Purposeful communication – beyond shared understanding

Functional documents demand purposeful communication.

Traditional models of communication have understanding as the goal of communication. A person constructs an idea, codes into media (speech, text, images) transmits it. The receiver decodes and recomstructs as a new idea. Feedback and re-transmitting continues until both the sender and the receiver have the same idea. That is, the aim is a shared understanding. But that is not good enough for functional documents.

Purposeful communication starts by asking ‘Why?”.

The purpose of all business communication is to impact the thinking, attitudes or behaviour of readers in some way. We write to achieve a business purpose.

For example, marketing communication aims, ultimately, to get people to buy from you. Policies and procedures aimed to cause people to act in a particular way.

Purposeful communication goes beyond understanding and effectively transmitting ideas. It is more about influence.

So, the simplest way of testing any communication piece is to look at your audience. Are they doing what you wanted them to do? Are they moving towards doing what you want? Is your document achieving purpose?

Define purpose before you write

It’s best to know what you are trying to achieve before starting any activity. Your purpose in writing depends on the type of organisation you are.

For a business, its ultimate purpose is probably to make a profit. (But there will be other important things like ensuring its employees work safely, protecting the environment and the like.) A business will have other aims and objectives related to its purpose like increasing market share, keeping quality on track, or improving the skills of its employees. Effective purposeful communication will work to support these aims and objectives.

For a government agency or some other type of organisation, its purpose will be  related to fulfilling its mission. That mission may be to provide good roads or to administer taxes fairly or to provide care services to a part of the community. These organisations also have lower aims and objectives that are related to their higher purpose.

Workplace communication aims to enhance the business performance of the organisation. Purposeful communication enables and energises employees to carry out strategic intent. Communication is a means, not an end.

Can you know a document will achieve purpose before it is published?

Sensible user testing gives good insights and can help you avoid reckless writing. Communication products, like all products, should be tested before being released.

Can you always define purpose up front?

Purpose sometimes changes as you get into a project. Often you start with something particular in mind but it changes as you become more familiar with the needs of the user and the evolving environment.