We all know how to talk professionally and pass on important information. Yet in spite of this, we regularly experience pointless, confusing or unnecessary conversations.
Everyone has examples of other people communicating badly, but how many of us recognize when we are the ones causing the confusion?
Here are eight mistakes people make when communicating at work and how to avoid them.
- Not having a clear purpose for the message.
- Starting with an info dump.
- Not providing context.
- Not setting expectations.
- Not getting to the point fast enough.
- Going off on tangents.
- Diving into the detail before giving the big picture.
- Dwelling on the past instead of the next steps.
Common communication mistake 1: Not having a clear purpose for the message
If you are starting a work conversation without a clear goal or purpose for the discussion STOP! Take a minute to work out what you want to achieve, then start again. If you don’t know what you want to get from the conversation then your audience is not going to know either and you are wasting both of your time.
It is easy to start a conversation without a clear goal. Perhaps you’ve just heard about a change or an issue and you need your team/boss/colleague to know about it. The problem comes when you start talking about it or writing an email, but you haven’t worked out what you want the audience to do with the information yet.
- Will they need to take action? If so, what action?
- Do they need to respond to a question?
- Will the information impact their own goals or deliverables?
If you are sharing the information simply because it is interesting make sure you highlight this at the start of the message. This provides them with the opportunity to end the conversation before you get into detail if they have important or time-sensitive things to do at that moment.
If you are sending info in an email make sure you let them know the info is for information only and doesn’t require action. This allows the audience to choose to continue reading or come back to the email later at a more convenient time.
When you know your goal for talking or sending an email to someone make sure you let them know the purpose right at the start.
Common communication mistake 2: Starting with an info-dump
Too often we communicate using ‘info dump’. This is where we share a lot of information without a clear structure or a clear purpose. This can occur when a speaker lists events in the order they happened, or they are not sure about the purpose of their message or the action they want the audience to take.
Communication at work should be framed to ensure the audience is clear on the context of the information, the reason it is being shared, and so they quickly receive the key message. Additional information should be summarized and structured in a way the audience can quickly absorb and understand it.
If you find yourself sharing the entire history of a situation without someone asking you to, that is a sign to stop, reframe the message, and start again.
Common communication mistake 3: Failing to provide context for your message
Whether you are standing on a stage or stopping to chat to someone in a hallway when you start delivering a message you already know the context, it is in your head, you’ve probably been thinking about it for a while. Your audience doesn’t have the benefit of that knowledge. They probably have no idea what project you are talking about, or what issue you want to discuss. They are likely have other things on their mind, other projects, budget issues, a challenging problem at home, and so on.
Whatever your audience is thinking about when you start speaking it is almost certainly not the thing you want to talk about.
Before you start talking about the detail of your message you need to provide some context so that you are both starting at the same point.
Luckily providing context is an easy thing to do. Starting your message with a simple orientation of ten words or less can provide a clear context for your audience.
- Name the project and the issue
- Name the system you are working on
- Give the customer name you are working with
- Name the task or objective you want to talk about
The options are endless, the key is to give the context at the start of your message so your audience knows the topic or area you are going to talk about.
Common communication mistake 4: Not setting expectations
Have you ever found yourself thinking ‘Why are you telling me this?’ when someone is speaking to you? If you have, it is probably because the person speaking didn’t set any expectations when they started.
Whenever we receive information, it takes our brains a few moments to work out what to do with it. On a subconscious level, we try to work out if we have been asked a question if we need to take action, and so on. Our brains do this all day, every day as we constantly process the information we receive and adjusting our understanding to work out the appropriate response. If the reason for being given information isn’t clear we don’t retain it as easily and we subconsciously label it as unimportant.
When you communicate, your audience’s brains are trying to work out what your message means before you have finished delivering it. By setting expectations in the first few lines of your message, you are taking the guesswork out of the process for them.
Fortunately, it only takes a few words to set expectations. Most work-related expectations fall into small set of options:
- I need help/advice
- I need you to take action/make a decision/give permission
- You need to know this information
- Something is about to happen, and I don’t want you to be surprised (heads up)
- Here is the thing you asked for
There are others but these are the most common.
Imagine if every interaction at work started with one of these sentences. It would be clear, every time, what to expect from the rest of the conversation and how to process the information being shared.
Common communication mistake 5: Not getting to the point fast enough (including too much information)
Have you ever heard someone say ‘Cut to the chase’ or ‘Get to the point’?
These phrases are used when the audience is frustrated that the speaker is taking too long to get to the important part of their message.
When people share information it tends to comes out in the order that the events occurred. Unfortunately, this means we automatically leave the outcome, the important information or call to action, until the end. Here’s an example:
‘We were working on the system enhancements for the sales team, the ones they asked for last month, and we released a patch last night to test the new database connections. Something didn’t work and now the sales team can’t use the system. It might be a problem because we think it will take some time to fix, maybe a week.’
In this example, the key message is the loss of a key system for a week. Everything else is just background detail. The audience needs the key message. They may ask questions about how this happened but they are more likely to want to know the steps to fix the issue.
