What you’ll learn to do: Discuss the importance of effective communication in business
Communication happens when all parties are engaged in uncovering and understanding the meaning behind the words. It’s not something that one person does alone. But when you, as a business professional, make your contribution to the uncovering and understanding process, you should strive to be:
- Understanding of Audience Knowledge
These are the seven pillars, or principles, of business communication. If you open your mouth, put pen to paper, or pick up a camera to make a video, you should be striving to create a message that meets these criteria.
Why? Well, the point of communication is not to talk. It’s to be understood. When your team understands you, they deliver results. When your customers understand you, they buy. When your manager understands you, she advocates for you and supports you in your career.
This module will talk about the benefits of effective business communication and how, using the principles above, you can improve your communication skills and be more successful in business.
- Discuss how effective communication improves you as an employee
- Identify characteristics of your audience in business communication
- Discuss the process of the social communication model
- Identify key features of effective writing in business
- Discuss the overlap between professional and personal communication
Becoming a Better Employee
Communication is something we often take for granted but not often something we think to improve. And yet, being a good communicator can open doors for you as an employee, make you more valuable to your employer and help you get ahead.
Think about the tree swing in Figure 1. The creation of that swing started out all wrong and then got worse from there.
Let’s approach that process as though you were in charge. How could you have been a better employee and improved that result with better communication? We’ll look at it step by step.
- Meeting with the project sponsor: As the sales associate of this tree swing, you met with the project sponsor, Mark, and heard his translation of the customer’s wishes. Mark very clearly told you he wanted a swing with three seats, one on top of another. Now, you’re an expert on tree swings. Does his request make sense? This is an effective communication opportunity. You could have asked questions, clarified and repeated back what Mark was telling you. You could have told him that this kind of swing design was highly unusual and not generally embraced by tree swing aficionados. An opportunity to engage in effective communication with the customer was missed.
- Specifying the project request: This is where you, as swing sales person, made your first mistake. Rather than requesting three seats, you requested three ropes to secure the swing to the tree. This is another effective communication opportunity. You could have proofread and double-checked to make sure your request matched Mark’s request, but you did not. An opportunity to ensure effective communication via reinforcement and repetition was missed.
- Designing, production and installation: Here’s where the project went from wrong to wrong-er. Your swing production team not only didn’t question your request for three ropes, they went off and did their own thing with the concept and design of the product. The architect misunderstood your request completely. The production team reviewed the architect’s request and knew his design wasn’t functional, and so made their own changes. Finally, the installation team got there and the product wouldn’t work without additional reinforcements, so they did what was needed to make the product functional. This is another effective communication opportunity Not only did they miss opportunities to communicate with each other, but you missed an opportunity for follow-up, reinforcement and repetition.
Your manager, Gloria, is going to get calls from customers, and when she’s done hearing their complaints, is she going to think you’re employee of the year? Probably not. You didn’t deliver good results.
Employees who communicate effectively by listening, repeating, reinforcing and following up avoid all these issues. They are presented with a problem, they take in all the necessary information, and then they direct their teams with messaging that is
- Considerate of the knowledge his audience possesses
Because of better communication, they become better team members, co-workers, and employees.
The Business Audience
As a business communicator, you’ll be communicating to two types of audiences.
- Your primary audience is the audience that your communication is intended for. For instance, if you’re preparing an earnings report, the audience is likely your senior team. They will review the information, give you feedback, and decide if they need to take action based on the information you’ve provided.
- Your secondary audience is the group of people that aren’t real stakeholders in your communication. That same earnings report, with the senior team as its primary audience, might find other audiences in investors, stockholders, or even your competitors or the media. They may comment on your data or take action on it.
Why is it important to understand primary and secondary audiences and what the differences are between them? Consider the following points:
- Managing information: When you consider the information you should be communicating, you need to consider the needs of your primary audience first. The information they require to do their work is your first concern. Any information that would be important to a secondary audience should be relegated to a less prominent area of the report.
- Managing language: A key factor in communicating effectively is the assessment of the knowledge that your intended audience brings to the table. If your primary audience is a bunch of school kids and your challenge is to explain key economic factors in the 1929 stock market collapse, your language will be much different than if you explain it to a group of historians. Choose the correct language to communicate.
