Three Steps to Effective Communication

One of my most valuable business (and life) lessons has been learning to adapt my communication style to appeal to the values and communication preferences of my audience. Literary theory tells us not only that others are fundamentally incapable of understanding what we mean, but that we ourselves aren’t capable of saying what we really mean, either (thank you, Derrida).  If you’re like me, this news might initially spin you into a mini life crisis; but that’s not why I mention it.  The point is that effective communication is hard and that people already have a tough time understanding each other. If your message will never be truly understood, how do get close enough to reach agreement? Effective communication requires three (big) steps: Know yourself, know your audience, and tailor your communication style to reach that audience.


Like communication itself, knowing yourself takes work.  What do you value?  How do you relate to people?  What makes you tick?   What motivates you?  Are you an introvert or an extrovert?  What is your role within your organization?  How much influence do you have, and how do you wield it?  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  Self-study can be effective for people who are good at regular introspection, but anyone of us can benefit from using a tool or two.  Consider a test like The DiSC Profile, TAIS, or Myers Briggs–or picking up a book like The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas.  Any or all of these tools could be helpful in getting a better sense for your personality and preferred communication style(s).


Seek first to understand, then to be understood. –Stephen Covey

Who’s your audience?  Is it an individual?  A group of individuals?  Why are they going to give you their attention?  What’s their interest in your discussion, presentation, query, or supplication?  What do they value?  What are they motivated by?  Is it relationships?  Money?  Success?  Education?  How does this individual or group make decisions?  Study them.  And just like you’ll be helped by using a few tests or books to better understand yourself, these same tools can provide you with the broad (or specific) categories you’ll need to better understand your audience.


The secret of effective persuasion comes in knowing the heart of the person you wish to persuade and ordering your words to fit. -Han Fei Tzu

Tailoring your message to your audience means speaking to their values, motivations, and interests.  For instance, if you’ve come to understand that your sales people are motivated by money, and only money, then you’ll tie the behavioral changes you’d like to see to their comp plan.  You won’t appeal to the authority that taking on a new territory will impart.  If your audience is motivated by relationships, then you’ll position your request that they take on more responsibility as an opportunity to keep, make, or improve relationships.  You won’t appeal to making money, gaining authority, or rising to the call of duty.


I’ve always had trouble communicating with my CFO.  Why? Because we value different things, are motivated by different things, and have much different communication styles.  He’s a classic detail and data-driven person.  He speaks in numbers, percentages, and what the office lovingly refers to as “DOS speak.”  Everything he says seems to shorthand or written in some kind of code.  By contrast, I value vision, accomplishment, bench-marked progress, influence, eloquence, and getting things done.  I don’t like to be bothered by too many details.  When I wanted to ask for a marketing budget increase, my temptation was to lean on the things that I valued. While I’m sure that I could have given a very moving and heart-felt speech on the possibilities that an increased budget would unfold for the company (pointing, of course, to past successes), this approach would have fallen on deaf ears.  My CFO does not care about possibilities or the vision that I have for my department.  He cares about data.  Numbers.  And so I spent a week preparing a 14-page report of charts and graphs.  I detailed industry standards and demonstrated positive correlations between increases in marketing spend and annual revenue growth.  I backed my positive correlations with detailed reports on the ROI of past marketing campaigns; and I took it one step further and and prepared ROI predictions for future activities should my budget increase be approved.  And guess what?  It was approved.  That’s because I spoke to my CFO in a language he could understand.  I appealed to his values.  We understood each other.  And agreed.


Breaking effective communication down into three steps–Know yourself, know your audience, and tailor your message–makes it seem simple.  In some ways it is.  In other ways, it’s not.  Like communication itself, any one of these steps can be challenging.  Like most things, I expect to be working on effective communication for the entirety of my life.  How do you practice effective communication?  Have there been tools along the way that have helped you to understand yourself, your audience, or the communication process that have improved your ability to reach either understanding or agreement?  What steps will you take to be a more effective communicator?

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