I want to broaden The Communication Blog to include items that the general reader who has a casual interest in communication might want to read. I also want to include the person who is in college or who made it through college without the benefit of a communication course, now realizes the importance of communication, and wants to learn some of the basic concepts, principles, and especially skills. So, in addition to the focus on instructors teaching and students taking one of the basic communication courses, I’m adding these more general skills-oriented items, which I’m calling Communication Strategies. Some of these will come from one or more of my textbooks and some will be new. After posting about 100 of these, I hope to have a popular book, 100 Communication Strategies for Success at Home and at Work. With this as a preface, it seems appropriate to begin with feedforward.
Communication Strategies: Feedforward
Literary and rhetorical critic, I. A. Richards, once remarked that there was nothing he learned that was more important than the concept of feedforward. It’s an essential part of any communication act and yet is regularly ignored in many, if not most, of our textbooks. This is especially strange since we all give much attention to feedback; the other half needs to be given its due.
Feedforward is information you provide before sending your primary message. Feedforward reveals something about the message to come. Feedforward exists in all forms of communication. Examples of feedforward include the preface or table of contents of a book, the opening paragraph of a chapter, movie previews, magazine covers, and introductions in public speeches. Feedforward may serve a variety of functions. Here are some of the major functions:
< To Open the Channels of Communication. Feedforward helps you open the channels of communication and tells you another person is willing to communicate. It tells you that the normal, expected, and accepted rules of interaction will be in effect. It’s the “How are you” and “Nice weather” greetings that are designed to maintain rapport and friendly relationships.
< To Preview the Message. Feedforward messages may, for example, preview the content (“I’m afraid I have bad news for you”), the importance (“Listen to this before you make a move”), the form or style (“I’ll tell you all the gory details”), and the positive or negative quality of subsequent messages (“You’re not going to like this, but here’s what I heard”). The subject heading on your e-mail illustrates this function of feedforward, as do the phone numbers and names that come up on your caller ID.
< To Disclaim. The disclaimer is a statement that aims to ensure that your message will be understood as you want it to be and that it will not reflect negatively on you. For example, you might use a disclaimer when you think that what you’re going to say may be met with opposition. Thus, you say “I’m not against immigration, but . . .” or “Don’t think I’m homophobic, but . . .”
< To Altercast. Feedforward is often used to place the receiver in a specific role and to request responses in terms of this assumed role, a process called altercasting. For example, you might altercast by asking a friend, “As a future advertising executive, what would you think of corrective advertising?” This question casts your friend in the role of advertising executive (rather than parent, Democrat, or Baptist, for example) and asks that she or he answer from a particular perspective.
Here are a few suggestions for giving effective feedforward.
< Use feedforward to estimate the receptivity of the person to what you’re going to say. For example, before asking for a date, you’d probably use feedforward to test the waters and to see if you’re likely to get a “yes” response. You might ask if the other person enjoys going out to dinner or if he or she is dating anyone seriously. Before asking a friend for a loan, you’d probably feedforward your needy condition and say something like “I’m really strapped for cash and need to get my hands on $200 to pay my car loan” and wait for the other person to say (you hope), “Can I help?”
< Use feedforward that’s consistent with your subsequent message. If your main message is one of bad news, then your feedforward needs to be serious and help to prepare the other person for this bad news. You might, for example, say something like “I need to tell you something you’re not going to want to hear. Let’s sit down.”
< The more important or complex the message, the more important and more extensive your feedforward needs to be. For example, in public speaking, in which the message is relatively long, you’d probably want to give fairly extensive feedforward or what is called an orientation or preview. At the start of a business meeting, the leader may give feedforward in the form of an agenda or meeting schedule.
< Avoid using overly long feedforwards that make your listener wonder whether you’ll ever get to the business at hand. These will make you seem disorganized and lacking in focus.