Having read more about reciprocity than I ever had expected, I have come to realize the importance of this ancient and simple reflex that we developed eons ago to become the only hyper-social species without all being brothers and sister, on explaining why we behave the way we do in 21st century business environments.
The most recent aha moment came when I read “How We Know What Isn’t So,” by Thomas Gilovich, in which he describes communications as a reciprocal process – saying:
Because communication or conversation is a reciprocal process, it is not surprising that many of the needs and goals of the speaker and listener are complementary. This is well illustrated by one of the most basic goals of communication, to ensure that the act of communication is “justified.” For the speaker, this means, among other things, that his or her message should be worthy of the listener’s attention; for the listener, it means that the interaction must in some way be worthwhile. To satisfy this basic goal, it is necessary that certain preconditions be met. The message should be understandable (i.e., not assume too much knowledge on the part of the listener), and yet not be laden with too many needless details (i.e., not assume too little knowledge on the part of the listener).
Of course, that is what most companies do not understand. And that is, not surprisingly, also what many advertisers have understood for a long time. For communications to truly work, it needs to be reciprocal – there has to be value in it somewhere. Value can come in the form of warnings (i.e, don’t use that product, it doesn’t really work), useful information (which in most cases is different from product specs), and of course entertainment (nothing beats a good story or a funny one).
Throughout most of the 20th Century corporate communications’ history, however, communications was not a reciprocal process – because companies did not have to. The only information you could get about their products and services came from them, and the only thing they wanted from you was your money. They did not care whether the communication was truly based on a “I help you now, and I know you will help me later” basis – because they did not have to.
So now that we have companies with real bad habits and a platform of participation called social media that allows people to talk to other people in conversations that are truly reciprocal – it is no wonder that 2/3rds of all buying decisions are made based on information not coming from the company selling the product or service.
The other important topic that Gilovich brings up in his book which has profound implications for corporate communicators is the effect of “sharpening” and “leveling” of messages – he says:
What the speaker construes to be the gist of the message is emphasized or “sharpened,” whereas details thought to be less essential are de-emphasized or “leveled.” Secondhand accounts often become simpler and “cleaner” stories that are not encumbered by minor inconsistencies or ambiguous details.
The message here being – keep your communications clean, retellable, and free of unnecessary details.