“We need to communicate better!” This is the most evident catch-all solution people offer to fix all kinds of problems in the workplace – from poor safety to a failing merger; from poor management to an unmotivated workforce. And it’s true. To help people perform better in any organisation at whatever they do everybody has to find ways to communicate more effectively.
However, there are three problems with the catchall “we-have-to-communicate-better”. Firstly, we don’t take time to pin down exactly what we mean by “more effective communication”. Secondly, the definite recommendations seem so simplistic and time-consuming that people don’t believe their value. Thirdly, the solutions seem so mundane – so non-sexy – that people don’t want to do them.
So here are twelve pinned-down suggestions. They don’t need great brainpower but in some instances they’ll take time to implement. They’ve been gleaned from practical efforts at helping colleagues improve their business performance. This means that if you don’t take steps to implement them yourself or delegate the implementation, there is nothing else. There are many other “effective communication tips”, but the twelve in this article have proved most powerful.
1. Scrap glossy corporate magazines.
They seem like a good idea and they look very professional but nobody reads them. I see them piled up in offices and factories and when I ask people if they read them the answer is always “no”. Instead, spend the time and money on smaller targeted ways of reaching specific audiences (customers, policy-makers and the public, for example) and telling them what you want them to know or do.
2. Make newsletters shorter, more direct and more frequent.
Quarterly, full color, sixteen-page newsletters are not being read. Remember, people don’t want to read anything work-related and the internet has now created a generation that cannot read long articles. People want relevant information quickly. Issue the newsletter monthly. Limit it to two sides of A4 with not more than two photographs. Use bullet points throughout and use a font no smaller than 12pt. The same goes for all kinds of reports. Encourage people to keep them as short as possible.
3. Scrap massive presentations to hundreds of employees.
The great big corporate presentation with microphones, triumphal music and vague “feel-good” or “wake-up call” speeches, are a waste of time and effort. People who attend enjoy the jaunt but invariably don’t know what they’re supposed to do afterwards. Rather, take the time to have ten separate smaller gatherings with detailed question and answer sessions. Progress is made when people can express their real concerns and large events intimidate most people – even senior people.
4. Reduce the display of statistics.
People want to know what the numbers mean for them and what they have to do about them. Encourage people in talks and reports to give only a summary of the numbers and to concentrate 70% of their communication on the implications. You’ll get some resistance because figuring out implications requires considerable thought!
5. Avoid power point and death by overheads.
Unfortunately, if you use power point your audience will first be on edge because the technology never works and second will switch off. People remember the gimmicks and the clip art, not what you’ve said. Stick to well prepared, relevant OHP slides. In a 25-minute talk you MUST limit the slides to five.
6. Don’t allow people to use meetings to transmit information.
Meetings take double the time they should because we sit passively listening to someone telling a story – albeit an important one. Use meetings to debate the issues and to make decisions. Find more effective ways to disseminate information. Insist that people circulate any kind of information (reports, accounts, plans and so on) in advance. Don’t allow people to read documents in the meeting if they haven’t done their homework.
7. Managers should tell people more of what’s happening.
Not sharing enough information is a major problem. Managers should tell people as much as possible, even if you think it is not relevant to them. For example, make available parts of the business plan. Let people know what’s going to happen three months from now. If you don’t know, say so. Naturally, commercial sensitivity must be respected. Some companies make available company profit and loss statements. However, here’s the trick. The information has to be very concise and accompanied by a clear explanation of what impact, if any, it will have on people. Similarly we should tell our peers in other departments what we are about to do. One department not telling the other what it is doing causes many mistakes.
8. Employees should tell managers more of what’s happening.
Employees are getting into difficulties because they’re not being honest in telling their supervisors or managers what’s really going on. Managers need this information to make necessary changes and as employees we just have to force ourselves to raise problems openly. We have to overcome our fear of upsetting the boss. However, here’s the trick. Managers need the information in a way that helps them. A quick scribbled note or heated telephone message is no good. State the problem clearly, offer some solutions and request what you want done. Similarly, we should tell our mates what we are about to do. Merely one person not telling another what he has just done or is about to can lead to serious and costly mistakes.
9. Respond as quickly as possible to any request.
The biggest complaint I hear from colleagues about poor communication is that people are slow to, or never, respond. People are submitting important requests they need to progress a job, never to hear a word in response. Acknowledge requests as soon as they are received. Thank people and explain what you will do with the request. Keep people informed frequently on progress and if the answer is “no” give reasons.
10. Consult more and have more informal talks.
We all know that fruitful business often gets done during breaks, meal times and recreational events rather than in the actual conferences or workshops themselves. So extend this to everyday practice. Talk with people not as an interrogating boss but as someone who wants to make things better. Ask people what they need to do an even better job. Ask them how to improve the meetings. Ask them what they think is hindering the department doing even better. Express your major current fear about the business and ask how they could alleviate this fear.
11. Control e-mailitis.
Technology has made us lazy. It’s so easy to send copies to everybody without thinking if they really need or want them. Minimize the number of copies. Try telephoning first. You can say so much more and get the context of things in a three-minute telephone call. Don’t assume people have received your e-mails. Ask them to respond or check by telephoning. Don’t use e-mails as weapons: “Oh but I e-mailed you last week so it’s your fault!”
12. Speak and write in plain English.
Use words people understand. Why use “axiomatic” when you can say “self-explanatory”. Be concise so that “at this moment in time” becomes “now” and “events that have happened in the past” becomes “past events”. In addition, say what you mean. The man’s health was affected by the weather doesn’t tell us much. We want to know how his health was affected.
By Robert Holiday