Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cutting Through the Communication Clutter

Effective communication is absolutely critical to your business success. It must happen at multiple levels--with clients, employees, subcontractors, project stakeholders, etc. Not surprisingly, when I'm asked to help firms address business performance problems, poor communication is almost always a key factor.

To say that we typically fail to communicate enough would be a true statement. But ironically that problem is complicated by the fact that we have too much communication. A Gallup study found that the average worker sends and receives a total of 178 messages a day (that figure will sound too low for many!). Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said they felt overwhelmed by the flow of information. Just consider how much time you spend each day with the telephone, email, meetings, and conversations.

In his book Leading Change, John Kotter illustrated the difficulty of cutting through the communication clutter. Imagine you're leading an important change initiative and over a three-month period you communicated the new vision to staff via a 30-minute speech, an hour-long meeting, a 2,000-word memo, and a 600-word email. That would represent only about 0.6% of the total office communication received by the average employee (not to mention messages coming from outside the firm). Obviously that makes it difficult to get your point across.

So what can you do? First, let me suggest that you consider the "three keys to effective communication" every time you're preparing your message. Those keys are easy to remember (if not so easy to apply): Attention, Comprehension, Retention. Test your message against those three objectives. For more on this approach, click on the link above.

Then let me suggest a few other valuable strategies for communicating your message to people who are overloaded with information:

Keep it simple and consistent. Use a minimum of words to make your point. Avoid technical jargon or concepts that might exclude some in your audience. Make sure that everyone who shares in this communication task is telling the same story, and stick to the same core message over time.

Use multiple channels. Balance considerations of relative impact, frequency, and costs to maximize your opportunities to make your message prominent. Your options continue to multiply with evolving technology, but remember that the basics of effective communication don't fundamentally change from medium to medium.

Keep repeating it. Take a hint from advertisers: repetition works. The more often your audience hears the message, the more likely they'll remember it--to a point. Overload them with your message and they'll start tuning you out. That's why variety (see point above) helps.

Invite dialogue. People are more likely to buy into your ideas if they have an opportunity for feedback. Staff meetings and individual conversations, for example, are good forums for learning how your message is being received. As sales guru Tony Robbins observed, "If you say it, they can doubt it, but if they say it, it's true."

Act consistent with your message. Especially when you're trying to persuade your audience, nothing will undermine the credibility of your message quicker than not walking the talk. Remember, people receive communication both with their ears and their eyes. Plus don't overlook the importance of trust in creating effective communication.

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