeal to their senses in the clearest terms possible. You have to make them feel rather than making them understand.

Therefore, being subtle about your ideas is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by using stories, phrases, and labels to overcommunicate your views. And don’t forget to add a pinch of hyperbole. Everyone loves drama. Use it to your advantage.

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