March 02, 2010

On the nature of perception

I have two stories to tell you about perception (and the reason that so many things that appear straightforward to you don't appear straight forward to other folks). One of these happened to me, the other one I read in a book.

Here's the one I read. A salesman was trying to convince his boss that selling should involve going out to people's houses on a Sunday. You would make the appointment with them and be guaranteed they would be home. His boss - a rather upper class gentlemen - couldn't see this idea working. His reply 'This will never work. Sunday is the day everyone is out watching the polo matches"

The following one is true and happened to me.

A number of years ago I had a casual spot lecturing at Purdue University in Indiana. A good friend of mine was on the faculty and asked me to come in once a semester and give my talk 'Project management in a multicultural, multi-lingual environment' The whole idea was to try and instill in some of the computing students he was teaching that things need to be looked at from a different perspective. The reason this example sticks in my mind is for two reasons

1) The first time I did this talk I was introduced, rather tongue in cheek, as 'Lord Gary Of London'. I duly did my talk, wandered up and down the aisles asking questions to the students, got through my slides and - with a sigh - asked the group if they had any questions on anything they had heard in the last 45 minutes. A sea of hands shot up. I picked a young lady from the front row. 'Is it true your a Lord' she asked? I told her that I wasn't and if I was I would be addressed as either Lord Comerford or Sir Gary not Lord Gary.

2) The next time I did the course I managed to get my friend to introduce me as just 'Gary' and I repeated the same thing as last time: did my talk, wandered up and down the aisles asking questions to the students, got through my slides, only this time I spent a little bit more time talking about one particular aspect of the role which was travel. In particular I talked about the social implications brought on by working in another language. As part of this I mentioned that I had done a lot of business in Frankfurt. "In fact," I said, "I think I've been to Frankfurt over 400 times". At that point a couple of the local boys from Purdue shook their heads as if to say 'So what?'. They didn't seem that impressed. This was coming from a nation where the vast majority of the inhabitants do not posess a passport and many have never left the continental United States.

It was then that I realised the error of my ways.

"When I say 'Frankfurt' I mean Frankfurt, Germany. Not Frankfort, Indiana" I told them. Frankfort, Indiana is about 30 miles away from the Purdue campus.

The morale of the story is that regardless of what you say people will hear things differently. it's the reason there are different perceptions. It's the reason you can listen to an idea from a totally motivated speaker who thinks this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and think 'Huh?'. That's the reason the sales manager in the first story couldn't get his head around the idea of visiting people at home on Sundays - he had a different frame of reference to the salesman. In my Purdue example it was forgetting that the frame of reference of the students I was talking to was limited  in the geographic scale. When they heard 'Frankfurt' they immediately thought 'Frankfort, IN' instead of 'Frankfurt, Germany'.

Remember this when taking to anyone. Just because you say things clearly, and just because they hear exactly what you say, doesn't mean they understand or interpret the words in the same way you do. It's true what they say: If you stand in the middle of a public library and shout 'Fire' people will look at you like you are crazy. If you stand in the middle of an aircraft aisle and shout exactly the same thing at 30,000 feet the reaction will be totally different.

But the key thing to remember in both of these cases is that the problem with the perception does not belong to the listener, it belongs to the speaker. It is up to the speaker to realise that there is a perception issue and to correct it. Hence when I spoke to the Purdue students I was able to clarify the geographic location as Germany not Lafayette County, Indiana.

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