Communication is arguably the most important skill in your professional and personal life. Various studies confirm that conclusion. Communication connects people, enabling us to work together, build relationships, and understand each other. Thus it's a shame we don't make it more of a priority in the A/E profession.
We readily acknowledge that most technical professionals lack strong communication skills, but invest little in trying to remedy the problem. Communication breakdowns can be costly, resulting in lost business, unhappy clients, misunderstandings, mistakes, budget and schedule overruns, poor quality work, coworker conflicts, and staff turnover—to name a few. Why do we accept these shortcomings as normative?
We can do better, and real improvement is not necessarily that difficult to achieve. In fact, my best piece of communication advice is relatively simple.
Communication Is a Partnership
I liken it to a completed forward pass in football. The quarterback must accurately deliver the ball and the receiver must catch it. Both parties have to do their part. An on-target pass that is dropped by the receiver produces the same result as a pass thrown well out of the receiver's reach. Quarterback is considered the most important role on the team, but his passes have to be caught for him to have success.
So it is in communication. When we describe someone as a "good communicator," we're almost always talking about the one who delivers the message. Often we're referring to their eloquence, their tone, their choice of words, the content of their message. But no matter how well we might judge the delivery of the message, it must be received as intended for it to accomplish its purpose. Communication is a partnership.
We Usually Focus on the Wrong Thing
There is a tendency to think that if our message contains the right information, we've done our part as "communicators." But the most important part of good communication is not the message sent. It is the message received.
I once traveled to Dallas to do some safety training for one of my clients. But when I arrived there with the corporate safety director, no one in that office knew we were coming. There were no scheduled training sessions, no in-field safety observations arranged. The safety director was quite perturbed. "I sent the branch manager an email with all the information they needed!" he said.
"But did you receive any confirmation that he received your email?" I asked. No, he hadn't. The safety director was accurate in saying the email contained all the necessary information. But recipient never saw it (turns out the subject line was misleading, the latest in an extended conversation that eventually changed topic). It doesn't matter how well you composed your email when no one reads it!
My example is perhaps a bit extreme, but the problem is very common in our workplaces: People assuming they "communicated" simply because they sent a message. Perhaps their message was read or heard, but it wasn't understood by their audience as intended. Same problem. Ultimately, your audience determines the success of your communications.
What Matters Most in Communication
Thus I offer the best advice I can think of when it comes to communication:
Focus first on how your message will be received, not on how it is sent.
This simple advice can help you avoid a lot of communication breakdowns. Thought you made a strong case to the client for your proposed solution? Unfortunately, it was buried in a lot of nonessential text that the client was only skimming through. Thought you explained to staff why the PTO policy had to be changed? Unfortunately, you failed to consider the context of two previous policy changes that left them feeling their opinions didn't matter.
To return to the earlier illustration of a forward pass, the imperative is to make your messages more catchable. Perhaps it hits the receiver's hands, but is delivered too hard. Or it hits the receiver between the numbers, but defenders block his view. Or is thrown too far in front of him considering his speed is compromised by poor field conditions.
You must design and deliver your messages with your audience in mind. Here are some helpful tips for making your messages more catchable:
Know your audience. All communication passes through filters constructed of such things as emotions, experiences, personality, values, expertise, interests, and vocabulary. Construct your message for your audience, not for yourself. And address the issues that matter most to them.
Don't say more than is necessary. Get to the point! To use an old journalistic standard: Don't bury the lede (meaning don't obscure your main points by immersing them in unnecessary details). We do this on a regular basis, apparently presuming that more detail strengthens our messages. But in fact, more information given typically results in less information received.
Make written messages skimmable. Obviously, this is particularly important for longer documents such as reports or proposals. People aren't reading word for word; they're skimming—more than ever before. If you're not making your documents (or longer emails) skimmable, you've lost message control.
Don't address sensitive or controversial topics in emails. These are better delivered live, so you can adjust your message to the feedback you're receiving. Better still, spend time listening to your audience before trying to get your message across. Show that you care about their concerns.
Minimize jargon. The technical terms we like to use tend to exclude those who don't have a similar background. Jargon doesn't make you look as smart as being able to describe these terms in everyday language that's inclusive of your whole audience.
If it's important, repeat it repeatedly. You can obviously overdo this, but the most successful leaders and professionals have learned that overcommunicating is smart practice in an overcommunicated world. Use multiple communication channels in increase the likelihood that your message will be received.
Confirm that your message is received as you intended it. You cannot conclude that your message was communicated successfully until you have evidence that it was received as planned. This confirmation isn't as simple as "Did you get my message?" but should include feedback that indicates they understood it and responded to it as you wanted them to.