The speaker could have got to the point and saved time by saying ‘The sales system is down and it will take a week to fix’.
In this way, a 60-word description has been condensed into 13 words. Not only does this get the message across faster, it is also much clearer what the important information is.
Here is another example:
‘I was talking to Anne and she told me things went well with the Davison Group. Apparently, they liked our presentation and think there is room for us in their portfolio. Ethan is sending over the paperwork now, and it’ll all be done by the end of the day.’
In this case, all the events described in the message were less important than the news about closing the deal with a big new client. If this conversation had started with the news about securing the new client the rest of the information would have more meaning and the audience will likely share the in the excitement of the situation instead of wondering where the story is leading.
By starting with the key message the audience also has a chance to ask questions, such as ‘How did that happen?’ which turns the monologue into a conversation.
The examples above are representative of many workplace conversations. Luckily this is easy to address. When delivering information to someone, take a moment and think about the key message. Think about what it is they really need to know and start with that.
To help you get started here are some more examples of concise key message statements from common work situations.
- We just closed a new client
- The team beat the service level target today
- Our most experienced developer is leaving
- The system is down and it will take a week to fix
- I need to take a week off
- I missed a deadline and the customer is upset
- I missed a deadline but the customer is OK because they wanted more time anyway
Each of these is a summary of a much larger topic, but all the detailed explanation is condensed into a single line. All the explanations and justifications have been stripped out and the core of the message remains.
Common communication mistake 6: Going off on tangents
Communication quickly becomes unproductive when the speaker goes off on tangents. Listening to someone ramble, or talk about something seemingly unconnected to the original point of the conversation is one of the most frustratingly common occurrences in the workplace.
Going off on tangents occurs for two reasons:
- We think faster than we speak
- We haven’t structured our message (or we forget to stick to the structure)
The human mind is fast. We can think at around 800 words a minute. The human mind is also wired to find patterns and links between seemingly unconnected topics. We are natural puzzle solvers.
Unfortunately, we can only speak at 100–120 words a minute, so when we speak our mind has already moved onto the next part of the message or has found a connection to some other interesting thing. Before we know it that is what is coming out of our mouths and we have moved away from the original point of the conversation. This is especially easy to do when the topic is complex and has multiple interconnected variables.
One way to avoid the tendency to drift off onto tangents is to structure your message before delivering it. First, frame the message: define the context, set the audience expectations and deliver the key message all within one or two sentences.
Then provide a structured summary using no more than five sentences to outline what is happening and the desired next steps. These few sentences provide the framework and structure for a more detailed discussion. Everything should relate back to the summary, otherwise, it can be considered a tangent.
Following these steps will keep things simple, connected, and can help guide the audience through the complexity of a topic without straying from the main point.
Common communication mistake 7: Diving into the detail before giving the big picture
Speakers that dive into the depths of a topic quickly confuse and lose their audience.
Diving into the detail happens when someone talks about a topic with multiple supporting points and they start talking about the first point in great detail before giving a summary of the whole topic. Without a high-level summary, the audience doesn’t know how the detail of each point relates to the main topic. It might be the most important point or the least, only the speaker knows for sure.
When a speaker dives deep into the detail of their first point they are unintentionally telling the audience that the first point is the most important. If it isn’t the main point this causes confusion about how the detail relates to a bigger picture and ultimately leads to a loss of interest or attention as the message isn’t clear. Worst of all, every member of the audience can have a different interpretation of the situation being described.
It is important to spend a minute at the start of any work discussion or presentation to summarize the topic and share the bigger picture with the audience. This can be achieved in under a minute using framing and structured summary techniques to lay out the key points in a message. After that the audience will be better prepared and more willing to dive into the detail with you.
Common communication mistake 8: Dwelling on the past instead of the next steps
How much time is spent talking about the history of an issue instead of focusing on the actions to fix it?
When something breaks or fails we spend a lot of time talking about the cause of the problem. Meetings set up to address the issue spend up to 80% of the allotted time focused on the problem and why it happened. It is only at the end of the meeting after everyone has had their say, that the focus shifts to what needs to be done. This is one reason meetings often end with an action to set up another meeting.
Conversations and meetings about issues should reverse the 80/20 rule and spend no more than 20% of the time on the issue and its causes. 80% of the time should be focused on the actions to fix it.
To help focus the discussion on the next steps and actions start with a structured summary of the situation, the issue, and the proposed resolution/solution. If there are no known solutions the discussion is likely to be focused on identifying the solutions.
Focusing on the history of an issue shares characteristics with the ‘info dump’ and ‘not getting to the point’ mistakes. In each case, the information is shared in chronological order instead of in the order of importance. In most workplaces, the importance lies in the next steps, in the call to action for the audience.
If an IT system isn’t working, the focus should be on the actions needed to fix it. There is always time for a post mortem after the issue is fixed. Put the fire out first, then spend time preventing future fires.
There you have it
There you have it, eight of the most common and frustrating communication mistakes in the workplace. If you can recognise and avoid these mistakes you will be well on your way to being a great communicator.