Communication: The Superpower of Humanity

Human communication, in its most basic form, is the act of one person having a piece of information, thought, idea, or feeling and altering something in the physical world to transfer that information, thought, idea, or feeling to another person—ideally, without distortion of the information. Speaking is essentially manipulating air pressure to generate frequencies, pitch, and cadence, which will hit another person’s eardrum to relay information. Writing is arranging ink or pixels in order to alter light that hits another person’s retina and communicates information.

Communication can be a massively underestimated superpower. It’s our ability to communicate complex and abstract ideas that really separates us from other beings. Our capability to communicate to large groups across long distances has allowed us to find and gather new resources; discover and share techniques for hunting, gathering, farming, and building; develop societies and rules by which we can govern those societies; construct cities; and build rockets that allow us to leave the land in which all other creatures seem destined to live forever.

The most powerful groups to ever exist were powerful almost exclusively due to their ability to communicate well. Effective and quick communication allows armies to adapt on the battlefield, entire cities to prepare for disaster, or scientists across the world to develop solutions to some of mankind's greatest threats. Conversely, a breakdown in communication can mean the breakdown of families, societies, and countries.

In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, he states on communication,

For as the ancient book of Army Management says: On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough; hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough; hence the institution of banners and flags. Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the eyes and ears of our host may be focused on one particular point. The host thus forming a single united body, it is impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or for the cowardly to retreat alone.1

Figure 1.1: Genghis Khan.

Photo by Unknown via Wikimedia Commons.

When Genghis Kahn took over the leadership of over 2 million Mongols, it was his ability to unite them through clear and concise communication (and strict punishments for disobedience) that allowed him to build and govern a vast empire. Kahn’s army consisted entirely of cavalry and made no use of slow-moving foot soldiers. This speed allowed them to quickly overtake and overwhelm adversaries.

One problem with a swift army is that they can quickly outpace communications. To combat this, Kahn implemented and expanded a postal station system named Örtöö. It was a system of 1,400 postal stations spaced 25–65 km apart and allowed for extremely rapid and clear communication.2 Many of our modern communication systems can trace their roots to inventions from the Greeks, the Chinese, the Persians, and the Romans as they struggled to manage their expanding empires.

It’s no wonder, then, that communication should be a top priority of any business looking to succeed in a free market system. Effective communication is what launches organizations, sells products, elects politicians, enacts policy, and impacts how you feel about your decisions and the world around you. Ineffective communication will, at best, do nothing for your business, and at worst, damage or eliminate your business.

How, then, are we supposed to understand how to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this ever-changing landscape while simultaneously avoiding the widening pitfalls? The answer begins with understanding where we’ve come from, which helps us understand why we’re here, and that can give us clues to where we’re going.