Monday, January 24, 2011

Three Keys to Effective Communication

Have you ever considered how critical your communication skills are in delivering value to your clients? Think about it: Your work products are all forms of communication, whether provided as plans, reports, correspondence, presentations, or simply help and advice offered in conversation. Yet we would not identify communication as one of the core strengths of our profession, would we?

Let me suggest three straightforward keys to improving your communication. You could call these critical goals that you should try to achieve every time you communicate:
  • Attention: How well your audience tunes into what you have to say
  • Comprehension: How well your audience understands what you have to say
  • Retention: How well your audience remembers what you had to say
Getting Attention
You cannot communicate until you have your audience's attention. Don't take that for granted. We live in a hyperactive, over-communicated world, where drawing attention to your message is harder than ever. But here are a few ideas for breaking through the din:

Explain at the outset why what you have to say is important or valuable to your audience. Audience attention is typically higher at the beginning of the communication process. That's when you must answer the question, "What's in it for me?" The best way is to connect with audience needs and interests. If they think you have an answer to their problem, you'll have their attention.

Establish your credibility. If you haven't gained the trust and confidence of your audience, they won't pay attention to what you have to say. There are several ways to gain credibility (reputation, referral, demonstrated competence, etc.), but usually the quickest way is to show genuine concern for your audience.

Present your message in bold, dynamic fashion. This is brash advice for many in our profession who favor a safe, conservative communication style. It doesn't mean you have to do anything outrageous; simply borrow the best communication techniques from the experts. Use design principles from mainstream books, newspapers, and magazines. Study how popular speakers and television news professionals draw attention to their messages. Take note of what messages get your attention and how they are presented. Then put these observations into practice.

Communicate the most important information first.
This is a technique called the "inverted pyramid" that the news media have used for decades. Order your message content from "what I must say" to "what I should say" to "what I could say." Keep your key messages as the prominent feature of your communications.

Personally engage your audience.
Draw them in by relating to them as individuals. Ask questions, invite participation, show interest. Use a personal, conversational tone. You need to meet your audience where they're at before they'll join you where you're going in your communication.

Enhancing Comprehension
Working in a technical field, it's easy to forget sometimes that others aren't familiar with much of the content that has become second nature to you. You should try to avoid letting technical terminology and concepts leave any of your audience feeling left out. It's also important to speak about issues, concerns, and experiences that are familiar and relevant to your audience. Some pointers:

Minimize the use of technical jargon. Some may think that using such terms demonstrates expertise, but in fact it takes more skill to describe complex technical concepts in everyday language. If you must use words that might be unfamiliar to your audience, be sure to define them first.

Test your messages with someone outside your area of expertise. Sometimes it isn't just the terms technical professionals use that impede comprehension, but the way we construct sentences and order information. Someone who's not familiar with your technical specialty is often best suited to point out confusing messages. Invite feedback from such an individual (or individuals) before taking your communication to your audience.

Address issues and concerns that are relevant to your audience.
If you are a civil engineer, for example, you might be prone to focus predominantly on the civil engineering issues associated with a project or problem. Unfortunately, your audience's interests may center on something else--such as traffic disruption, visual impacts, noise, air quality, historic preservation, etc. To increase comprehension in that situation, you would need to make your engineering issues relevant to their non-engineering concerns.

Write in a concise, conversational manner.
For some reason, technical professionals often struggle to communicate their specialties in a straightforward, understandable fashion. Their writing is frequently stilted and wordy. For best results, write generally as you would speak. Use short sentences and don't say more than is necessary.

Increasing Retention
Your audience cannot act on what they cannot remember, and studies point out that people typically remember only a fraction of what they read, hear, or see. So you should design your oral and written communications to increase the likelihood that the most important messages are remembered. Some ideas to increase retention:

Target a few key messages. Determine the three to five most important points to remember from your communication and feature these prominently in your document or presentation.

Illustrate your main points. Visual images are remembered more readily than what is merely written or spoken. Use graphs, figures, and photographs to illustrate your key messages.

Use stories. Stories are a powerful form of communication and are better remembered than mere information. Most technical professionals commonly use case histories, but these should be "humanized" (talk about the people involved and how they were impacted) for maximum effectiveness.

Always provide a concise summary. Whether writing or speaking, make sure to offer a summary of your key points. In a document, this should appear first--typically in the form of an executive summary. In a presentation, meeting, or conversation, your summary should occur at the end, joined with some discussion of or request for what you'd like your audience to do in response.

Your communications are vitally important. So let me urge you to commit these three keys to your memory: attention, comprehension, retention--then structure your messages specifically to achieve these crucial goals.

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