Friday, March 11, 2005

Signal to Noise Ratio

Signal: the wavelength, the groove, the clarity of your TV picture or your radio reception. Noise: static, garbage, useless information, fuzz. A high signal to noise ratio: Meaning, more signal, less noise. In other words, there is clarity. You can see and communicate easily. A low signal to noise ratio: Most of what's coming across is crap, garbage, meaningless nonsense. Too much noise.

This metaphor can be usefully applied to the quality of human communication.
That meeting had a high signal to noise ratio: Work got done; it was productive. Or, if the meeting had a low signal to noise ratio: It was mostly a lot of people sitting around bitching, getting off topic, and very little was accomplished.

The same holds true of conversations. The ones you hold on the telephone, via email, or on an internet message board. Where the quality of the interaction is high or the discussion stays on topic, it's like being able to "see" the signal on your television, clean and clear. When people get angry at each other, wander off-topic, chide each other or get into flamefests rather than having productive deliberations, the signal to noise ratio drops. It's frustrating, and it's like listening to the radio with a bunch of static on it. If it drops far enough, people may choose to turn it off. Listening to a song is no longer a pleasurable experience if the static is so bad you can't understand the words.

With me so far? Now, here's the key point.

When there is a low signal to noise ratio, the solution is to increase the signal, NOT to complain about the noise.

Let's say you're in an unproductive meeting. People are off-topic, chattering about their weekends or personal lives. You decide to start complaining about the waste of time and how off-topic this meeting has become.

Congratulations - NOT. You just increased the noise, not the signal, and you probably pissed off your co-workers to boot. Instead, you should bring up what needs to happen in the meeting. Repeatedly, if necessary, until the group regains its focus.

We've all seen this happen online. A productive discussion of a topic is underway and somebody swans in and misunderstands a post or starts to complain about something that's not related. Rather than ignoring the interloper, people respond to their misunderstanding, or scold them for being off-topic, or tell them that they shouldn't complaint. Again, WRONG. Increase the signal. Ignore the offending posts and add something substantive to the discussion.

And that's really the entire point of this post, so I'll say it one last time:

When there is a low signal to noise ratio, the solution is to increase the signal, NOT to complain about the noise.

Have a good weekend, all!

- C


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