Last weekend, I was riding with my husband and daughter on a busy four-lane commercial street on a Sunday afternoon, on our way back from shopping for a toddler bed at IKEA. Typically while I’m riding as a passenger, I space out and stare out the window and neglect to pay attention to the negotiations and politics of the traffic. But I always do notice when my husband, a fast, impatient and often-annoyed driver, starts to twitch and weave because of the slow idiots in front of him.
In this case, he swerved into the left lane to pass a tiny electric car, behind which a line of cars had formed. “THAT’s the car holding up the traffic,” he growled.
As we passed, we both snorted a little as we read the large sign posted on the back of the little Smart Car: “25 mph is the maximum speed of this vehicle.”
“Gre-e-e-a-t,” my husband groaned, anguished to learn that someone on the road could be that intentionally disruptive to his desire to get everywhere as fast as possible.
I glanced over to the car to see who was driving. The first thing I noticed was an 8.5×11 sheet of paper pasted in the back driver-side window. The headline of the page said: “You don’t know how much you need to slow down. I want to help you.” The rest of the page was made up of copy too small to read from a distance.
The next thing I noticed was the woman driving: not a hippie with tangled hair, but a serene-looking, pleasantly smiling, middle-aged Asian woman, with a friend in her passenger seat — unflustered, unconcerned, proud of her decision to hold up the tailgating Californian consumers tapping their steering wheels irately behind her.
I thought about this woman several times after that, but especially as I was reading John Freeman’s essay, an excerpt from his book The Tyranny of E-Mail, in The Wall Street Journal last week. Freeman’s observation is that we’re all moving, reading, communicating faster and faster as we have the technology to support increased speed — that we place great emphasis and importance on the ability to do things fast, trying with all our might to become automatrons. But we’re not automatrons, after all; we’re human. And here is what is happening, according to Freeman:
In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns of the barrier between our work and personal lives since the notion of leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.
His argument is that, while the tools we use today to communicate more effectively are revolutionary and have changed the way we do business forever, the way we have reacted to them is seriously flawed. We are all scrambling to keep up with the larger quantities and breakneck speed of information by moving faster ourselves, working more, multitasking like crazy, forgetting to step away from the screen and foster real relationships — which, by the way, develop slowly, incrementally, over time. With all the recent frightening studies about the effects of multitasking, and how many different directions younger people are pulled in with all their technological devices, we know that this is only going to get worse before it gets better.
Slow down: you move too fast
Freeman calls for a return to slow communication. As communicators, we have a hand in this. Despite the pressures to go, go, faster pussycat! … we need to help pave the way for this. Why? Because contributing to it (as we are wont to do) will ultimately work against us, not only in our own personal and professional lives, but in the relationships we are able to form with our customers. Slow, thoughtful communications will help you stand out in a world of fragmented, hastily conceived ones.
We can make a difference by:
- Taking the time to say what we mean. Cut through the clutter. Stop jargoning everything up. Just say it, clearly, using real language and real words. Stop and think carefully about what you’re trying to say, and why you’re saying it. You’ll eliminate a lot of extraneous, half-developed jumble from the airwaves.
- Being more deliberate in how we communicate. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If you’re constantly scrambling to be out there in every channel and format just because it is available to you, you’re probably not stopping to think about your overall content strategy — or how your fast, here-I-am-look-at-me approach is helping you gain ground rather than overwhelm and alienate your audience. Think about what you want to say first, then choose the appropriate tool to help you say it — not the other way around.
- Being proud pioneers. My husband would roll his eyes at this, but I keep thinking about that slow driver’s proud and resolute expression as she drove her steady 25 mph that day. In our own car, things were a little more stressful — we’d been doing too many things that day in crowded spaces, we had too many other things on our to-do list, my daughter was whining, my husband was grumpy, we were all hungry and irritated. You have to admit the driver lady has a point: we don’t know how much we need to slow down.I find that I tend to absorb the cultures of my clients’ companies — to respond immediately because they’re always on Blackberry, to work late into the night because the rest of them do, to overcommunicate and overthink and waste a lot of time scrambling down the wrong path rather than insisting on thinking through the right path at the beginning. But I’m learning, and my advice is: refuse to be that person. Chart a new path. Be calm, be strategic, be deliberate, be thoughtful. Be slow. Don’t succumb to peer pressure. I’ve found that people respect the slowness, once they get over the initial shock of it (and maybe irritation at it), especially when they see that slow gets better results every time.