- Managing the depth of your topic: The human resources team might want to dig into a turnover report in great detail and, if they’re your primary audience, it’s your job to communicate that information to them. On the other hand, the CEO may just want to know what the annualized rate is. “Are people staying or are they leaving?” he will ask. Sometimes a simple, “Staying,” is all he needs to know.
You will communicate more effectively if you understand your audience and the depth of knowledge they bring with them to the communication event.
The Social Communication Model
Communication suggests a linear process. There’s a sender of a message—let’s say that’s you talking. You put your thoughts into words. And then there’s a recipient of a message. He hears those words and considers their meaning. That’s your co-worker, listening. It looks something like this:
You, the sender, have a thought. You put that thought into words (encoding). The message comes out of your mouth, and then it is decoded (processed) by the recipient, your co-worker, who then decides on the meaning of your words as a result of that decoding process.
But what you say isn’t always what your co-worker hears. And that’s where things go wrong.
Let’s pretend that you’re listening to some music, a good Jimi Hendrix tune. And you sing along with the lyric, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”: Purple Haze—classic Jimi Hendrix.
So, you’re inspired by the music and sing the words in much the same way Jimi sings it. You think it, you put it into words (encoding it), and it becomes a message. Is everything good? Maybe not. It’s possible that Jimi’s “stylized” approach to singing lyrics is going to get in the way of your message. This is called noise.
The noise disturbing your message can jump in at any time. It can be actual noise, it can be a concept misunderstood by the sender before the message is even formed, it can be a message that’s not articulated properly, or it can be a message that’s just not understood by the receiver. In this case, the “noise” is you imitating the way Jimi sings his lyric, which is not spoken all that clearly.
Your co-worker hears your communication, and the message you encoded and sent to him is not decoded in the same way, because the decoding process is affected by “noise.” As a result, your coworker thinks you’ve said, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”
He frowns and tells you, “You probably shouldn’t be kissing anyone at work.” This is called feedback.
Your recipient has let you know that you’ve been misunderstood by giving you feedback. At this point you can:
- Repeat the message a second time
- Ask some clarifying questions to determine why your recipient didn’t understand what you said and then address those issues on your next attempt to communicate your idea.
In this case, you immediately realize how you’ve been misunderstood. This happens all the time when people hear this song. You process the feedback and encode a new message. You tell him, “No. It’s ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky.’ Not ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy.’”
When the communication is only linear, extending from sender to recipient, you’re talking at your audience. The minute there’s feedback from the audience, like with the social communication model, you’re talking with your audience. Talking with an audience ensures a better level of understanding.
Effective communication means leveraging the social communication model to make sure your team is all singing the same song.
Basic Model of Social Communication. In: ManagementMania.com [online]. Wilmington (DE) 2011–2018, 08/24/2016 [cit. 06/05/2018]. Available at: Management Mania Basic Model of Social Communication
Writing in Business
Just like having a face-to-face discussion, effective business writing should rely on the seven principles of business communication:
- Considerate of Audience Knowledge
When you put pen to paper, you should be considering every principle. We’ve looked at these principles before, but now let’s take a deep dive into how they might impact your writing.
Phone System Outage
Let’s assume that you’re writing a communication to let everyone know that the corporate office phone system will be down for a certain period of time next Friday morning. Let’s take a look at how each of the principles of business communication figure into that written message.
- Clear: When you craft the message, you should make sure that it’s clear to your readers. In this case, you want the entire company to know that the corporate office phone systems will be down between 9 and noon. Being clear means that you add a.m. and p.m., even if you think it might be obvious. You should indicate that you’re talking about Pacific Standard Time, and so on.
- Concise: Since it’s a message about the phone system, it should be a message only about the phone system. And then, a message only about the outage. If you’re inspired to include, “Tom broke the phone system last week and now it needs to be repaired,” resist this urge. Even if Tom is responsible for the outage, it may be appropriate to joke with Tom about it if he’s a personal friend, but this is not the kind of messaging that should go out to the whole office.
