Three Guidelines for Better Communication

Three Guidelines for Better Communication

September 21

I know. I said communication. Don’t fall asleep.

It’s a big word, one that brings up memories of boring general-level classes in school, but in truth it’s a bedrock of human culture. We communicate every day in a thousand different ways and the ways in which we communicate determine how others interact with us and how successful we are. You communicate when you talk to a client. You communicate when you send an email. You communicate when you’re in a bad mood and you sit in your office with your door closed and a thundercloud on your face. You communicate when you make a disaster recovery plan and you certainly communicate when a disaster actually happens (even if its only in four-letter words).

I’ve been reading some articles recently on product development and realized that when you’re creating a new product, or a new service offering, you’re communicating too.

So even if it sounds boring, communication is crucial to your business. The way you interact with your customers is the key to your success.

With so many different kinds of communication, however, how can you possibly hone your skills to be more effective? Sure, you can take writing classes, but what does that have to do with product development, or refining your people skills? Since you’re reading this, you’re probably in the IT industry somewhere and you probably don’t have time to really learn about that kind of stuff, so what are you to do?

The other day, I was invited to speak to a pack of cub scouts who were working on their communications badge. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to explain a broad, complicated idea like “communication” to a bunch of ten-year olds, but doing so gave me an opportunity to think about what communication is, to distill it into a form that covered all its myriad applications. Here then are three guidelines (not rules) to improving all of your communications, regardless of format.

1. Respect your audience

I presented this guideline tactically when speaking to the boys in it’s trimmed down form of “Don’t talk when I’m talking.” Before any good communication can take place between you and your customers (or your employees or your boss or your family) you need to respect them. They don’t want to be barked at. They don’t want to feel dirty when you’re done giving them a sales pitch. They don’t want to be talked down to. They don’t want to feel like you’re adding features just to rip them off.

Before any communication has occurred, it’s a good time to apply the Golden Rule. Think about how you want to be treated, talked to, communicated with, and then communicate that way with others.

2. Understand your audience

The whole point of communication is to unify two or more participants who have completely disparate points of view. This means you can’t communicate effectively without at least trying to understand the person or people you’re communicating with.

The first part of this is trying to figure out what you and your audience have in common. Building your communication on common ground is a great way to communicate better, but in order to do that, you need to have some idea who your audience is and what they want. A lot of this comes from “putting yourself in their shoes” and from making a concerted effort to get to know them.

But just as a major part of good communication is establishing a common base that all parties can relate to, it’s equally important to acknowledge the differences.

One of the most interesting things I learned about product development from this paper by the Silicon Valley Product Group is an example of this:

 An all-too-common mistake, especially in high-tech companies, is to assume that if you like your product, then your customers will too.

Assuming that you are in the business of building real products [or services] that large numbers of real people will use, it is critical to realize from the outset that there is a world of difference between those of us that build products and those that buy these products and try to use them every day.

While it is very valuable for you to use your own products to the maximum degree you can, you must never be fooled into thinking that just because your co-workers like the product that it will have any degree of success in the general marketplace.

They cite as an example Replay versus Tivo. Industry experts (like CNet) felt that Replay was the better product, but users clearly went the other way. I’m sure you can think of a variety of other products that are similar.

The point is that as we communicate, whether it’s through our products or our emails or our phone calls, we need to do everything in our power to understand our audience so we can deliver our message in a way that they can understand. Remember, the root of the word communicate means to participate. Communication is not a one way message, even if you’re delivering a lecture or sending an email. If you’re not making an effort of engage your audience, you’re not effectively communicating, and you can’t engage unless you have some idea what your audience finds engaging.

3. Think!

This step seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t happen. Even if you’ve taken the time to respect and understand your audience, you will still completely blow it if you don’t put in the effort to think about what you’re doing. This doesn’t just mean thinking about what you’re trying to communicate, but how and why and where, etc. We’ve all probably made the mistake of being badly misunderstood because we were too familiar in an email. Or said something stupid in the wrong company.

Taking the time to really think about what you’re communicating, understanding what it is exactly that you’re trying to get across, and then applying that understanding to what you know about your audience puts you in a position to be as clear as possible and to be as certain as you can be that you won’t be misunderstood.

A huge part of the thinking step involves asking questions. Who am I talking to? What am I trying to say? What words (or features or pictures, etc.) are most essential to my message? What is my thesis? Yes thesis; remember what that is? Every communication you make has a thesis, whether you know about it or not.

When I write a short story, I’m constantly evaluating every word, questioning whether or not it really contributes to the ideas I’m trying to communicate. I read it out loud to help give me a different perspective on how it all sounds.

Many writing gurus like to aggressively tout that good writing  is short writing. That’s all well and good, but the truth is that shorter isn’t always better. A lot of the time, shorter is just more confusing, or more offensive, and in your business (or your life), you can’t afford either.

The real key is thoughtful writing. And yes, thoughtful writing frequently means shorter, more concise writing, but not always. That’s why you need to think about it. The same rules don’t always apply to different kinds of communication, so you really need to take the time to think. Does every piece of my communication contribute to the message? Can I say it (or develop it) better?

Of course, not all of your communications are going to be so deliberate as a story or an email or a product (though many of them are). But even when you’re having an surprise conversation with an irate customer, you can take a deep breath and think about what you’re saying. And you’d better be sure you’re showing that customer respect, and if you’re not trying to understand their needs, you’re sunk.

Bonus tip!

And here’s a bonus tip. It’s always good to summarize:

  • You communicate in practically everything you do (including product development, advertising, and what you do when you have a bad day).
  • There are some simple steps you can follow to improve all your communications.
  • Start by respecting your audience.
  • Take it to the next step by trying to understand your audience.
  • And don’t forget to think!