Say This, Not That: 7 Ways to Communicate Effectively

by Debbie Shotwell | Posted | Communication

Say This, Not That: 7 Ways to Communicate Effectively

Communication can be incredibly hard. Anytime you have to repeat something, you're being inefficient. Anytime you have a misunderstanding, there is potential for huge mistakes. In fact, I believe that most problems in life (and in the workplace) come from poor communication. Better communication can make drastic improvements to marriages, businesses, competitions, politics, and more. It's something that can always be improved, and good leaders should be ever mindful of its value.

Modern technology, with texting, chatting, email, phone and video, should all give us more tools to better communicate but, in reality, has just made everything more complicated. For example, it might be incredibly efficient to conduct layoffs by email, but the results would be disastrous! Or an important email might get buried in someone's inbox and not read until it's too late.

So, what are the things a leader must consider in the modern workplace?

Start with the purpose of the message

What is the message you are trying to communicate and why? The point you are trying to convey will determine a lot of the other factors in how you communicate. To channel Stephen Covey, "begin with the end in mind" when setting communication goals. Here are seven ways to communicate effectively.

Choose your medium wisely

As I mentioned previously, technology can be very helpful or very dangerous. The medium or channel can be sorted into a hierarchy depending on how rich your message needs to be

In person. Communicating with a group or individual in person is my preferred method of communicating, especially with complex issues. You can use words, tone and body language to convey the message. You can also get feedback on your message and adjust if needed. For example, an effective communicator will notice when they've lost the audience's attention through audience questions and body language.

Voice, including phone calls, Skype, voicemail

With this method you lose all the benefits you gain from body language. If you need visual aids to convey your message, it will be slightly more difficult but doable.


Emails are very, very dangerous if used improperly or lazily. First of all, it's incredibly difficult to convey tone over email. Everyone has stories of misunderstandings due to this.

Carelessness can cause enormous embarrassment as well. I once was BCC'ed by my boss on an email, and I replied "to all," not noticing that I was BCC'ed. Oops. Also, email's permanence can also cause big problems. I have a lawyer friend who says he won't put anything in an email he wouldn't feel comfortable being read aloud in court. Sage advice.

I like to think of emails as modern-day memos. They are a perfect tool when used to convey complicated messages that you want to put a lot of thought into, preserve and easily disseminate. Emails are also a great way to share messages that require images and files.

Text or chat

I view text or chat as "email lite." They are great for short, simple messages that won't expire and don't require immediate feedback. They require little effort. For example, if I have a quick question for my boss when she's on the phone, I'll chat or Skype it to her (often so I don't forget), and then sit back, relax and surf Facebook until she is able to respond. Haha. Just kidding!

Know your audience

Consider carefully who you are communicating with. You will need to treat a big group of people differently than an individual. Likewise, someone who is easily offended might need a phone call or face-to-face meeting when it's necessary to convey a touchy message; whereas someone with thick skin might be fine receiving a text message. Age, gender and mood are other things you should consider in your audience and use to help craft your message.

Don't forget the relationship matters!

The majority of cases of "social awkwardness" come when one person doesn't act appropriately according to the relationship, such as being too formal or informal, or cracking inside jokes. Bosses and workers have a totally different relationship than peers. I remember once watching a group of senior officers in the Army joking around with each other. I thought "Wow, they are goofy just like us lieutenants!" Of course, they never would have acted that way to us, because there was a different relationship. That's not to say this type of work relationship has to be super formal, but you must always realize that when you have the power to hire, fire and promote, you are an authority figure whether you act like one or not.

Context is important

Leaders must consider the environment in which they are delivering their message. Don't wait until the company party when everyone's celebrating to break serious news. Things happen globally, nationally and locally that will affect the effectiveness of your communication. One good indicator should be your own feelings. Do you feel sad about something that happened to a co-worker? Excited about signing a new client? Chances are the rest of your team will have similar emotions. Still, this is sometimes difficult to gauge and requires empathy. No one cares about your promotion when a beloved co-worker just got fired. You should probably wait until Monday to break the news.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

One of the most challenging things with communication is that people's minds can only hold so much information. Advertisers know this, which is why they bombard you with the same message repeatedly. Eventually, the message starts to sink in. Here are some tips to make sure your message is not forgotten:

  1. When presenting, an effective opening and conclusion repeats the main message.
  2. After a phone call or face-to-face meeting, follow up with an email summarizing the discussion. This will repeat the message, plus help prevent misunderstandings.
  3. Have several people give the same message at different opportunities.
  4. Seek constant feedback.

As a leader, you should always seek feedback to make sure your communication is effective. When conveying a complicated subject, ask for a briefback. In a briefback, "the person or people receiving the instructions give a synopsis of the instructions they just received." You will often be surprised at how much got "lost in translation," though you'll be relieved because now you have the chance to clarify your message (works great with kids too, btw). Feedback doesn't have to be formal, though, and you can often see how effective your communication is by observing the body language of your audience. Don't be oblivious! Always monitor how effective your communication is with your audience.

What other things should leaders keep in mind when communicating?

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