Eric Krueger

High Bandwidth Connections

5-minute read | last updated 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Fiber
A fast fiber-optic internet connection. It makes things load quickly, and isn't that a nice feeling?
(Photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash)

The medium of a message dictates how quickly information is communicated. You can think about this as "conversational bandwidth". The higher the bandwidth of a conversation, the more information that can be communicated. Roughly, it goes like this:

  1. In Person (Highest)
  2. Video Call (Medium-High)
  3. Phone Call (Medium-Low)
  4. Text/Email (Low)
  5. Letter (Very Low)
  6. Carrier Pigeon? (Lowest)

We often fall into the trap of mismatching complex/high-risk conversations with low(er) bandwidth communication mediums. This is a big mistake. You should match the bandwidth of the conversation to the importance of the message and the risk of miscommunication.

Why?

The higher the bandwidth of the conversation, the more information is communicated and the less time the other person spends confused. This is because at the highest bandwidth levels, most communication is nonverbal, and feedback is faster. For example:

Email (low bandwidth):

If someone misinterprets an email you send, to clear the confusion they must:

They're confused from the time they read the email until they (hopefully) read your response to their question. In all likelihood, this is going to be hours (if not days).

In-Person (high bandwidth):

If the person sitting across the table from you misinterprets you, the time that they spend confused ends when they interrupt you with a question and you answer it. This is measured in seconds and minutes.

The difference is obvious. If you're optimizing for understanding and the risk of miscommunication is high, it makes no sense to choose a low bandwidth medium.

Shortcuts & Crutches

Why do we ever choose low-bandwidth conversations, then?

  1. It's a "Simple" Message - We may think our message is simple, but it turns out to be complicated to others (often, the more familiar you are with a topic, the higher your expectations are for others' familiarity with it). Solve this by recognizing your own bias.
  2. It’s a One-to-Many Communication - It may not be practical to communicate the message except for a low bandwidth medium because of how many people need to receive it. Solve this by setting up higher bandwidth time after sending the message (office hours, etc), where folks can come to get clarification (this proactivity will also reduce the likelihood that others will feel like you’re hiding something).
  3. You Don’t Understand Your Message - Lower bandwidth connections are less stressful because there is less of a need to think on your feet. If you don’t know your message, you may (consciously or otherwise) opt for slower communication because of some combination of delay tactics (which allows for more time to research or to prepare for real-time feedback/conversation). Solve this with introspection and recruiting knowledgeable stakeholders to help you.
  4. The Obsession with Asynchronous Communication - Since COVID and the work-from-home revolution, there's a lingering fascination with asynchronous communication, especially for desk jobs. It's a romantic idea: we send each other messages throughout the day, slowly creating a queue of work, and when we're ready for a particular task - we have all the information needed to complete it - easy! Unfortunately, the reality of human productivity is much messier - and most often with async communication, we're missing critical information to move forward. The switching costs borne by the inability to get that information in a timely fashion quickly erode most benefits. Solve for this with awareness of which tasks are uniquely suited for this method, and which aren't.
  5. Other People People Are Busy - We may be trying to show deference to someone who has a busy schedule. But that's their problem, not yours. Be respectful of people's time, but also realize higher bandwidth conversations save time.

Good Judgement & Bandwidth Upgrades

We may think about a message's medium for a handful of high-visibility comuniqué - but for the majority of us it's most often dictated by momentum, familiarity, or in the worst case - chance.

The good news is that when we pay attention to this, we're all generally pretty good at picking the right style of communication. Good communication intuitively feels good.

And it's okay to get the medium wrong, so long as you course-correct. If you notice signs of miscommunication, that's your queue to upgrade the connection. If miscommunication is the issue, a higher bandwidth conversation almost always helps.

The Human Experience

About once a month I schedule a virtual meeting, realize that the person I'm meeting with is in the same building, and ping them with this message:

Hey, it looks like we're in the same building, mind if I come by your office for our (x) o'clock?

The response is (without fail) universal praise at my inspired idea of an in-person meeting. I always walk away from those meetings with a sense of interpersonal satiation that feels increasingly rare today.

Technology has given us new ways to communicate - but those new methods come with a human cost. They are less effective at relationship building, less intentional, and ultimately less enriching. They're transactional. This is appropriate (or even necessary) sometimes, but not always. And often for important conversations, we get this wrong.

When we choose higher bandwidth connections - in addition to more effective communication - we're choosing authenticity and fellowship, and the world could use more of that.

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#communication #word smatter