How to start a conversation at work the right way

9 Dec 2020

The problem with communicating about work topics is that we are never taught how to start a conversation at work.

Most professionals have 14 to 18 years of schooling and yet don’t get a single lesson on how to start conversations about work topics. No wonder we have so many ineffective conversations at work.

Just over a decade ago, I was a software project manager for a telecomms company overseeing the delivery of software on new mobile phones to be sold across Europe. We had at least eight complex projects running at any one time, most of them involving hundreds of people in many countries.

Like many large projects, we had our share of communication issues, but it wasn’t the occasional breakdown in communication that caused us problems. Our teams seemed to struggle with day-to-day communications. Everyone on the projects said the problem was language barriers and cultural differences that come with working across a continent. But the more I observed the teams, the more I realized something else was causing the frustration.

A bad start to a conversation

The issue became real for me one day when I was walking to lunch. Steve, a member of my testing team, stopped me just outside the cafeteria. He started talking about an issue with a test case on one of his projects. After a few minutes, I interrupted him.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “What project is this for?”.

“Oh, this is for the LT-10 program”. Then he carried on talking about the issue.

Having found out the project name, some of the information he gave made more sense. The LT-10 project was a high-profile product launch due in the next few weeks. He had my attention now and I refocused on his explanation.

A few more minutes passed, and it still wasn’t clear what the issue was or why I needed to know about it.

A large group of people walked past us and joined the lunch line, which now extended into the corridor. With a growling stomach and an image of an empty dessert counter, I waited for Steve to finish his current thought. “I heard a lot of interesting things there,” I said. “Is there something specific I can help with?”.

Steve looked confused. “Oh,” he said, “I thought you might want to know we’ll miss the testing deadline. I need your approval to move the go-live date out a month.”

This revelation changed the nature of the interaction significantly. This was a big deal. The manufacturer had millions of dollars of TV advertising spend locked in for the end of the month. There was no way we could miss the deadline.

The images of dessert fled, and I asked Steve to start again from the beginning. This time the details he shared made more sense. I was able to ask clarifying questions to help me decide the best course of action.

The way people communicate

The situation highlighted a key issue in the way our teams communicated. If it took almost 10 minutes to say we had a major issue on a flagship program, we had a communication problem. And it was a bigger problem than ‘cultural differences’ could cause.

I realised that our team didn’t know how to start a conversation at work.

Question: Have you ever been on the receiving end of a conversation like the one I had with Steve?

If you answered no, you probably work with people who know how to get the first minute right when they communicate.

If you answered yes, consider the following questions:

  • Does it happen often?
  • Did the eventual revelation of what was needed change the way you reacted to the information?
  • Was it an efficient use of time for you and the other person or people involved?

Here’s a harder question for you: Have you ever started conversations like the one in the example?

In my live training sessions, this is the point when the audience falls silent. Eventually, I see some reluctant nods as people realize they often start their conversations this way.

Confession time: I have started conversations like the one in the example. In fact, I used to start most of my conversations this way. I was so focused on the topic I wanted to talk about, I forgot that other people didn’t have the same information as me. This meant I started many conversations in an unstructured and unclear way.

How to get to the point faster

A few weeks after the lunchtime corridor conversation, the incident was still in my head. I wanted to know how to start a conversation at work. What could we do to be clearer and get to the point faster when sharing information at work? I started studying the conversations in my teams and began to notice common themes. It became clear that many work conversations started with the following issues.

  1. Failing to provide context for the message. This happens when the audience doesn’t know what the topic is about.
  2. Not having a clear purpose for the message. This happens when the audience doesn’t know why they are receiving the information.
  3. Not getting to the point fast enough. The speaker shares a lot of information and takes too long to get to the critical part of his or her message.
  4. Mixing up two or more topics in the same conversation. The speaker has two or more topics to discuss, but it isn’t clear what they are.

Each of these mistakes can be avoided by starting the conversation with three short statements. These statements are required for every work conversation to start with clarity.

  • Context: This is the topic you want to talk about. Of all the topics in the world, this is the one you will talk about now.
  • Intent: What you want the audience to do with the information you are about to share.
  • Key message: The most important part of the overall message you are about to deliver (the headline).

These elements remain the same no matter what the topic is, who is talking, and who is listening. When used together in the right order, these three elements frame your message.

Use framing to start a conversation at work

Framing is the simplest way to prepare an audience to receive your message before you go into detail. It lets the audience know what is expected of them right from the start. Clear framing ensures they understand the core of the message within a few sentences. Framing should take no more than three sentences and be delivered in less than 15 seconds.

In the example above, if Steve had started his conversation with me with framing, we would not have needed to repeat the first ten minutes. There are lots of ways to frame a topic. Here are a couple of examples.

“Hi, we’re working on the testing for the LT-10 project. I need your help because we have a testing issue and are going to miss the deadline.”

“We’re testing the LT-10; you should know we’re going to be late.”

Both of these examples provide context by naming the project. The first example clarifies the intent by stating the need for help. The second example has the intent of delivering news. Both deliver the key message about a missed deadline, though the second example is more efficient.

These may seem abrupt, but the point isn’t to convey your entire message in fifteen seconds. The point is to let your audience know what you are going to talk about, so they aren’t guessing for the first few minutes of the conversation. If the first lines of your message provide context, intent, and a key message, you will have clearer conversations every time.


How well do you start your work communication? Grab the last important email you sent. The longer the email is, the better it will work for this activity. While much of this book describes how to start conversations, the principles are the same for written forms of communication as well. Our memories are not as reliable as we think, and using an email for this activity will help you see exactly what you wrote.

Did you provide context, show clear intent, and deliver a key message upfront?

If you didn’t tick all the boxes, don’t worry. In the next sections, you will learn about the three core components of framing and how to apply them correctly. In the process, you’ll see how easy it is to make a simple yet powerful change to the way you start your conversations.

If you want to give your communication skills a big boost, check out the online course to start communicating clearly at work.

Learn more with my book

The First Minute

The First Minute book by Chris Fenning

My multiple award-winning book is a step-by-step guide for clear, concise communication in everyday work conversations.

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
  • Get to the point faster without rambling or going off on tangents
  • Lead your audience toward the solution you need
  • Apply one technique to almost every discussion, email, presentation and interview with great results