Root Causes: Communication

Volume 132 No. 3 - Friday, July 18, 2008

Most of us feel compelled to shoot from the hip. While this may relieve us of pressure, firing without aiming misses the target.
Time spent listening, reading carefully and editing is never wasted if you care about more than just getting it off your chest!

Real Communication
What others hear is what matters, not what we say. Words are tricky things, and the same words can mean different things for different people and valuing each other’s time is a neglected value.

The communication tools at our disposal are not that many, but real communication means using the right tool in the right way at the right time.

Spoken Communication
Some things are best said out loud, particularly those things that can easily be misunderstood, or are personal in nature.

Most of us get nervous talking about what matters to us. We have little training in communication.

This much is known, if a difficult conversation, put the spotlight on yourself, talk from how it makes you think, feel or react and never accuse.

I created the term Listenspeak™ to describe the necessary discipline of talking or writing with whom you are talking to in mind. Remember, it’s what they hear, not what you meant to say that matters!

Talking Face To Face
Works best for important or personal topics where you want to be sure you are understood. Choose your time carefully; ask the person for a time to talk. When you have spoken, as them to repeat what they think you said.

It is always a good idea to take notes. Rushing in at the last moment and demanding time demonstrates a lack of respect for the other person and makes you look unorganized, and a bit of an alarmist.

I travel with a little pad of paper and a pen and as I think of things I write them down on a page with the person's name. That way when they have time I don’t forget things.

Get Everyone Involved Involved
Everyone touched by a process needs to be involved in talking about the process. When a discussion starts, ask yourself who else should be involved and get them involved any
way you can.

Meeting one at a time is a waste of energy and loses the benefits of the group mind. In working to better the system, all parts of the system need to be involved. (If you are unclear of what I mean by the system, go back and read my other columns at, it will help.)

Phone calls are to discuss important questions that are time sensitive, or topics when a written trail isn’t wanted or needed, but they are interruptions.

Be sure the necessity to interrupt is there. Phones can also be used for longer discussions on important issues when face-to-face is not possible. If not confidential, a written summary should be sent by e-mail afterwards.

Voice Mail
Voice mail is a very poor way to communicate, but a very good way to let someone know you want to talk. It is best to say only whom you are, when you called, a quick “headline” on why, and how they can get back in touch with you.

In Writing
General Rules:
Never use a 5-dollar word when a 1-dollar word will do. Write from the point of view of the person you are writing to. Edit again and again, at least three times.

Less words is more: short sentences and short paragraphs. At least 14 points font size to be easy to read. Oh, and use your word processor not tabs to set first lines and/or bullet lists. See the help file! Only one space between sentences is needed as computers use proportional fonts.

A good practice is to separate the writing process into three steps:

Step one: A mind dump
Just write what comes to mind and write as much as you need to. Put your heart into it. Say everything you want to say, don’t worry about whether it is wise to say it until step three.

Do not edit. Never mix creating with self-criticism. Throw out the first draft once edited so no one sees it, especially if inflammatory. Never do a first draft on an e-mail response or an addressed e-mail. (Many are the time the wrong version has gone out accidently.)

Step two: Cut and Paste
Organize your mind dump so it tells a story. Move similar things together. Include the date written, a standard greeting. For important points use the PS: . People always read the PS.

Step three: slice and dice
Edit, edit then edit again. Condense into small paragraphs, small sentences. Cut out duplicates and complex ideas. Be merciless.

Effective business communication uses hard information and factual data-numbers, ideas, issues, and marketing strategies. Leave the fluff for creative writing.

E-mail is a great tool, but should not be used as a crutch to avoid other more appropriate methods. E-mail is best used for quick communication, just a line or two.

Most people only scan their e-mails because they get so many. If you have a number of ideas, untangle them. Send as many messages as you need with only one idea in each e-mail.

• Start with a subject line that will make the e-mail easy to find should they need to find it again. If truly important, mark as important, but don’t abuse it.

• Even if sent to a group, always address the e-mail to someone so people know if they are copied or it is addressed to them. Put the name of the person at the top so others can see if it applies directly to them as well.

• Include a closing signature at the bottom of your e-mail messages.
This should include your name, position, logo perhaps, and e-mail address. Optional information could include your postal mail address, and telephone and fax numbers.

•To prevent e-mail viruses, turn off e-mail preview on all computers.
nCapitalizing whole words that are not titles is the e-mail equivalent of shouting.

• Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation

•Use bullet points.

•Acronyms can be used to abbreviate when possible. However, messages filled with acronyms can be confusing and annoying to the reader.

• Never copy a previous unrelated e-mail to get an e-mail address; find the address and copy it only. When the subject title of an e-mail has nothing to do with what you have written it is disrespectful of other people’s time.

• Be wary of using sarcasm and humor. Without face-to-face or voice communications, sarcasm may be viewed as criticism or misinterpreted. People read e-mails literally, keep it simple!

It is considered extremely rude to forward personal e-mail to mailing lists without the original author’s permission. Only send blind copies to e-mail lists, it’s about valuing each other.

Target your communications. Messages should only be sent to those people who need to receive the information. Be a professional representative of your organization.

Reduce the size of distribution lists to include only those people who are to receive the information. Periodically update mail lists by deleting unnecessary recipients and keeping
addresses current.

Prior to replying to a message, check the message header for large distribution lists. Failure to do so could cause messages to reach a much larger audience than originally intended. If you don’t have direct permission in writing to share someone else’s email. It’s about valuing each other.

Always reply to important messages by highlighting the first line only and writing: got it, or received, so the other person knows you have read it and they don’t worry, or don’t have to follow up further. Respect people’s time.

E-mail with Attachments
If an e-mail must extend beyond one screen, then make it a letter or report and attach it to the e-mail with a short, one sentence summary. Never force people to scroll down.

If important or you need to cover more than a few ideas, craft a letter or report in Word and send as an attachment. This lets you edit more carefully.

Apply listenspeak™ to ensure that what you are saying will be understood. If you get an attachment, value the sender by reading it carefully and responding so they know you got it. Letting them know when you will read it if you can't right away is a nice touch as well.

Add a brief summary in the e-mail, a couple of sentences, to prepare them. Finally, e-mails are communication.

Instant Messenger
Instant messengers are for gossip, not for business communication, as there is no opportunity to edit, and it can be easily misunderstood.

To get attention or when sending important information to a customer, send a fax. People tend to breeze through e-mails, but look carefully at faxes.

Letters and Written Memos
For truly serious matters, or more personal ones, where you don’t care if there is a written trail, a letter works best. That’s right, paper and postage.

If personal or important but not time sensitive, send by snail mail, if general or timely, attach it or fax it. No letter should be longer than a page or you should write a full report.

Always sign your letters personally, never sign a memo, your name should be in the heading above as in: Memo, Date, Topic, To and From and a headline.

While at the office, use a memo like a fax. Take time to craft a good one, and don’t abuse it, like the boy who cried wolf.

The root of common is in the word communication. It is not a tool to unburden ourselves when upset, but a tool to communicate. Punch a pillow, then write. The responsibility for good communication is on the one trying to communicate, to come to a common understanding. •

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at


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