Browsing articles from "May, 2017"
May 6, 2017

What a village in India taught me about effective communication

Having spent nearly two decades working in communication, I find it very hard to “turn off” the desire to analyze and deconstruct communications I encounter throughout the day. Whether it’s looking at the flyer posted in the gym, reading the email I receive from my church, or scanning the bulletin board at my apartment complex, I’m always doing a rhetorical analysis of what I encounter:

  • What’s the purpose of this communication?
  • How well does it speak to the audience?
  • How well are environment/context of use considered for the communication?

In August 2016, I had the privilege of taking that mindset with me to India as part of a visit to the India Country Office for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work with some of our colleagues there. As part of the visit, I traveled to Bihar – a state in East India (the third largest by population, with around 100 million people).

The foundation has partnered with the Government of Bihar to improve infant and maternal mortality rates by addressing healthcare challenges linked to infrastructure, staffing, transportation and more. One way we are partnering is by helping improve the quality and quantity of front-line worker (FLW) interactions with mothers, from the community level to individual households.

FLWs are Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANM), Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers, and Angan Wadi Workers (AWW) who, along with community volunteers, provide life-saving services, advice, referrals, linkages, diagnoses and information in locations that are hard for traditional medical providers to reach. The women receiving information rely on them because they are from the community, know the community, and have received special training that will help them improve the quality of their pregnancies and births.

While this work was inspiring work to see in action, what was also interesting to me was to see the role communication played and how the FLWs used communications principles to do their inspiring work. So while there, I performed an extremely rudimentary rhetorical analysis in my head.

The trainings and conversations I observed took place in a multi-purpose, community gathering space where the women from the village gathered in one half of the room, seated on the floor for the discussion. In the other half of the room, many of the village children gathered; this is important to note because it speaks to the potential for distractions in a noisy and high traffic environment.

The FLWs managed the training session and conversation by using a multi-media approach that addressed multiple learning styles.

 The approaches I observed included:
  • Facilitated dialogue – Prepared lessons were delivered by the FLW, with completion tracked manually on printed sheets of paper.
  • Print – Laminated, numbered lesson guides were used by the FLW to guide the conversation. The women also had printed cards that corresponded with the numbered guides and covered topics such as breast feeding, treating a fever, how to administer medicine, hand washing, etc. It is worth noting that because literacy rates are low in the villages, the guides relied heavily on graphics and low on text.
  • Digital – A mobile phone was used by the FLW to access a recording of a female physician who, as a credible and trusted source, reinforced the messages shared by the FLW. The recording corresponded with the numbered lesson in the laminated guide.

The women appeared to respond well to the materials, were very engaged, and some shared stories about how the conversations had helped them manage their lives.

My crude rhetorical analysis hardly does justice to the complexity of the work being done, and the difficulty it takes to construct a user-focused conversation that is mindful of environmental constraints. However, it serves as a reminder for communicators about the kinds of questions we should ask ourselves when we are creating messages and communications materials:

  1. Who is the audience and how much do we know about them?
  2. What is the real reason for sharing the information?
  3. Where and when will the audience consume the information?
  4. What do we know about the environment where the information will be consumed? What assumptions are we making?
  5. How do we intend for messengers to use the materials? Specifically for managers and leaders, how well are we considering the environment where they will share the information? How confident are we that it will be easy to use?

Sometimes, you have to go far away from home to get the best inspiration. I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to India and was inspired without expecting it. However, leaving “home” doesn’t have to mean getting on a plane. In whatever organization you work, it means getting away from the desk, interacting with the audience, and seeing first-hand what it’s like to receive and use the communications and materials you are creating.

In 2017, I plan to do more work away from the desk…what about you?