Thoughts on effective communication

Early in my career I worked with an incredible network engineer. This was back when networking was a bigger part of my job, and I learned a lot from him[1]. But he was not an effective communicator. Any time we were in a meeting and he was presenting a topic I cared about, I needed to stand up, get closer to the front of the room, and focus exclusively on what he was saying, forcing myself to pay attention.

Because he just shared facts.

Page after page, slide after slide, minute after agonizing hour of facts.

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This was before I knew about the value of asking questions, so I took the burden on myself, because I cared. Most people who could have gotten value from his expertise simply tuned out, or fell asleep[2].

Although this colleague of days gone by will always stand out as the exemplar of ineffective communication, I still see people every day who communicate by sharing facts without context, and without taking their audience into consideration.

Here are a bunch of things that I know and now you know them too!

Yeah, nah. When communication is simply a dump of facts, an opportunity is lost.

If you find yourself falling into this pattern of communication, please pause and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What is my goal for communicating with this audience?
  3. What does my audience care about in general – what motivates them?
  4. Why will my audience care about what I am telling them?
  5. How will my communication motivate my audience to take action to meet my goal?

Or, as a colleague summed it up nicely in a chat:

“Target audience and value proposition. FFS.”[3]

You may be looking at these questions and thinking “that sounds like a lot of work.” I’d like to respond to that excellent-but-false thought in two ways.

First, asking yourself these questions is simply a habit to develop. It will take a little time at the beginning, but over time it becomes second nature.[4]

Second, choosing to not ask yourself these questions is like choosing the low bidder when picking a home improvement contractor. You save a little up-front, but you end up needing to re-do the work more quickly, and no one is ever happy with the results.

These questions apply to any form of communication – email, presentations and conference talks, personal  conversations, you name it.

For lower-risk, lower-value communication like a chat with a coworker you might ask yourself these questions during a conversation, as a safety check to help you keep on track. For a high-risk, high-value communication like a business review or product pitch or large presentation, you might ask yourself these questions many times over weeks or months as you define and refine the narrative you want to drive.

For the past year or so, my great-grandboss was an amazing leader named Lorraine. One of the things I loved about working with Lorraine was how she structured large-audience emails. Any time she sent out a newsletter or other message that would reach hundreds of people, she consistently included these sections at the top of the mail:

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  1. Big bold header so you know instantly what you’re looking at
  2. tl;dr section so you can read in 2 or 3 sentences the most important things in the mail
  3. Read this if section so you know if you’re the target audience for the mail

Every time I see one of these emails I am impressed. Lorraine is a communication wizard, guru, ninja, and I am in awe of her effortless-seeming skills.[5]

But… these effortless results probably come from years of mindful practice. As with any skill, you only get the results if you put in the effort. Why not start today?

P.S. While this post was written and waiting to be published, someone mentioned to me the Minto Pyramid Principle. I’d heard of it before, but I never actually knew what it was called, and now that I do know I’ve done some additional reading on it. The Minto Pyramid Principle is a communication tool that take a similar approach to the “know your audience” approach I’ve presented above. Unlike my random blog post, the Minto Pyramid Principle has stood the test of time – it’s been around since the 70s, and there are lots of different resources including books and articles out there to support it with training and information. You should check it out too.


[1] 20+ years later I am still reminded regularly that 90% of communication failures are caused by problems in the physical layer. Please do not throw sausage pizza away.

[2] Yes, literally fell asleep in work meetings. It was a running joke.

[3] Full disclosure: I added the FFS, not him. But it fits.

[4] Think back to when you were first learning the Farfalla di Ferro, and how you needed to think about every cut, every step, and every transition – and how today you could do it with your eyes closed.

[5] Lorraine is no longer in my reporting chain after a recent re-org, and you can be certain that I sent her a “thank you” message during the transition period. Some things are too awesome to not acknowledge explicitly.

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