“Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage.”
Publilius Syrus, 1st century BC
"A letter shows the man it is written to as well as the man is it written by.”
Lord Chesterfield, 18th century British statesman
Being effective in all types of communication delivery and receipt methods is crucial to prolonged success. It will take hard work and practice for most of us. Some of our best leaders, mostly politicians and coaches, can talk with authority on a wide variety of subjects until the last fire dies out, but when asked to write a sentence will only stare at blank paper.
In the same room you’ll have another Tom Wolfe ready to write another Great American Novel, but that person would not be able to explain the need to evacuate the building if a fire actually broke out (with apologies to Mr. Wolfe, who undoubtedly could).
There are four types, or methods, of communication:
Verbal – includes interviews and presentations, formal and informal.
Written– notes, letters, summaries and explanations.
Listening – harder than it sounds.
Electronic – email, voicemail and the phenomena of irretrievability.
Don’t assume that the guys who use F-bombs all the time like to hear it in others. Some do, but they just want to pull you down into the sewer with them. You are better off using a higher vocabulary. Nobody likes a prude, but the clown who MFs everything in front of anybody, especially women, is thoughtless and looking for the wrong kind of attention.
Get your point across without sounding like a jackass, ya dig? Thinking first and measuring your tone and inflection for the purpose will make people want to hear what you have to say. Do not encourage the office time-bomb into going off, either. If you act and speak like a professional, you will be treated like one.
Texting ain’t writing. Even the most tech-savvy person will appreciate a hand written thank you note. Depending upon the gravity of the recognition, a formal typed letter to the person’s boss is a very good touch, and could be a career saver for the subject recipient, and win you a friend for life.
I was doing some charity work, organizing as a representative for my company during company time, and had enlisted help from co-workers on the finer details. As you know, this type of work is thankless and sometimes fruitless and the scheduled time dedicated can slip away from you; ten minutes can become two hours and you wonder where the time went.
On this particular project I had an acolyte, Jack, who misjudged the time required during the work day to organize the task he volunteered to shepherd. Unknown to me, it was effecting his work. Unknown to him, and entirely co-incidentally, I drafted, signed and sent a detailed letter to a couple of his superiors accurately stating the invaluable and unselfish nature of Jack’s work for the charity, emphasizing his leadership, initiative, and his model behavior.
Jack’s bosses opened their house-delivered mail at about 1000am on that particular day. Just an hour before they had “constructively counseled” Jack on a couple balls he had dropped. By noon, however, they took Jack out to lunch and offered help for the charity we were working on, asking him “Why didn’t you tell us about this?”
The letter did not save Jack’s job; his reputation did. The timing was fortuitous, though Jack could have helped himself ahead of time by communicating with his superiors the scope of the charity work he was doing on behalf of the organization.
Sometimes bosses see negatives and dig no further. Sometimes employees work hard and don’t do their own public relations. And sometimes a thank you letter or note arrives just when someone needs it most.
Be the person with the personal touch. The written word endures.
Memo writing is far more unforgiving and is problematic for many. Leadership in writing is simple, brief, and direct. If you have difficulty writing effective memorandums (one page, please!), write a draft and ask a colleague to review it for you. Mechanics, syntax, spelling, diction and grammar all count. Ask the English major for help, not the engineer. It is not that engineers can’t do it well, it’s just that they don’t want to. It’s why they are engineers. ‘Nuff said.
Most firms have a ‘communications’ specialist. If you struggle with memo writing, make this specialist your new best friend. Write him or her a thank you, too.
Arguably the most difficult communication method, how you are perceived at listening will dictate whether people will want to communicate with you on any subject, large or small.
The military personality, as you know or have observed, lives by the dictum of “never suffering a fool gladly.” This is evident in a nearly complete intolerance for gas-bags, braggarts and whiners, or anyone else whose mouth is moving, and is likely one of the most serious liabilities a veteran carries into the civilian world.
Each type of opportunity for listening, whether passive, active, confrontational or one-sided, must have your undivided attention. Make a show of turning the cell phone off or away. Transfer the desk phone. Sit up straight, and maintain eye contact often. Write important material down, and if everything is important, develop a good shorthand. Ask questions for clarification, and resist the urge to finish someone else’s thoughts.
Think about Stephen Covey’s Habit Number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
It is a little sad, and you’ll forgive the author for being nostalgic, but there is nothing today, in public or in private, which is not being recorded. Trust no one. If your style is salty, you have to change it to bland. Everything you say will be recorded, everything you write will be on the cover of the NY Times, and everything you do will be on YouTube. Believe it, and get used to it.
The telephone should be your tool. You are not a slave to it. Always answer your desk phone right away and your cell if safety and comportment allow it. Let the person on the other end know if you can devote time to engage him or her or not. Your pickup of the phone may prove to be a lifeline for someone, especially if it’s a customer. Just don’t take calls at all hours simply because someone else is bored or driving or killing time, or is generally high maintenance. Don’t let anyone else manage your time.
When you initiate the phone call, say hello and ask right away if “this is a good time to talk.” I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t appreciate the offer. Unless it’s hyper-urgent, ask first, and you'll be surprised to see that the recipient will make the effort to hear you out.
Telephones are good clue-givers. Have you ever called someone and heard key-tapping? Then you obviously do not have their attention. You have done it yourself, so you know the deal. On a speaker phone, always let people know that the speaker is on, who is present, whether the door is shut, etc. Then assume your boss is eavesdropping (see “trust,” above). On conference calls, be early on the call, and identify yourself before each comment or question. This has added value, as you will avoid saying something stupid. Avoid sarcasm or irony on conference calls, too, as it is invariably never perceived the way you intended.
One big proviso on voice messages. Don’t leave more than a sentence. Just your name, the number clearly (twice) and a good time to return the call. You cannot build a relationship with a voicemail message. You are not making a sale, and most people ditch anything longer than a few seconds.
Final caveat on communication: People will remember how you made them feel far longer than what you actually said. Exercise tact and empathy.
Originally published May 2016.