We are born communicators. It starts with the first cry of a newborn baby. We learn about the world by communicating, through listening and talking. Yet, we fail at communicating effectively daily. Why is it so, and what can we do about it?
What is Communication?
Communication is the exchange of ideas, thoughts and words. The word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin word ‘communism’ which means ‘common’. When people exchange their ideas, thoughts and words, they communicate often to reach common ground.
Communication could become hard and get complicated. While learning is a solo effort, communication involves at least two people. Everyone has a shortage of time and a limited attention span. Everyone is being pulled and pushed in countless different directions.
The Seven C’s:
In 1952, University of Wisconsin professors Scott M. Cutlip and Allen H. Center published their seminal book, ‘Effective Public Relations’ in which they introduced the ‘Seven C’s of Communication’.
“Good prose is like a windowpane” - George Orwell
What is the function of a windowpane? It’s to show you what’s on the other side. A good windowpane is one which is clear and not one that draws attention to itself. That is how communication should be; clear.
Clarity in communication ensures easy-to-read and easy-to-understand messages.
- Avoids jargon
- Uses simple language
- Uses simple structures
- Focuses on the core message
George Orwell in an essay called the unnecessary words we add in our communication, ‘verbal false limbs’. For example, usages such as ‘make contact with, ‘militate against’, ‘give rise to’, ‘increase the size of’ and ‘make grounds for’. Make contact with can just be contact, increase the size of can be just increase. By using ‘stop’ instead of ‘put an end to’ and ‘now’ instead of ‘at this moment in time’, we can get rid of those unnecessary verbal false limbs and make communication clear.
As they say, for any communication, verbal or written, clarity is the highest beauty.
Correctness verifies the legibility of the data conveyed, whilst ensuring grammatical and syntactical correctness and no spelling mistakes in the case of written communication.
Here’s an example of communication that went wrong:-
Enjoyed our conservation today. Please find attached our proposal. Hope you can reveiw this with the team and get back to us in a weak.
The above message has 3 silly spelling mistakes that could have been avoided with a little bit of care. These not just distract and also affect the readability of the message. These dent your credibility and paint a picture of unprofessionalism.
How can one trust an organisation that does not know how to send an email without silly typos to their clients? If this is the level of attention with which their employees attend to their tasks, what would be the quality of their products and services? Silly mistakes such as these more often than not mean lost sales and revenue to the organisation. Something that could have easily been avoided with a little more attention.
One good heuristic to keep in mind with communication is the ‘completeness criteria’: who, what, when, where, why and how.
- Who: Who all are the communication intended for? Is the language appropriate for that audience?
- What: What is the objective or goal? Is that clear in the message?
- When: When must the communication take place? Are there time and dates that are important in communication? If a response is required, is that clearly mentioned?
- Where: Where can the recipient(s) and sender arrive to hold the communication? Is that provided with all the details?
- Why: Why is this communication important? Does it ensure that the reader/listener will be benefited?
- How: How can you encourage a positive response? Communication promoting goodwill goes a long way.
One other key aspect of good communication is the solidity of the message. It means being specific; vivid and not vague. Include the necessary details, but not too detailed so that the focus of the message is not lost. It needs to be balanced and layered based on its target audience.
Marketing or Advertising campaigns are occasions where this quality is paramount and comes to the fore.
The Great Taste, Less Filling ad campaign of Miller Lite in 1974 is an example of an ad that created a new market for a product. The common misconception was light beer can never actually taste good and that is what The Miller Brewing Company wanted to communicate. They wanted to show ‘real men’ drinking light beer and declaring it to be tasting great. By striving to be different and taking head on a perception they created a new category and dominated it for years.
Concrete communication uses facts and figures with the sources called out. Words should be carefully chosen and be exact so that nothing is left to imagination. People remember precise words longer than general words.
Let’s consider couple of examples, of vague versus precise usage in sentences:
Vague: The new car offers good storage space in the boot.
Precise: The new car offers 480L of storage space in the boot.
Vague: The travel agency offers economical packages to hill stations.
Precise: The travel agency offers packages under Rs. 9999 to hill stations.
Concise refers to communication in the least number of words without compromising on the quality of the communication. It qualifies crisp versus being verbose which would distract and bore listeners or readers. Don’t use 20 words if 10 would do. Avoid beating around the bush.
- Use active voice
- Use action verbs
- Remove unnecessary words, especially adverbs
- Use short words in place of long phrases
- No roundabout sentences, be direct
Below are examples of couple of short, direct words to illustrate this better:
Long: I would appreciate it if
Long: At this point in time
Keep your communication to the point, short and simple.
As the old saying goes, ‘Everyone gains where courtesy reigns’.
Courtesy is a cardinal requirement of any form of communication. Courteous messages are those which use positive words and respect the receiver. It promotes goodwill and shows empathy. Courtesy goes more than merely words; it includes a positive and friendly body language. It also includes learning to spell and pronounce the name of the recipient correctly. Special care needs to be taken when the recipient is from a different linguistic background where names could be pronounced differently. Taking the effort and showing the care to use the right spelling and pronunciation is courteous.
Another tip to keep in mind is to structure the sentences to state in the positive and what can be done; and avoid negative references as much as possible. As far as possible, try and avoid negative words such as complain, irritate, fear, lazy, mistake, reject and doubt. Also, try to be as gender-neutral as possible.
Timeliness with communication is an element that goes into courteous communication. Sending thank-you notes and congratulations messages within a stipulated time makes all the difference.Let the whole communication carry a courteous tone. Make it a habit to respond to all written messages within a week or so. All keep the language open, friendly, open, honest and professional.
- Be sincere and authentic
- Be thoughtful & respectful
- Humour may be best avoided
- Choose language carefully: no discriminatory refereences togender, race, colour etc.
The last of the 7C’s is the need for coherence. Coherence in communication refers to it being logical and consistent. Make sure the message flows smoothly and does not hit avoidable speed bumps. If there are multiple points or arguments being made, they all should be linked to each other and should naturally flow a certain order that builds up the whole communication in a logical fashion. Ideally the individual sub-points should connect well to a single main takeaway from the communication. You need to have a good understanding of what goes where and what comes when.
Lack of coherence would lead to the recipient not following the message or sometimes leading to wrong conclusions and confusion. The main rule is to stick to one topic. If there are multiple topics, tackle them one by one by putting them into different sections or compartments. Within a single main argument use appropriate connecting words and phrases to help maintain the flow. Not all parts of the message can be equally important. Identify the parts that are key and make sure those elements stand out. Let the other elements be supporting arguments to the main idea.
Consider using transitional verbs such as ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Yet’, ‘Thus’, ‘First’, ‘Later’, ‘Then’, either between sentences or between paragraphs in written communication. These help to connect the different parts of the message without losing context and stay on track.
Now that we have the basic tenets of communication, let’s listen to this video and hear another great tip that has worked for Nelson Mandela: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgxcznI1cpo. A great one, isn’t it?