George Bernard Shaw is quoted to have said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Nothing could be more true! I have found in my 20+ years in communications-related fields that people think of “communication” like they do breathing—everybody does it and you hardly have to think about it—but at the same time I find it comical how few people truly know how to communicate effectively.
Communication is a soft skill. It’s not something that is obvious, static, or textbook. Communication is about feel, environment, nuance, and understanding. In other words: it’s a lot of work. What makes it even harder is that although communication is a difficult skill to understand, let alone master, everyone is expected to do it every day, many times a day.
I should pause here to mention that I don't believe in telling people what to say. There is a profession—acting—that is dedicated to that. I am a big believer in freedom of style and expression. Nonetheless, I do believe it's important to have guidelines around how you communicate; to help you be consistent, considerate, and thoughtful when you interact with others.
But communication is an area where everyone can improve, no exceptions. And if you think this doesn't apply to you, I ask you to think again. Every interaction you have with another person impacts the company you represent; and more importantly, impacts the person with whom you are interacting. Every time you talk to a friend, vendor, partner, coworker, or anyone it promotes your company, and represents who the company is, how it works, and how it treats people.
Just for fun, I’ve created five “communication tips”, of what I believe are just generally good ideas.
Rule Number One: Keep internal messages internal
This rule, of course, begs the question: what messages are internal and what are external? Having a defined way to speak about your brand will help how your company is perceived externally. For example the description, “Engineering Product Development and Realization,” or the Wall of Cool on our website, are things that Synapse shares outside the company.
But there are some things that are clearly for internal use only. These are things that contribute to your secret sauce, and quite frankly, not anybody's damn business.
Bottom line: it’s important not to confuse your internal and external messages.
Rule Number Two: Know your audience
One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to communicate with everyone in the same way. In a world with so many different styles and personalities, why would you think everyone takes input the same way?
Before reaching out to someone, ask yourself questions like:
- To whom am I talking?
- Where are they from?
- What are their likes and dislikes?
- What is their emotional involvement in this conversation?
- What is their communication style?
- How do they like to be approached?
- Are they better on the phone, email, text, or in person?
- What is their position in the company?
- What are their expectations?
- Is this a time for a quick response or a thorough one?
This might seem like a lot of work, but it stands to reason that if communication is critical to the success of a relationship, then you should spend as much time on it as you would for anything else. Maybe even more!
Rule Number Three: Don't assume anything
I think I was about eight years old when I first learned from Felix Unger what happens when you assume.
I also remember getting a refresher about 20 years later, when I was the General Manager for Sterling Electronics’ Houston branch. I asked one of the sales guys by email (paraphrased), “About how much do you think we'll do with this customer this year, understanding their business has recently changed?"
Not really knowing what I was asking for, he spent all weekend working on a beautiful 15 page presentation that described the customer’s business needs, showed a ton of research, and defined an appropriate answer in painstaking detail. To add insult to injury, he told my Sales Manager that he was really stressed out, fearing he would be held accountable for the new number.
Admittedly I was a bit impressed. But I also felt really bad because all I wanted was a ballpark figure; such as, “about $5 million” or “somewhere between $4 and $6 million”.
I assumed he understood the intent of my message ... and now you know, thanks to Tony Randall's classic character, what happens when you ASS-U-ME.
Rules one, two and three are fundamentals that should be part of your approach to interacting with others.
Rules four and five are more tactical. When’s the last time you re-read an email you sent previously and said “oops, that’s not what I meant to say”? Or how about when you unintentionally started a long, painful email thread?
These last two rules should be handy to help you stay out of trouble.
Rule Number Four: Proofread everything
My best example of this has happened at least twice in recent memory, once recently at Synapse, and once outside. In both cases, someone had changed their schedule so they could meet with me when they previously thought they could not. But, unfortunately their message to me contained a typo.
They wrote, “I can not meet with you,” instead of, “I can now meet with you.” Talk about changing the content of the message!
Use spell check, but don’t expect it to catch everything. Proofread everything before it goes out the door. And also remember rule number four’s sister rule which applies to presentations: rehearse everything!
Rule Number Five: When in doubt, don't email
I get it. I have teenage kids. I totally understand that the way we communicate has changed dramatically over the last few years. When I look at my kids’ phones, there are hardly any phone calls and about a million texts. None of these texts are more than five words long, and most of the words are abbreviated in a way that no one can really understand.
That said, in your professional life, things need to be crystal-clear. Therefore, when you're not 100% sure what somebody is saying—or even if you are 100% sure of what they're saying—it's always a good idea to pick up the phone or walk over to them (if they're in the same building as you) and have a conversation. Understand their expectations before sending a two-dimensional email.
And for god’s sake, if you are going to email, don’t “reply all” if you don’t know everyone on the distribution list very well.
One of the coolest things about communication is that it’s important no matter who you are or what you do. Paulo Coelho wrote “Every day I try to be in communication with the universe in an unconscious way.” Jack Welch said “Number one, cash is king...number two, communicate...number three, buy or bury the competition.”
I’m not sure you could find two people more different than Paulo Coelho and Jack Welch, yet they each have communication as an essential part of their lives.
Please don't take it for granted.