How to show clear intent when communicating at work (Intent series: 2 of 3)

2 Dec 2020

Continuing the series ‘Showing clear intent’, today I’m going to demonstrate how to show clear intent when communicating at work.

In the previous post in the ‘Showing clear intent’ series, you saw an example of a workplace conversation without clear intent. If you haven’t read that post yet I suggest you read it first. It’ll only take a couple of minutes and will help you get more out of this post.

In this post, I’ll cover

  • Why we need to show intent
  • The impact clear intent has on our audience’s brains
  • The five types of intent for work conversations
  • How to show clear intent in just a few words

So, let’s dive in.

Intent changes the way our brains process information

Our brains process and store information in different ways depending on the purpose. We process information in different ways if we know it is entertainment versus a topic we need to learn. We only have about 20 seconds of recall in our working memory. That time enables us to sort through information and work out what to do with it. This, in turn, defines how the information is stored in our brains. If a speaker takes more than 20 seconds to clarify his or her intent, our brains stop processing the first thing the person said and try to process the most recent 20 seconds of information.

When we don’t know the other person’s intention, we struggle to process the information provided. This is even harder if the message contains a mix of good and bad news. The lack of clear intent leads to something of a conversational rollercoaster as we try to follow the twists and turns of the topic.

The conversation rollercoaster

For Emma, in the previous post example, the rollercoaster started when Daniel said there was a problem, and she started to think about contingency plans. Without a clear intent, her brain assumed there was an issue to resolve. She was thinking about actions to take when she didn’t need to be. In this case, the only impact was a delay for Emma leaving for her meeting. It could have been much worse. If she had left for the meeting without Daniel clarifying what she needed to do with the information, the strategy with TechCorp could have changed with untold consequences for both companies.

The longer it takes for the audience to understand the purpose of the message, the more likely they are to guess. This means the audience is not processing the information in the way you want or need them to. Worse than that, when the audience doesn’t know what to do with the information, their brains don’t retain it as easily and may label it as unimportant.

By clarifying your intent in the first few lines of your message, you give your audience the key to correctly interpreting and reacting to the information.

Showing intent in one line

Most work-related intentions fall into one of five categories. For each category, it is possible to describe the intent of the message in one line. The table below shows the categories and some examples of how to show intent in a short sentence.

Category of intention Examples
Needing help/advice/input

Can you help me?We need your input. 

I need some advice.

Can you explain something?

Requesting action Can you provide an update on ABC?Can you send the contract to Zoe?
Wanting a decision We need a decision on XYZ
Letting someone know something is about to happen, so they are not surprised Heads up, something is about to happen on ABC.You need to know this before you talk to the client.
Providing information/input the other person asked for previously Here’s the report you asked for.Here’s the information you requested.

This list of categories may seem short, but almost everything we communicate at work falls into one of them. For example:

  • If you are telling someone about an issue or problem, what do you expect him or her to do with the information? You either need help, advice, someone to take action, or you are giving the other person a heads-up.
  • If you are about to submit an order for office supplies, you might ask someone for the items they want to add (this is a request for action).

As with providing context, it only takes a few words to make your intent clear. Using a line like the ones shown in the table above will let your audience know what they need to do with the information.

If all your interactions at work started with a short statement of intent, it would be clear every time what you needed the audience to do with the information. It would also help them decide if they have time for the conversation or if they want to talk about it later instead.


Knowing how to show clear intent at the start of a conversation ensures your audience understands why you are talking to them. It helps them understand what they need to do with the information you are giving.

Intentions can be made clear in just a few words. Those few words can make the difference between understanding and confusion.

Next steps

There is one more reason you might want to talk to someone that isn’t in the table: wanting to chat. This covers a wide range of topics, including sharing stories, recounting recent events, gossiping, letting off steam without any expectation of advice or help and general conversations unrelated to work.

If you’d like to know how to start conversations when you just want to talk, keep an eye out for the next and last post in this series.

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Being concise is not about trying to condense all the information into 60 seconds. It’s about having clear intent, talking about one topic at a time, and focusing on solutions instead of dwelling on problems.

Throughout this book you’ll discover how to:

  • Have shorter, better work conversations and meetings
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