The ability to communicate information is one of the most powerful evolutionary advantages that humans have – if not the most powerful advantage – so why do we so often make a hash of it? The reality is that good communication is not an exact science – it is hard to achieve and the natural diversity of almost every audience means that there will probably always be some people who just do not respond to you. Nevertheless, these five golden rules should help you to become a more expert communicator:
- Know your audience.
To communicate successfully you need to know your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What motivates them? How can you engage them in debate? Only then can you tailor your messages appropriately. You also need to be prepared for the fact that your audience is changing and evolving in the same way that everything else in life is changing and evolving. Don’t assume that the communication strategies that worked well two years ago will still have the same effect today. The world has moved on since then and so has your audience.
- Timing is everything.
Once you’ve got your audience figured out, the next thing is to identify the best time to connect with them. You will get far better results from your communication efforts if you try to engage with other people at a time when they are ready to engage with you. This applies regardless of whether you’re trying to communicate with internal colleagues or an external audience. For example, it is rarely a good idea to send out an important electronic communication first thing on a Monday morning, when everyone’s inboxes tend to be swamped. On the other hand, it is sensible to make maximum use of team meetings to communicate key messages because then people are ‘in the zone’. Think carefully about communicating in the evening and the weekends – if you send out messages at these times, what are you saying to your staff? Where possible, save messages in your outbox and send them the next day or after 11am on Monday.
- What you say is less important than what other people want to hear.
Much communication is predicated on the basis of: “I really need to tell my team members / customers / managers/ suppliers (delete as applicable) about this.” Absolutely, you do. But the challenge is that your team members / customers / managers / suppliers (delete as applicable) are not necessarily going to be that receptive to your message, even if you understand them as an audience and pick your timing well. To get people to respond to your communication in the way that you want, you need to pepper your messaging with statements that get them onside. A good way to start is by using the phrase ‘thank you’. For example, don’t write an email that says: “I know you’re all busy, but please can you try to file your time sheets on time this week. The CFO keeps sending me shirty emails about this and it’s driving me crazy.” What you could say is: “Thank you all for your hard work. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the long hours you’re putting in to get this project past the finish line. Could I just ask one small favor, though? Please could you try to earmark five minutes in your busy schedule this week to file your timesheets on time? It will give our team even more brownie points with the CFO and the executive team!”
- Don’t confuse broadcasting with communication.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” And he was so right. How many conversations have you had in work, and in life, that began with the words “Well, I told them…” Never forget that real communication is two-way. It is an exchange that requires feedback. So, taking the timesheet email example above, you could add in the following comment: “If you’re having difficulties with filing your timesheets, or have any other challenges with the project that you want to raise, please let me know and I’ll do my best to help.”
- Leave your ego at the door.
If your attempts at communication fail, don’t blame your audience – blame yourself. You clearly haven’t conveyed the message in a way that your audience wants to hear, at a time that works for them. Reflect on what might have gone wrong, so that you can do better next time, and then move on. Communication is rather a haphazard business and no one gets it right all the time. Do your best and you should find that your audience at least appreciates that.