Saying It Right Is Worth Your Time

In today’s distracted digital world, most of us are as busy as ever. We wear it like a badge of honor. How are you doing? “Busy!” [Sheepish laugh.] Well, it beats the alternative. [More awkward laughter.]

Because we’re so busy, we neglect other more critical tasks. Like communication. While we embrace the frenzy of busyness, more often than not, we give lip service to communication.

When imparting our wisdom to new graduates, what skills do we say are most important? Communication skills. When hiring new employees what do we say we look for most? Communication skills. When working together as a team, what do we say is most critical to success? Communication skills.

But do we really practice what we preach?

What Are You Saying?

Part of the problem is that communication has a communication problem. It’s a generic term. When it comes to the world of work, what we’re really talking about is writing and speaking. Delivery methods may have changed to favor the digital but it’s all still writing and speaking.

Writing memos, reports, and performance appraisals. And emails. Don’t forget emails, which make up 80 percent of business communication. Often, we’re called upon to get up in front of others – co-workers, employees, clients, and customers – and talk through our ideas as well.

Our communication – our writing and our speaking — gets ideas noticed, gains buy-in from others, and helps us accomplish our goals. How do we treat this powerful tool? Do we keep it sharpened and ready for use?

No. We rely on our decades-old foundational writing and speaking skills. And we barely make time for them.

Making Time for Communication

Coming full circle, the chief culprit of bad communication is the same thing we’re so proud of today — how busy we are. We don’t have time! Just dash off the email! Draft your presentation directly into PowerPoint! Don’t proof! Don’t practice! Just go!

The first step to improved communication is knowing you have a problem. From there, you can focus on your craft by giving it a little more time than you currently do.

If email is 80 percent of our communication, spend a bit more time up front. Author and writing teacher Anne Lamott suggests a simple three-draft approach. “The first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or decayed.” There’s no reason you can’t follow this approach with your emails and memos.

When it comes to speaking, a good start is to remember that all speaking is storytelling. People fall asleep during presentations but tend to stay awake for stories. Start by finding the story you need to tell to accomplish what you’re there for. HINT: Your story is rarely found by gazing into the default “Click to Add Title” slide in PowerPoint. Outline your presentation first. Worry about slides later.

The Communication Value Proposition

But all of this takes longer. And you’re busy as hell, right?

Okay, let’s flip it the other way. If you fail to invest a little more time up front, you risk the biggest consequence of bad communication: being misunderstood. Side effects vary. Maybe you have to hold an in-person meeting to clear up your confusing memo. Maybe you have to present to the board again. Maybe you didn’t make the sale. Or worse. All of this costs more time and money.

In The West Wing, Communications Director Toby Ziegler proclaims, “The world can move — or not — by changing some words.” Take the time to say it right the first time. Better communication is something we all have to work at.

While I spend most of my time consulting, speaking, teaching, and writing about branding and marketing, I also have a new role at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business helping the MBA programs with business communication curriculum. Along the way, I’ll be cutting writing and speaking tips into my columns here as well.

Whether it’s branding and marketing an organization or writing and speaking to other professionals, it’s all communication. Make the time to do it better.