The importance of “context”

It’s official, “context” is my favourite word of the year.

This old classic has had a huge comeback for me. I’ve noticed myself using it more and more in all of my various presentations.

  • Wikipedia defines it as: “the surroundings, circumstances, environment, background, or settings which determine, specify, or clarify the meaning of an event.”
  • Websters defines it as: “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning”

It is my strong belief that when context is not set right from the get go, you will not get your message across. Most people don’t realize just how limiting human languages are. We assume that by using a common word we’re all taking about the same thing. This kind of thinking is very naive. Hence why any good debate always starts with a definition and contextual setting. And yet, I often come across discussions or debates where the context has not been set, only the word/idea has. A prime example is someone asking me if I believe in God? It is my honest opinion that nobody can rightfully answer that question unless the person that is asking the question elaborates on what they mean by “God” (religious angle, natural angle, chaos theory, etc…). Otherwise, you could answer yes or no and yet be thinking on an entirely different wavelength, coming from a completely different angle, thus making your response pointless.

In the world of marketing, communications, PR, social media, etc…I see this happen over and over again. Somebody will present on marketing performance measurement thinking that everyone in the audience gets the basic premise of marketing. Big mistake, even if you are in a room of marketing professionals, I guarantee you that their approaches to marketing vary considerably based on their background and “worldview” as Seth Godin likes to call it. Therefore, it is crucial for you to explain the angle that you’re coming from at the very start. It’s not necessarily a matter of right or wrong, but rather of establishing a common wavelength for the remainder of your presentation so that the information you convey is absorbed properly.

When I explain the strategic importance of a channel such as Twitter, I find that it’s not enough to define it technically (i.e. a web-based short update platform with 140 character…blah blah blah) and then preach about the potential benefits. I can just see the eyes rolling. Some people in the room have a friend that uses it to talk about their horticulture business, someone else has a daughter that tracks Justin Bieber, another person has a Twitter account at work with no uptake. The point is each of these people see it in a different light.

To remedy this, I establish context from the start. I tell people: “Forget anything you know or have heard about Twitter. Now anytime I mention the word “Twitter” , replace it in your head with “the world’s largest real-time conversation database to which you have full access to” (take a look at my rant to Twitter haters if you want my full explanation on this). I realize Twitter can surely be much more than that, but because I have set context, it’s much easier to then talk about more advanced strategic elements of Twitter without people being clouded by other things they have heard, read, or experienced.

Why am I writing about this? Because if more people take the time to set the context and properly define what they are talking about before they talk about it, more people will understand and more things will get done as a result.

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