Effective communication is required for success in just about every venture, from developing meaningful relationships to achieving success at work. Without it, people don’t understand each other’s motivations or actions. In the workplace, effective communication is a necessary skill for employees at every level. In an analysis of nearly a million job listings, Monster.com found that the ability to communicate effectively was one of the top skills sought by employers. However, despite this reality, LinkedIn research has found that the number one skills gap across 100 major U.S. cities is communication.
There are many elements that comprise effective communication, but the power of repetition is an especially critical component because without it, key messages get lost or confused or go unheard. In addition, with the proliferation of digital communication such as email and instant messaging, miscommunications are amplified and must be addressed with clear, repeated messages. Here are five reasons why repetition is such an important element of effective communication.
The Brain Reacts to Repetition
There is a scientific reason why messages need to be communicated clearly, consistently, and often to be effective. Research has proven that the more someone hears something or practices a task, the more the brain responds and remembers. The foundational work in this area began in the late 1800s, when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus determined that practicing and repeating certain patterns over time affected learning and memory. He found that a process called “spaced repetition” helped individuals to learn and retain key messages. Later, others began to apply Ebbinghaus’ spaced repetition concept to business, notably with the idea that advertising messages should be repeated 3-20 times before they will influence buyer behavior.
Today, Ebbinghaus’ early research applies to the workplace in a valuable way. One of the pillars of employee learning rests on the idea that the more often individuals hear key messages and practice new behaviors, the more they will retain what they’ve learned. Whether it’s a change in process or a shifting company objective, individuals will hear, understand, and incorporate key messages into their work when they hear them frequently and consistently.
A message delivered only once or twice doesn’t always hit its intended target. If someone is listening only superficially or is distracted in some way, they can miss the key point of a message or just not hear it at all. This may explain why, as one article points out, more than half of employees have left a work meeting not knowing what they’re supposed to do next. In addition, given the sheer number of emails an individual can receive in a work day, it’s quite conceivable that a message sent only once and only digitally will simply get lost in the shuffle.
When you say something more than once and the listener has the opportunity to digest and absorb what’s being said, they have a better chance of understanding and internalizing the message. This is particularly true when introducing new company initiatives. A new company strategy becomes clear to employees when an email from company leaders is followed by discussion in team meetings, an explanation on the company intranet, and a critical mention in the company town hall meeting, for example. Furthermore, when people hear something more than once, they have more than one opportunity to follow up and ask questions, which can also help to bring clarity to the message’s key point.
Helps to Break Down Resistance
If a team leader delivers a message to the team only once or twice and everyone is not in agreement, people can resist by simply ignoring the message. Because they only heard it once, people feel free to “tune out” a one-off message and go about their day. They can actively resist by insisting they didn’t hear or understand the message. However, if the leader repeats the message and seeks out agreement and comprehension from all members of the team, any resistance to the message can be identified and resolved. Leaders can use repetition to break down resistance in the following ways:
Varied delivery - Reinforcing messages in different ways, using a different tone, level of detail, or perspective each time.
Positive reinforcement - Taking actions to recognize individuals who demonstrate they hear and support key messages.
Leading by example - Reinforcing key messages through your own example and behavior.
A key message can’t be delivered as a one-time statement or command, but should be repeated in differing ways to ensure people not only understand but also accept the message. That way, anyone who does not accept the message has fewer opportunities to ignore or tune it out.
Ensures No One Is Left Out
One of the strongest rationales for repetition in communication is it ensures that everyone who needs to hear a key message actually hears it. Repetition can be particularly valuable in the effective functioning of teams. Each individual is busy doing their part, but must still communicate frequently to ensure team activities are efficient and stay on their intended path. A team meeting will therefore be much more effective if team goals are not only repeated, but discussed so that everyone has a chance to react, ask questions, and understand their unique role in helping to achieve the goals. When goals are repeated and discussed, everyone is included and everyone has a chance to participate.
In an organization that may have many different functions, teams, or levels, an important message about company strategy, for example, will need to be repeated many times by many people for everyone to be included. To ensure no one is left out, organizational leaders must remain committed to communicating messages consistently, ensuring that everyone on their team receives and fully understands all key messages.
Improves Training Effectiveness
No matter what kind of training is being delivered, if key concepts and their underlying meaning are only presented once, there’s a strong likelihood that people will not grasp the concept and their behavior won’t change. Conversely, when individuals have a chance to see, practice, and talk about a new skill or behavior, it’s more likely to stick. An old Chinese proverb says it well: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” This is one of the reasons why experiential learning is so effective at helping individuals learn and apply new behaviors. Experiential learning takes the power of repetition, weaves it into a compelling story, and gets people involved and practicing new behaviors.
Repetition is evident in several places throughout an experiential learning exercise:
During the exercise - Scenarios play out repeatedly, allowing participants to practice new skills and see how the results change when their behavior changes.
During the debrief - Learning content is repeated during discussions that help participants connect the dots between new concepts and desired behavior.
After training - New skills and behaviors are reinforced through assessments, surveys, and digital learning activities.
Repetition Is the Key
Repetition of a key message can often mean the difference between being informed and being left in the dark. Repetition can’t be underestimated as a critical element of a successful, functioning workplace because it is one of the most important elements of effective communication. The reality is that key messages need to be communicated clearly, consistently, and often for them to have a lasting effect. In the workplace, when the goal is to create meaningful change or transform behavior, repetition reinforces employee learning and enhances individual and team communication.