- Objective: Your own personal feelings and comments do not need to be a part of the phone communication. For instance, “Even though the timing is poor for those working on the polling project, we intend to repair our phone system on Friday” is a great example of not being objective.
- Consistent: If the phone system has been out three or four times before, your message should be similar in nature to those that came before it. If one of the details of the phone system is that it’s being upgraded so we can add a new satellite office to the trunk line, don’t include information contrary to this fact unless it is explained. Consistent means that the details are the same each time–that the communication looks the same, sounds the same; and that any new details are called out.
- Complete: If you set out to tell the company that the phone system is going to be out at 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning and then fail to tell them when it will be back up, then your message is incomplete. Strive to be complete in your written communication by anticipating any question a reader might ask: “Is the phone system going down this Friday or next Friday?” “How long will it be down?” “Is the whole corporate office affected or just a portion?”
- Relevant: When considering whether a message is relevant, you can ask yourself, “Are these readers affected by this information?” “Does it matter that the phones will be out on Friday if the office is closed for the holiday?” It also means not including information that isn’t relevant to the reader, such as, “The repair people think that, by replacing the left widget on the main switchboard, they may solve the problem, but it could also be the right widget, in which case they’ll need to order a part.” This is not relevant.
- Considerate of Audience Knowledge: Always keep in mind the knowledge your audience brings to the message. If you’re communicating the details of nuclear fission to a group, you would talk to them differently depending on how much they knew about science. In this case, everyone understands what a phone is. (Though those two extraterrestrials just hired in real estate may need to know it’s the black thing on their desk with the handset you can put up to your ear.)
It’s incredibly important to measure your written communication against the seven principles of business communication because in written communication, the “feedback” portion of that social communication model isn’t always accessible. When noise enters your written communication, you often don’t immediately know that your audience doesn’t understand, sometimes until it’s too late. Make sure you measure your message against the seven principles to stay ahead of any misunderstandings.
Personal and Professional Communication
When you consider the difference between communication on a personal level and communication on a professional level, the first thing that comes to mind is the level of formality. In personal communication, you typically use relaxed language, and the level of knowledge your audience brings into the communication is usually significant and personal. The need to be clear and concise, to be objective, is thrown aside. Personal communications are often meant only for a single audience and are oftentimes understandable only to that audience.
Professional communication, on the other hand, is read by an audience that you don’t know as well. You find you need to make an effort to be clear, concise, relevant and objective. You make an effort to appeal to and be understood by a more diverse group.
However, with the advent of technology and social media, the lines between personal and professional communication are becoming blurred. Your customers are looking to connect with your company on a deeper, more personal level. Technology has turned the 9–5 worker into an always-accessible team member, and because of it, professional relationships are evolving into something that straddles the line between formal and informal. Customers, vendors, and even co-workers want to deal with a human being, not someone hiding behind the curtain and operating the great and powerful talking head that runs the company. Add to that myriad methods of informal communication platforms like texting and social media, and you can see there’s a revolution going on here.
Your business communications are destined to be affected by this shifting tide. If companies with strong brands are going out of their way to connect with their customers on social media and share the “human side” of their businesses, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t follow suit as long as you feel comfortable doing so.
Some things to keep in mind if you’re going to give it a try:
- Don’t give up the seven principles of business communication: No matter how personal you get, those principles are still the hallmark of a successful message. Your wider audience still needs clarity, uniformity, and so on. Your goal is to be understood, to yield a particular business result, and that doesn’t change.
- Don’t get personal to the point of irrelevance: Your co-workers and vendors might enjoy knowing that you’re a huge football fan, but they don’t need to know what you had for lunch today.
- Don’t share details that might not be easily embraced: People don’t always receive the message well if you express strong political beliefs that don’t fit with theirs. Be careful about sharing your “ideals.” GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons got called out in 2011 when he made a video of his exploits hunting elephants and posted it to his company’s site so he could “share” himself with the world. The attention he got for his moment of personal sharing wasn’t positive.
Even though professional communication and personal communication are quickly becoming just “communication,” your success still hinges on being successful at it. Strengthen your command of the seven communication principles and move forward bravely with your list of shareable personality traits.