Being able to communicate effectively is a critical leadership skill. After all, communication problems are a major cause of issues in the workplace.
Leaders are well placed to improve communication, often being the connector between their own teams and other parts of the organisation.
Being able to communicate effectively is not rocket science, but within organisations it can become complex. Many businesses are flooded with messages from various initiatives and competing priorities, and sorting through the mess can be difficult.
In this article, I’m going to take a look at some simple steps to communicate effectively. Hopefully, you can follow them to get your message to the people who need to receive it!
Putting some thought into your communication will put you ahead of many leaders out there.
Poor Communication Story 1: Trivial and Important Messages, Rolled Into One
I once worked for a manager who liked to send a large, weekly email to the entire department, consisting of more than 50 people.
The email was sent every Monday morning and contained a mixture of personal stories from the weekend, with a smattering of work-related information throughout.
The message usually filled up a few screens on my email program. Short and sweet, it was not.
One of the major issues with this communication was that sometimes, it contained important work-related information, alongside the trivial stories of the weekend.
I would frequently fall into the trap of “tuning out” when I saw the weekend stories, sometimes missing the important work information altogether.
You could argue that given this message came from my boss, it should be a top priority and I should digest it thoroughly.
However, there is often a lot going on when you arrive on a Monday morning and by my judgement, the communication was poorly executed!
Poor Communication Story 2: Misjudging the Environment
Another sad story of communication happened when I was managing projects at a busy agency. The company had recently been acquired, so there was a lot of turbulence surrounding the takeover.
One day, a person sitting next to me received a phone call unexpectedly from one of the senior managers of the organisation.
In the conversation, she was informed that her position was going to be made redundant and she’d no longer have a job in a few months.
Obviously, this came as a shock and she was quite upset. Everyone around her knew that something was wrong, and that bad things were afoot.
Maybe communicating this by phone in an open-plan office wasn’t the best approach.
The Magnifying Effect of Poor Communication
A helpful thing to consider when you’re wondering about how to communicate effectively is what I call the magnifying effect.
The magnifying effect happens when we communicate poorly, magnifying the disruption, confusion or back-and-forth amongst a group of people.
Leaders are particularly vulnerable to the magnifying effect because they often need to communicate with groups of people, including their teams.
Let’s look at an example.
If I write a poorly structured email, it might take me 10 minutes to send.
If it takes people 10 minutes to digest my message and there are twenty people in my team, that’s a total of 210 minutes of effort:
Total effort = 10 minutes to write + (20 x 10 minutes to understand) = 210 minutes.
This might also include any back and forth and clarifications that happen, as a result of the bad email.
Now, imagine if I spent 30 minutes getting my message right, and as a result, it only took five minutes to read and understand.
The equation now looks different:
Total effort = 30 minutes to write + (20 x 5 minutes to understand) = 130 minutes.
Multiply this effect by the billions of emails that are being sent in our workplaces every day, and you can gain a lot of efficiency by spending a little more effort to communicate effectively.
I’ve used email in this example, but the same can be said of other forms of communication too.
Follow These 5 Steps to Help You Communicate Effectively
Let’s look at some simple steps that might help to avoid some of the problems above.
These steps don’t need to take hours or days to work through.
It might be a simple matter of jotting down some notes for each step, to help you clarify and be more thoughtful about your communication.
Step 1: Communicate Effectively by Choosing Your Audience
I believe the first important step is to focus on choosing your audience. These are the people who you will be communicating with.
These are the ones who need to absorb your key points and understand the message.
Here are some questions to help you select your audience:
- How many people are you communicating with? Is it a large group? Or a small number?
- Is there a mix of different stakeholder groups? Or one type of stakeholder?
- Is there anything about each stakeholder group that stands out? Do they have any special requirements or characteristics?
List the stakeholder groups, and the people in each group. This can help you to understand any key differences, and whether you might need to communicate differently to each group.
Step 2: Communicate Effectively by Clarifying Your Key Message
I have this as Step 2, because I think it’s difficult to clarify your key message if you don’t know who you are talking to. Different people need to know (or are interested in) different things.
When you communicate, it’s important to have your key points nailed down. It might feel like there is a lot to say, but often we can summarise it to a few important items.
To help you do this, ask yourself a few simple questions:
- What are the top 3 points that people really need to know? Try to limit your message to three key points, at most. If you can narrow it down to one, that’s even better.
- Why do people need to know? What is important about this, for them?
- What could cause a problem, if you failed to communicate it? This is the opposite approach, identifying what could cause a problem if we didn’t consider it.
- Is there specific information that’s important (and potentially unique) to this stakeholder group?
- Are there different key messages for your different types of stakeholders?
Your key message is important, so be sure to get it right!
If you need to break up your communication differently for various stakeholder groups, this is an option too. Taking a “one size fits all” approach to communication can be problematic, as some people may miss the point, or misinterpret the message.
Step 3: Score Your Communication by Importance
Now that you understand your audience and your key points, we move on to the next part. Just how important is this communication?
Messages that are confidential or private, involve a high degree of potential impact, are urgent or will invite a lot of questions will usually score higher on the importance scale.
Messages that are trivial, non-controversial or for interest only will usually sit down the other end.
This score is an important thing to consider, because it will help to guide you through the remaining steps.
Step 4: Select Your Communication Method and Environment
It is very easy to default to email as our preferred communication method. Emails are easy to write, and we can send them to a huge bunch of people in one go.
However, we know that the tone of an email can be interpreted differently by different people. We also know that some people prefer reading, while others might like to hear messages in a more personal way.
There are so many different methods to choose from and here is a list with some examples:
- Phone call
- Video call (group or 1 to 1)
- Chat message (Such as Teams or Slack)
- In-person meeting (group or 1 to 1)
- Website page (such as an intranet or blog)
- Paper poster or digital signage
The method and environment for your communication will differ depending on the audience, key messages and importance.
For more important messages, it’s likely that a more intimate or personal method will be appropriate, such as an in-person meeting or a call in a private setting.
Interest-only communication might be handled better with an email blast, intranet article or a poster in the lunch room.
Taking some time to select your method is important if you’re going to communicate effectively.
Learn More: The Essential Leaders Guide to Writing Better Emails.
Step 5: Communicate Effectively By Doing a Sense Check
It’s good to take one last step before communicating, and this is to check yourself.
Here are some simple questions to ask, to see whether you’ve missed any key ingredients:
- Am I assuming that people like to communicate just like me, or am I acknowledging that people have different preferences?
- Am I making assumptions about what other people think is important, based on what I think is important?
- Did I choose the communication method because it’s easier for me, or better for the audience? Or both?
- Would it be better to break up my communication for different messages or groups?
Sometimes it can be useful to have a colleague help you to sense-check, before engaging in important communication.
Obviously this isn’t necessary every time, but if you think there is a chance you could do some damage with ineffective communication, it might be a good step to take.
Communicating effectively doesn’t need to be a horrible time-consuming experience.
However, taking the time to follow these simple steps might help you to avoid disruption and make sure your message is absorbed properly by the people who need to hear it.
What else do you consider to communicate effectively? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!