Communication has changed a bit over the years. It wasn’t always so easy to communicate, especially when it came to the most urgent messages.
Colonial American hero and patriot Paul Revere famously made his “Midnight Ride” in 1775, from Boston, MA to Lexington, MA to warn revolutionaries that the British Army was on its way. Revere had instructed the sexton of the Old North Church, to send a signal to revolutionaries by one or two lanterns, respectively, so they’d know if the British were coming by land or by sea.
Revere and his colleague, William Dawes, warned patriots along the way. Many of the men who heard the news set out on horseback to deliver warnings of their own. By the end of the night, there as many as 40 riders carrying the message. This was Colonial American viral communication.
The operation was clandestine. Revere didn’t famously shout, “The British are coming!” There were too many British patrols and colonists sympathetic to the Crown for that. Ultimately, this warning allowed the militia to repel the British troops.
Yes, when it comes to communication, we have it much, much easier than Paul Revere, or any previous generation for that matter. We have a plethora of tools to get our message out to our audiences, communicate with clients and friends, and stay connected to events around our neighborhood and our globe.
Communication is Too Easy
But the reality is that for many of us, communication is far too easy. We take it for granted. If you’re at least in your 30s, you may remember the olden days of communication. You received a phone call when you were out of the office. In your absence someone took the message, and left you a hand written note with the details of the call. One of the first things you may have done when you got back to the office was to return the phone call. If you remember this, you also remember writing letters. You’d pay careful attention to each sentence and proofread the letter carefully before printing it, signing it and either packaging it for the mail, or delegating that to a staff member.
By our sophisticated standards, this is all rather inefficient. But then again, plowing through my email inbox is pretty inefficient too. So, too, is being interrupted by unsolicited sales calls on my mobile phone when I’m stepping into a meeting.
Advances have their tradeoffs. The glut of voice, data and human communications can make us feel like we’re ready to go “off the grid,” like we can’t keep up with the pressures to initiate and respond to so many conversations. For those of us who are professional communicators, this can be a very dangerous sentiment. But the importance of communication is way too important to be relegated to professional communicators. It’s important for all of us who interact with clients, partners, vendors, employees and co-workers.
Here are some tips to keep you from falling victim to poor communication, and help you keep in touch like a pro.
The details matter
In our haste to keep up with the pressures of our email inbox, we often lose sight of the details. I’m guilty of this, too. Sometimes I go back and read emails I’ve sent to clients and catch the embarrassing typos. Remember, if you’re using email in a professional capacity, it’s a form of professional communications, no matter how easy it is to use.
This is just as true from your phone as it is from your laptop. The recipient doesn’t care that you’re between meetings, or if you’re juggling four deadlines. If you don’t have time to respond carefully, thoughtfully and error-free to an email message, wait and respond when you can.
Perception matters. The client can’t see your hectic day and your crazy demands. But she can see that you misspelled her name (ouch) or made some other silly mistakes. Mind the details, no matter how busy you are.
Tell them something, even if you don’t have all the answers
This one really burns me. Let’s say you tell a client you’ll have a quote to them Thursday. In order to get them the quote, you need numbers from a third party. But it’s late in the day on Thursday, and the vendor hasn’t gotten you what you need and isn’t returning your calls. What do you do?
- Opt to wait it out and get the quote to the client once you’ve received it. With nothing to tell them, there’s nothing to say.
- Let the client know you’ve not heard anything, despite your efforts. You’ll let them know as soon as you do.
You can probably tell which is my correct answer. Too many times I hear colleagues say, “I have nothing new to tell him, so I’ll just wait.” That’s a bad move. I’ve seen clients insulted and literally seen projects lost on that basis. If someone is expecting something from you on Thursday, you absolutely have something to communicate on Thursday.
Remember, they don’t have visibility into the project. You do. As far as they’re concerned, the delay is on your part. Maybe you forgot about them. Allow them to draw their own conclusions and they will. And you may not come out looking so good. Proactivity is one trait that separates the good from the great.
Have the tough talks
Things happen. An emergency arises and we have to quickly reprioritize. A software virus takes down our network. A flu virus takes down our team. And sometimes we make mistakes. We over-commit. We may lose sight of deadlines we set. We may have to have difficult conservations with clients letting them know that we’ll miss a deadline. In most cases, if we have a good reason and we’re not in the habit of missing deadlines, clients will understand. Plus, the sooner and more effectively we can communicate the problem, the better off we’ll be.
Yesterday was a prime example for me. I was pulled into an unexpected client meeting and was late getting a proposal to another client. I let the second client know earlier in the day that, due to the last-minute meeting, it would be after hours when I could get that proposal to her. If she needed it urgently, I could get the costs ASAP, but the formal proposal would have to come late in the evening. We’ve worked together for years and she knows I do great work, on time and within budget. It was no problem.
Pick the right form of communication
Communication, as we’ve said, is easy today. But that doesn’t mean you should take the easy way out. If you have something significant to tell a client, such as needing to push a deadline, an urgent unforeseen development, a change in cost, etc., use the right tools. Email is great for approvals, updates, confirmations and the like, especially if the client uses email liberally. But when you have to communicate problems, pick up the phone or log onto Skype.
Even if you follow good practices of communication (especially if you follow good practices), you’re probably struggling to keep up with all the people who want to reach you, and all the ways they choose to try and do so. If you identify with this, I suggest building some discipline into your communication habits.
If you find yourself distracted by email throughout the day, so much so that it interrupts your workflow and concentration, then take yourself offline for a scheduled period of time. When I was writing Sun Tzu for Women: The Art of War for Winning in Business, I scheduled just a few times throughout the day, each day, when I would check email. I couldn’t afford the constant distraction.
If you’re finding it difficult to keep up, or the quality of your communication is suffering, you may need to adopt a similar disciplined strategy.
The rules apply to professional communicators
Communications is important, no matter what your field. Ironically, I’ve met my share of very poor communicators who work in the industry. If you’re too busy to communicate effectively, you need to look at your workload, workflow and how you prioritize your day. If you’re a communicator and you’re not making communication a priority, it’s time to look at what you do and why you do it.