Communication 101: 5 Rules for Success at Work (And Everywhere Else)

How to make people listen to you

Posted May 12, 2011

In the last couple of days I have received cryptic memos at work, undecipherable emails, incomplete invitations, and a handful of odd looks, expressions, and a bizarre, possibly obscene, gesture (from another motorist). I thought it was time to review some of the rules for effective communication, particularly important for the workplace, and crucial for workplace leaders and managers.

1. When in Doubt - Overcommunicate. If a message is important, such as a new workplace policy, a directive, scheduling an appointment, and the like, it is important to repeat the message to ensure clarity. "OK, just to be sure, we will be meeting for lunch on FRIDAY, the 14th, at the Hungry Duck Café on ELM Street, at noon."

Repetition is a key to both clarity and memory.

2. Use Multiple Channels. For important messages, send the message in several ways - by email, a written announcement, and a verbal reminder at the department meeting. A pre-announcement, such as "be on the lookout for an important message from our CEO," also helps increase attention.

3. Think Like a Journalist. Make sure that messages answer the questions, Who? What? When? Where? How?...AND, most importantly when it comes to communicating policy changes, answer the question WHY?

My organization just announced an unexpected policy change that would affect the majority of the workforce in a single email announcement. The message was clear on the What, the When, and the Where, but it was unclear Who had made the policy decision, and it left out the very important Why question. This has led to an increase in everybody's level of confused communication, as everyone is now asking "WHO decided this?" and "WHY in the world would they do this to us?"

4. Be Audience Focused. I always tell my students, "you are writing for the reader." Review your messages and emails before you send them from the audience's perspective. Although you may understand what you are trying to say, your audience may not.

This happens all of the time, particularly in communication between upper management and the rank-and-file employees, simply because leaders often assume that workers know more than they actually do. At my college, upper level administrators will often vaguely refer to THE "new policy," or THE "current direction," and many of us scratch our heads. Because they spend so much time among themselves discussing these topics, they assume that everyone else knows about them. So, to repeat (for clarity), consider the audience.

AND, that leads us to the fifth rule:

5. Be Authentic. "Say what you mean, and mean what you say." From a leadership standpoint, it is critical to be straightforward, open, and honest with people. If you want to get your messages across, and keep getting them across, you need to have a track record of openness and honesty. Otherwise, people may indeed hear what you say, but they might not believe any of it.

Here is an interesting fact: Most people think that they are brilliant and effective communicators (look at a batch of resumes, and most of them will list "communication skills" as a major strength). In fact, if you ask people to rank themselves on their ability to communicate, nearly everyone will put themselves in the top 10% (try it)! It makes psychological sense because we all do so much communicating that we assume we MUST be good at it. Follow these rules consistently, and you might actually wind up in that top 10%.

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