Emerging technology has profoundly impacted the workplace and how we communicate. It has enhanced our ability to maintain closer contact with our constituencies and to cultivate relationships with new clients and customers, but it also demands more effective communicators who are skilled at crafting clear and concise messages within tight deadlines. That requires thinking strategically about communication and recognizing that repairing communication mishaps is costly and time consuming, if it can be done.
Strategic communication involves four elements: knowing your purpose, understanding your audience, selecting an appropriate message structure strategy and identifying the appropriate channel. This sounds simple. So why do we often hear the refrain, “the problem around here is communication”?
Knowing Your Purpose
When faced with a writing or speaking task, many people obsess first about what they want to say. They may spend hours staring at the computer screen to craft that perfect opening paragraph, often to no avail. A strategic approach to the task forces you to first think about the purpose and to ask why are you writing or speaking. Then consider whether your purpose will be clearly understood by your readers or listeners. Will they wonder why they received the message and need to scroll through it to determine what you want them to do? Most of us, confronted with such material, will put it aside, close the window, or stop listening. So first ask why, and you may find you will be more efficient and no longer agonize about a writing task or speaking engagement.
Understanding Your Audience
Effective communication involves not only analyzing the situation from your perspective as the sender of the message, but also from your audience’s viewpoint. Tailoring your communication to your audience’s needs and interests guarantees your chance of being understood and achieving your objective. So what do you want to know about your audience?
First consider if they are a primary audience, one who receives a message directly, or secondary, one who receives your message from another source or may be affected by it. Then consider the audience as individuals. In addition to identifying education, training, age and gender, attempt to learn about opinions, interests, expectations and attitudes. As a group, consider norms, traditions, standards, rules and values.
Consider, too, how much they know about you and your organization. Are they new constituencies who may need background, or is the audience familiar with the organization and just need updating on a new product or service? This will help you determine how much new information they’ll need and how much evidence and detail to include.
Selecting an Appropriate Message Structure
Once you’ve determined your purpose and identified your audience’s information needs, you must select an appropriate message strategy. Effective communicators tailor their messages to an audience, rather than simply state their ideas in the order in which they occur.
Two strategies to consider are the indirect and direct approach.
Applying the Indirect Approach
This approach is a familiar one for most communicators because it follows the traditional format that urges one to save the main idea for the conclusion and to lead the audience through the message from background to resolution. This approach is used effectively for an audience that is:
- Uninformed and requires background information and details
- Receptive to your idea but needs convincing
- Hostile to your idea but willing to hear your side
- Analysis oriented
The indirect approach allows the audience time to become acquainted with you, your organization and your message before you present your recommendation or request for action. It also serves as a buffer for the hostile or resistant audience, since your purpose first is to establish common ground.
Applying the Direct Approach
The direct approach often is referred to as the “bottom line” and “executive” approach because it states the main idea at the beginning of the message. This approach is used for audiences who are:
- Informed and require little background information
- Receptive to the message
- Willing to accept bad news
- Results oriented
The direct approach emphasizes the results of your analysis, rather than the steps you took to arrive at it. By getting right to the point, there is a lower risk that readers will lose interest in trying to figure out your message, and they may save time, choosing whether to skim sections of the message, read it carefully or reserve it for reference.
Distinguishing Between Communicating to Inform or Persuade
When selecting an appropriate message strategy, effective communicators also consider whether they wish to inform or persuade their audiences. To inform, determine whether your purpose simply is to reply to a request, furnish updated information or maintain contact. You may be giving good or bad news, but either way the message won’t upset your audience. The direct approach works best in these situations since you can simply give the “bottom line” and not worry about providing background or explanations.
If your message may upset the audience or if you need to get them to do something they may not otherwise do, you need to consider a persuasive strategy. A particularly useful framework to use is one that I’ve been recommending to students and corporate clients for years. It’s a classic called the “Motivated Sequence,” it is adapted from a framework developed by Alan H. Monroe in the early 1960s.
The framework consists of five steps that progress from a focus on the benefits of the message to the action you anticipate from the audience. These five steps are Attention, Need, Satisfaction, Visualization and Action.
- Attention: The goal is to capture reader interest and present the benefit of the proposed action you are recommending. For example, if you are proposing to clients an upgrade in their cell phone contract or specialty equipment, illustrate the safety features of voice activation or hands-free hardware.
- Need: Outline the specifics or the scope of the problem. Provide ample proof that this problem is immediate. Using the example above, you could note the time lost by searching for frequently called numbers, rather than simply speaking the name of the person one wishes to call, or cite incidents of accidents involving drivers who were using their cell phones without hands-free hardware.
- Satisfaction: Tell your audience how your proposal will eliminate the problems you have identified. Provide proof that the proposed course of action has worked in similar situations. Address any objections or alternatives that you think might come up, and show how other solutions are less attractive than yours.
- Visualize: Get the audience to see how they will benefit from the proposal. Certainly show any negative impact that may occur if they don’t comply. Show the positive benefits that will be realized from a decision to follow your advice.
- Action: Tell the audience exactly what you want them to do. Most persuasive messages neglect this all important step. Confidently state the action that you want. Remind the audience of the benefits they can expect. Be firm and explicit. Don’t assume they know intuitively what must be done. The result should be that updated contract that includes safety features.
Selecting an Appropriate Channel
Once you’ve crafted the actual message, choosing the appropriate channel plays a central role in its success. Select the channel giving thought to the message, the desired effect upon the audience and the cultural context in which the message will be sent. For example, choose e-mail for brief, impersonal messages, updates on routine matters, and to gather and compile information. Use the telephone to relay short, simple messages, provide feedback, and to send messages that are confidential or require quick turnaround time. Use face-to-face meetings to convey confidential and sensitive messages, for persuading and negotiating, and to take note of nonverbal communication. Careful consideration of the medium that will best communicate your message ensures that you will accomplish your objective.
Effective strategic communication is the total of an organization’s efforts to communicate effectively and profitably. The actions you take to achieve your goal depend upon the credibility of your company or firm, your relationship with your constituencies and your ability to communicate clearly with them.
This post is adapted from Darden Professor June West’s technical note Thinking Strategically About Communication (Darden Business Publishing).