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The Dangers of Assuming Context

by Hank Barnes  |  February 16, 2016  |  Submit a Comment

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and they start mentioning (dropping?) names in  a manner where they clearly believe that you know exactly who they are talking about and everything about that person?  It happens to me, a lot (particularly around politics–which I don’t follow at all).   In those cases, I just smile, nod my head a little, and hope to change the conversation.   I’ve felt too embarrassed to admit that I have no idea who they are talking about.   Their tone clearly indicated that I “should know.”

It is a situation that is uncomfortable for me, but that the speaker rarely even realizes.  Ultimately, no real information is exchanged.  The reason:  the speaker assumes context that does not exist and the listener is not in a position, or chooses not, to ask for clarification.

Without context, communications fall apart.  The communications model below originally appeared in a 1996 book on Integrated Marketing Communications, but it still applies today.



Source: Don Schultz, Stanley Tannebaum, and Robert Lauterborn,The New Marketing Paradigm: Integrated Marketing Communications,1996.

When communicating, the thing that makes the message most likely to be heard and understood is shared fields of experience.  That shared background provides the context needed for understanding.     Noise can get in the way and feedback can help to indicate if refinement and clarification is needed.  But context is the key.

Like those who mention names or situations that they know well (assuming that the receiver does as well),  most technology messaging has a context problem.  We assume knowledge and understanding that the prospect may not have.   In some communication forms (e.g. Web sites, collateral), there is limited chance for feedback—other than never hearing from the prospect again—so context assumptions are even more dangerous.

In others, presentations, sales meetings, etc., there are feedback opportunities.  But, if you communicate in  away that makes your prospect feel like they would be “stupid” to admit they don’t understand, you may not get much.  And problems will result.

While context today is largely about using signals (repeat visit, last purchase, location) to tailor the experience, it needs to be thought of more broadly.  Context is about establishing a shared understanding for deeper learning and improved interactions.

The need for context is why Gartner advocates a situation-impact-response approach to storytelling.  Rather than describe your products first, describe the situation they were designed to address.  Ask the receiver of the information if they have experienced the situation.  If so, you can move on to impact.  If not, you need to have a discussion.  When you get to resolution—to talk about what your product or service does, you are working from a  shared context of the current situation.  The ability to receive your information will be greater–as will the willingness to ask questions for clarity.

Regardless of the format you choose, be very careful about assuming context and using terms, names, and phrases that your audience may not understand.  Often, they’ll be too embarassed to admit it.  In the end, you’ll think you did a great job only to discover at some point in the future that no understanding or progress was made.

Without context, there is no communication.

Note: I will be talking about context in my Positioning and Storytelling Workshop at the Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation Conference this June at LA Live.

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Category: future-of-sales  go-to-market  

Tags: communication  context  marketing  messaging  sales  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

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