Failure to Communicate?

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” -Lee Iacocca, Former Chrysler Chairman

The ability to communicate effectively is highly sought after in corporate environments.

That point was again made crystal clear in the recently released Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) 2014 Corporate Recruiters Survey. The survey revealed that communication skills were the most important skills employers seek ranking ahead of teamwork, technical, leadership and managerial skills.

Further analysis reveals that “the top four skills employers seek in new hires fall within the realm of communication.” The No. 1 individual skill employers value is Oral Communication followed by Listening Skills, Written Communication and Presentation Skills.

So why are communication skills so valued by employers?

Effective communication skills are essential to career success regardless of industry, but they are even more important in highly technical fields like business and engineering, said Dr. Fiona Barnes, Director of Warrington’s Center for Management Communication.

Advances in technology communications have also played a significant role, she said.

“It’s a cliché, but we live in the information age, the digital age,” Dr. Barnes said. “Computerization and globalization have just led to an explosion of communication and information which has revolutionized business.”

Mastering every form of communication may be too difficult, but possessing a foundational understanding of how to communicate effectively is vital.

Said Dr. Barnes: “Is anybody a perfect communicator? No. But there are some basic principles that we try to get across. If you understand those basic principles, you can be an effective communicator.

“I have two questions I always ask: ‘So What?’ and ‘Who Cares?’”

Be Purpose-Driven

Too often emails are sent without a purpose, and meetings are called without a clear objective to achieve. These occurrences stifle productivity and frustrate workers.

Putting some serious thought into meeting agendas and clearly expressing your needs in emails can give these communications more impact.

“Understand the goals for why you’re communicating,” Dr. Barnes said. “In business, that more often than not is driven by a desire for action.”

A common error in written communications, said Dr. Barnes, is when professionals send out “process” documents rather than “product” documents. Your process document is essentially a “brain dump”—all your thoughts and ideas about a certain topic in written form. Process documents are usually long-winded, difficult to understand and do not require an action for the recipient. Your product document, on the other hand, is a polished version of the process document with goals, rationale and actions clearly outlined.

“You can use writing to clarify your thinking; it helps with critical thinking,” Dr. Barnes said. “But you have to understand that if you send people your process document—in other words you fire off an email that says ‘I was thinking today that we should do blah, blah, blah’—and then bury the action at the end, your readers are not going to get to it. And you’re not going to get what you need.”

Focus on your audience

One of Dr. Barnes’ favorite sayings to the managers in her graduate professional writing course is, “You didn’t expect that empathy would be part of your toolset.” But it’s an essential component of effective communication skills. What better way to get your point across than to think like your audience?

“You have to frame things in terms of their needs, their priorities and organize it such that they can access it rapidly,” Dr. Barnes said. “What is the situation of the person out there? Is this even important to them? Do they care? Are they negatively disposed toward it? Toward you?”

After receiving a promotion to Project Analyst at State Street Global Markets in Boston, Janniece York (MBA ’12) was asked to write a white paper on a project. One of her major challenges in producing the white paper was condensing vast amounts of information into a concise document, yet including enough information so that various business units could benefit from it.

“I work with a lot of stakeholders,” York said. “Information technology, legal, traders—all these business units take something differently. You have to tailor your message to these audiences, keep it short and don’t leave anything pertinent out. It was especially challenging. But my boss came to me afterwards and said my white paper was the one she wants to use as a model. It was a big compliment to me and what I learned from Dr. Barnes.”

Communication skills will help advance your career

If two professionals with similar technical abilities are up for the same managerial position, odds are the candidate with the better soft skills will earn the position.

Todd Swingle’s (MBA ’11) ability to write effectively has played a significant role in his ascendancy at Cummins, Inc., in Columbus, Ind., where he serves as Director – Environmental Strategy. Swingle’s contributions to the company’s Corporate Sustainability Report have been praised, and he said effective communications skills are a definite differentiator.

“Absolutely, no question about it,” Swingle said. “If you can write very well, the quality and impression is readily noticeable and appreciated.”

How to improve your communication skills?

Read good writing: Research supports that high-quality writing and reading are strongly linked, said Dr. Barnes. “Reading good writing wherever it may be—good business journals, magazines—is worthwhile. You can mimic styles and look at their approaches.”

Frontload: A major disconnect in education is that college students are taught academic writing, yet rarely use it in their careers, Dr. Barnes said. The classic introduction-body-conclusion style isn’t always appropriate in a results-oriented industry like business.

“Business writing is not mystery novel writing,” Dr. Barnes said. “You don’t read a 150-page report sitting at your desk and say ‘I can’t wait to get to page 150 and find out what we need to do.’ You had better frontload. What the reader needs and the action...bring it to the fore. People are not going to search for their answers.”

Take time with your emails: How much care do you put into your emails? You may think you’re saving time by quickly rattling off an email, but you’re not. Dr. Barnes explains that carefully-composed emails—though they will take longer to write—ultimately save you time in the long run. She explains with this anecdote...

“If you fire off an email that takes you five seconds to write to your team of 10, odds are you haven’t changed the subject line, you’ve kept out a key piece of information or you may have put something wrongly in there. So you’ve got 10 people looking at this...

  • Three of them will do reply all—everybody’s got another email.
  • One of them is actually going to be walking by your office, pop their head in and half an hour later that person leaves your office.
  • Somebody picks up the phone and calls you—a 10-minute phone call because now they’ve got you.

“Then you have a slew of emails and need to send out the retraction. You’ve lost credibility, you’ve lost time and that 10-second email has turned into an hour-long sink.”

Switch channels: Your colleagues aren’t responding to your emails. How do you get their attention?

Because business professionals are inundated with emails, it’s often difficult to make your message stand out among the rest. Dr. Barnes recommends using an alternative form of communication when this occurs.

“In your company, if email is the main interactive source, then email doesn’t get people’s attention,” she said. “So don’t use email if it’s something important. Switch channels. Call, send out a voicemail, create video, have a webinar, present online. If it’s something really, really important, don’t default to email.”