I recently discussed the topic of communication in a podcast with Pippa Woodhead at Tigerhall (link below). As we were talking it felt like I was stating the obvious, however despite being simple, it is something that can make a huge difference if you pay attention to it. I am sure nearly everyone working in an office role feels like they receive too many emails. Only a small fraction will actually get read properly so how do you make sure that you get your message across?
In the podcast and in this blog I give some tips based on my experience of managing both up and down. I will mostly focus on written communication.
I have been lucky to work in a number of countries as well as with people of varying levels of seniority, from branch staff right up to the C-suite of FTSE100 companies. I have learnt that there are differences in communicating upwards and more broadly, however there is more in common than you may think.
My key tips are to keep it short and keep it simple. Make clear what you want from the reader and why should they care. Focus on what they need to know, rather than what you want to tell them.
Keep it simple:
Many of us fall into the trap of writing from a point of expertise and either assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader or give too much detail so that you lose people’s attention. Use plain language, short sentences and avoid using idioms and acronyms. This helps avoid misunderstandings as they can mean very different things to different audiences.
I also found that having someone check my messages really helpful. This was particularly useful when I was in Shanghai. I had a fabulous EA, Fay, who was an excellent second pair of eyes. She was not in the detail of many of the projects we might be working on, which meant she could lend a fresh perspective and ensure that messages were clear to readers with little prior knowledge. This was especially important when communicating with teams where English was not their native language.
Make it relevant to your target audience:
For example, when communicating a strategy, it is important to ensure that people can understand how their day to day role fits in to achieving the strategy and what if anything, they should be doing differently. This includes your direct teams but also those who you work with regularly. In Shanghai as COO, I used the overarching purpose that our team had to focus on “driving growth safely and making things easier”. Everything we did could be linked to these, whether managing risk, supporting client servicing or driving digital projects, and in achieving this we would help the bank achieve its overarching strategy. This helped make communications consistent and easy to understand
An important reminder is that what people hear from a message often isn’t the same as what you thought you’d said. I’m sure as children we’ve all played the game of whispering a message into your friend’s ear to pass on and seeing what comes out the other end? Communication in a large organisation can be similar. Listening to your audience and getting feedback on the message and how it’s understood so that you can adjust accordingly are really important parts of successful communication.
Repeat your message frequently:
In marketing there is a common concept of the “Rule of seven”, meaning that you should repeat something 7 times for it to make a lasting impression. The same principle should be used when trying to share key messages at work. This applies both to setting your vision or changing behaviour (for a new system or compliance need for example). I am not suggesting just sending an email 7 times. Mix up the delivery medium using townhalls, 1-1s, videos or podcasts as different people absorb information in different ways. Find opportunities to allow people to ask questions and give feedback, which allows you to check their understanding. I know I had repeated our vision enough times when I heard my team using it themselves.
I mentioned at the start that there are many similarities between communicating upwards and downwards. There are a few things to take particular note of to communicate upwards effectively.
The more senior you go, the shorter the attention span due to competing demands on their time and so it is even more important to be concise.
Make it clear what is being asked for straight away and why it is relevant to the reader, amongst the various things competing for their time and attention. They will have a broader view than you and may need to make prioritisation decisions. They may need your help to understand why the issue you are raising is of particular importance in your area/market.
It is very frustrating getting an escalation that requires you to read through a long chain of emails to understand what the problem is and what decision or action is being asked from the reader.
Have the detail available but don’t overwhelm the reader. Where possible, engage the relevant stakeholders whose support or guidance you need, to reassure the decision maker that you’ve considered different angles. Make it easy for them to give you the support you are seeking.
Ideally write your message in a way that it can be forwarded or copied easily as often things go through various layers and to different stakeholders. This was a key tip from my boss in Doha before I headed into the Chairman’s office, which stood me in good stead.
In closing, although my tips are mostly focused on written communication, I firmly believe that nothing beats a proper conversation. The more you can speak directly with people, the more effective you are likely to be. Get up, go over to speak to someone (if you’re allowed in the office together now) or pick up the phone, you’ll get so much more achieved.