Sometimes, the Noise is the Signal

I have this picture in my office of Nobel Laureates Dr. Arno Penzias and Dr. Robert Wilson in front of the Bell Labs radio antenna that they used when they discovered the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation from the beginning of the universe; the “smoking gun” of the Big Bang. The CMB was the first empirical confirmation of the Big Bang theory and propelled the science of cosmology (and Penzias’ and Wilson’s careers) forward dramatically. The story of how they found it is a good one.

Penzias and Wilson had acquired time on a large Bell Labs antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey, to conduct research on radio transmissions from the Milky Way galaxy. Their excitement at securing access to such a sensitive antenna was quickly muted, however, when they discovered that it appeared to be picking up some sort of background noise or static that interfered with the signals they were trying to acquire.

In their attempts to remove the noise from their results, they gave the telescope a thorough going over. They discovered that pigeons had built a nest in the horn of the telescope and could very easily be fouling up (or fowling up, as the case may be) their radio scans. Once they removed the pigeons, they reviewed their results and discovered that the noise was still there. Returning to the telescope, they realized that the pigeons’ droppings, which were still in the telescope, could be the source of the noise.

After cleaning out the pigeons’ droppings and ruling out various terrestrial sources of the noise they realized that they were seeing the echoes of the Big Bang. A Bell Labs colleague, Ivan Kaminow, subsequently quipped that Penzias and Wilson were unique among their peers in that they “looked for dung but found gold, which is just the opposite experience of most of us.”

Their discovery of the CMB occurred 57 years ago today, and the anniversary got me thinking about the concepts of signal and noise. For Penzias and Wilson, the noise was actually the signal that mattered most. In communications theory, noise is frequently presented as merely an obstacle to the successful delivery of a signal or message from a sender to his or her audience. Noise can mean literal noise such as when trying to speak in a crowded room, but it can also be anything that attenuates the message such as misguided assumptions, lack of shared context, or other messages or signals that conflict with the desired message.

Communications theory views noise as something to be removed or at least “cut through” to effectively deliver a message. The reality is that communication is more nuanced and complex than that. As leaders, we need to view communications as a system, recognizing that the noise is part of the communication. It may not contain the message you wish to deliver but it is inextricable context, and it will definitely be delivered with your message. Noise needs to be considered, addressed, and potentially leveraged to enhance your communication.

One of my clients once dismissed an unjust accusation in the media as “just noise,” only to have the noise continue to amplify to a deafening roar that became the signal, completely overpowering their messaging and threatening to have a material impact on their business. In our eventual response, we chose to leverage the noise by addressing it head-on and using it to pivot to and amplify our own messaging, which ended up being much more authentic and effective than simply trying to “cut through” the noise. By engaging with and using the noise, we ensured our message quickly became the signal once again.

Leaders have messages they are focused on delivering, but it is critical to consider all elements of the communication chain as they craft their communications. It is easy to put all your effort into the message, leaving the audience, channel, and yes, the noise as afterthoughts, but that is a mistake. Communication is not one dimensional, or even two dimensional. Communication is a complex, multi-dimensional system and the best communicators keep all of its components in mind and leverage them judiciously as they plan and execute their communications.


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