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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.
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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.

Why establish a shared context with your audience — an illustrated guide

Published Jan 12, 2022
Updated Jan 13, 2022

There is just way too much happening out there in the world. Our perception of reality is bottlenecked by time, energy, cognition, five senses, education, experience, access, etc. Yet, we make decisions about our lives from whatever little we can grasp.


Good communication compresses this chaos into consumable bytes that can be read and remembered.


Birendra is an expert in a topic. So he needs to communicate a point of view to his colleague Arjun. But he knows that Arjun won’t have a lot of time. Hence, Birendra works hard to distill his message down.


Arjun hears Birendra out. But when Arjun reiterates Birendra’s message to a third person, Arjun communicates something else. So, what happened?


Both did not share a shared context. So Birendra compressed his message down from his context. But Arjun’s lived experiences were different. So when Arjun decompressed (interpreted) Birendra’s message, the message changed.


Now imagine this problem at scale. At the level of societies, this lack of shared context manifests itself as misinformation. We live in polarized times because we are not interpreting events from a shared context.


Brooks’s law is an observation about software project management according to which “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

Unlike societies, companies internally can bulldoze through this problem. However, solving this problem comes at a cost — higher communication overhead and lower efficiency. For example, the cost of a one-hour meeting isn’t one hour but the sum of the per hour rate of all of those 50 people.

You cannot do this when communicating with the outside world. So how do you solve this?


First, publish a contract/promise that you’ll honor and let others build on top of it.

  • How does a DJ (disc jockey) have a shared context with the manufacturer of mixer, microphone, headphones, and speakers? The DJ doesn’t know anything about how that equipment works, yet his entire livelihood is based on the assumption that it will work. The microphone manufacturer does not know anything about how electricity is produced. They just assume that there will always be electricity, and hence they ship their product without batteries. And this cycle continues.
  • Here’s an example from a 2015 post. Good tools become utilities for other tools. Dropbox was built on the assumption that Amazon Web Services S3 will provide 99.99% reliability. In its initial years, Slack leveraged Dropbox as a file system. Many tools now do not build chat functionality and instead rely on Slack.

Second, explain in detail how you are doing what you claim you are doing.


Finally, it isn’t enough to have a promise and explainers. To showcase if something is working or not, you need data and evidence.


Let’s see this in action. Hey.com is an email service provider.

Contract: Their brand promise is that they make email more usable.

Explainer: Then they explain in detail how they are achieving it.

Evidence: Finally, they transparently communicate where they are on achieving it.

Credits: Doodle Library was built by Yatish Agarwal.

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