Ah, words. How small a part they play in communication.
Ever walked into a team meeting and had someone immediately blow up and start yelling that your team/project/company is ruined? The things they say after that tend to get kind of lost in the shuffle, because their chosen method of presentation was so initially jarring, that you’re actually still processing that surprise for a long time after. Even if the team/project/company *is* ruined, there are much better ways to share that information and start a conversation about fixing it.
Knowing the right venue, right time, and right moment for sharing information is a really critical part of good communication. Good communication has much less to do with what you say than how you say it.
Who are you talking to?
When you need to tell a coworker something, or pitch someone an idea, or give your employee an update on a project, ask yourself a few questions about them first, in order to find the best way to share your information with them:
Is this person a morning person? Or do they need a few hours to process lower-level tasks before they are in the swing of the day?
Are they a “doors open” kind of person who doesn’t mind you dropping by with an idea, or do they prefer to schedule meetings to chat?
Are they a visual person? Are they a verbal person?
What are this person’s biggest concerns? What questions are they likely to have?
What does this person care about most, and how does this information relate to that?
Every person is different, so it is important that you tailor your communication individually to every person you speak with. Make it easy for them to hear you, by presenting your information in a way that feels natural to them.
Really excellent communication takes careful planning, from large scale presentations down to a quick coffee meeting. Preparing how to best communicate with your specific audience in any given scenario is key — so how can you do it effectively?
How to plan your communication
Of course, the person who blows up at the beginning of the meeting because your team/product/company is ruined, is almost always doing it because they are feeling emotional. Bad communication springs from poorly thought-out ideas or feelings, that you share anyways because you’re busy or tired or overwhelmed.
But in spite of our emotions, it is in our best interest to take a moment to think before we say the first thing that comes into our heads most of the time. The emotion-based strategy almost always ends up in confusion, conflict, backtracking, and finally ends up at the same logical conclusion you would have gotten to if you had just thought it out — but you have to go through a lot more unpleasantness to get there.
So, planning out the things you want to say is almost always worthwhile. How do you do it?
First things first, ask yourself the list of questions above. Is it better to approach this person in the morning, or after lunch? Should you have a whiteboard on hand so they can brainstorm? Try to put your topic in perspective for the other person, not for yourself, and hear it through their ears. What communication style is most meaningful to them?
Then think about what this information means to them. Think about it like this: you would share information differently with your manager, your company board, and your office manager. These people have vastly different views of the company, because their roles require them to care about vastly different things.
So an update on a new product launch will affect each of these groups differently. The office manager will need to know people are staying late to prep for the launch next week. The board does not need to know this. Instead, the board will need to know how this launch affects the company and moves it in the direction of its goals as a whole. They’re different sides of the same issue, but it matters that you match the right side with the right people.
So think about your audience. Think about how their perspective differs from yours. Tweak your information to speak to *them* directly.
Then do a mental walk-through of the conversation, from beginning to end, and plan out the key points that your conversation should hit. (I have handily listed some of the biggest ones below!) Think now about how you’ll hit each one of these points, so you’re prepared when you speak to the person in real life later.
The guide below is designed to walk you through a conversation from beginning to end, and help you get the main components in order. Of course it may vary, case to case, but if you can use this framework to plan conversations, you’ll find you will be more successful in communicating your ideas to other people.
Always start the conversation by asking the other person if it is still a good time to talk. If it’s not, you would rather know now, so you can reschedule if it is really important. Plus, it’s courteous. :)
Prepare the person for what you’re going to say. Give them a super-brief overview of what you’re going to say, no matter how big or small the topic. We can better process information we are prepared for, rather than grasping to understand ideas on the fly. Prime them to hear you. Your message will stick better, and they’ll be more likely to have helpful responses if they know what’s coming.
For example, you might say: “I have a few ideas for new marketing initiatives that I want to get your advice on. I am thinking about social media, a company blog, and an email newsletter.” Simple, but effective. It gets their mind in exactly the right place to be able to help.
Have a directive or action in mind. Why are you telling this person this information? Probably because you want them to do something with it — so what exactly do you want them to do? Pick one thing. What one thing do you want them to take away from this meeting, if nothing else?
“I would love to get your input on these marketing ideas since you have so much experience in the field, and hear about your experiences implementing them at past companies.”
This tells them exactly what action to take, ie. that you want them to give you advice and share stories from past work experience. Be really clear about this part, because if this person interprets your goal incorrectly and takes a different action, you could end up way off target or having to tell a person they did the wrong thing (which doesn’t make them feel good, and will likely frustrate them that you didn’t communicate effectively).
Break your idea into pieces. Our brains naturally break down big ideas into manageable chunks, so if someone does this for us in advance, it makes it a breeze for us to process what they are saying. Take the time to break your ideas into clear parts before you meet with someone, and not only will *you* understand your ideas more clearly for having done so, but you’ll also have a much easier time getting them on the same page as you quickly.
Think of it like an outline. First, you’ll give them a brief intro into what you’re going to talk about. Then you’ll tell them what you need them to do. Then dive into each of your topics in an orderly fashion: “First, I am thinking about social media. We have a Twitter account, but need to grow followers…”
The more you think about what you need to say in advance, the more logical an order you’ll be able to put your ideas into. Group topics by type, time, impact; whatever makes most sense for your purposes.
Conclude, and say thank you! Anytime anyone makes time to speak with you, it’s important to say thank you. Time is precious, and even if it’s just a quick brainstorming session, it is meaningful to thank the other person for sharing their time with you.
Wrap up by going over what you just talked about to cement it in their mind, and start laying out next steps. If you need to talk to the person again, start making plans now (or at least confirming that it would be alright) to meet again.
Follow up. Say thanks again in an email, and send along any important details from your meeting. Go over what you talked about, what progress you made, and anything else significant that happened. If you have an article or link that you talked about or that applies to your conversation, send it along now!
Do you still need this person to take an action? Give them all the information they need to take that action (reminders of your questions, dates, times, contact info, etc) so it is super simple. Even if you went over it in person, many people need to see this kind of information written out for it to really register, so don’t skip this step.
Good communication is all about catering your message to the right person and getting it in front of them at the right time. What are your best communication tips? Share them in the comments!