Say What?? 18 Best Practices for Effective Communication – May 2024

May 20, 2024

I had a conversation with a CEO of a PEN member organization recently, in which he lamented the fact that his messages were just not getting through to employees — he was communicating, but the messages just weren’t sticking.  So I asked him what channels he was using, to which he replied the normal ways: emails, a newsletter, occasional staff meetings, and sometimes “rounding” (walking around the halls, visiting and talking with staff).  All of that seemed reasonable, so I asked him why he thought messages weren’t being received, and he said he just had a hunch because some employees were asking questions about things he had already shared.  That prompted my next two questions: to what extent did he believe that his communication approaches were systematic (consistent, repeatable, and data-based), designed to get effective two-way dialogue going?  And was he measuring, evaluating, and improving the communication approaches – both the channels he was using as well as the messages themselves?  He had no response because he didn’t know…

I shared with him the old adage that you must “communicate seven times in seven ways” (actually, I read an article recently that said today it’s more like needing to communicate 12 or 14 times in 12 of 14 different ways to get your message across, given the noise of social media and the proliferation of information).  Think about it from your own experience: leaders who are the most effective at communicating say the same message over and over and over, in different formats and in different channels.  For them, it may sound like a broken record.  But to permeate the “information noise” of today — as well as reach different types of employees, each who have different listening and learning styles — leaders need to craft, deliver, and reinforce consistent messages through a variety of channels (marketers call is “effective frequency”).

Communication – like anything in an organization – is a process.  Or should be.  In the Baldrige Framework, it shows up as a driver of performance excellence explicitly twice: it’s in the Leadership Category (asking how senior leaders encourage frank, two-way communication and take a direct role in communicating with and motivating employees toward high performance), and it’s in the Workforce Category (asking how the organization’s culture is characterized by open communication).  For what it’s worth, it also shows up more subtly in Governance (ensuring transparency) and in Customer (listening to and interacting with current and prospective customers).  And since communication is a process, it can be thoughtfully designed, managed, and improved such that it becomes more systematic, predictable, consistent, and effective – rather than a random activity that produces random outcomes.

The world of work has changed so much the last few years — with remote and hybrid workers, different generational preferences, an increasingly diverse workforce, advancement of technology and different communication channels — so it stands to reason that (at least some) communication best practices have changed too.  And because ineffective communication leads to waste (Grammerly estimates $1.2 trillion – yes, with a “T” in lost US productivity due to poor communication), there is a massive ROI for communication.

I did a little research and found 18 current or emerging best practices in communication that could help any leader at any level in any size or type organization:

  • Plan the outcome you want, then design a communication plan to achieve that.  The plan should include key messages, a variety of communication vehicles that address a variety of employees’ needs, and measures to gauge effectiveness.  As Forbes writer Christiana Jolaoso says, effective communication should ask three questions: 1) what is the goal; 2) who needs to hear this? And 3) how should I pass the message across?  Indeed, communication should be systematic.
  • Use many communication channels to reach different audiences in different ways: print, digital, verbal, social, and so forth.  Given today’s different stakeholder preferences (including differences in how generations consume information), leaders do need to communicate seven (or 12) times in seven (or 12) different ways!
  • To promote clarity, use simple language.  Most of the time, writing or speaking at the sixth-grade level is far more effective than using big, complex words and phrases at the post-grad level — those often get misunderstood. Simplicity connects people. Bruce Kasanoff calls it the “Theory of Seven,” suggesting that you should tailor messages as if everyone hearing it is seven years old.  The selection of words matters; keep it simple.
  • On the other hand, expand your vocabulary.  Sometimes you need to provide synonyms — different ways of saying the same thing to reach different audiences.  And the more words you know, the more tools you have in your communication toolbox.
  • Keep it short, crisp.  It was Mark Twain who said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead!”  It takes time and effort to create concise communications, but those messages are far better received, especially in today’s world where we struggle to pay attention beyond 240-character posts!  When it comes to word choice, less is more.
  • Use graphics — as the saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  There is real power in visual communications, so use charts, graphs, tables, infographics, photos, icons (even emojis!), and video.  They are easier to understand and absorb, make communication more interesting.  And graphics are more easily remembered, at least for some.
  • Have recipients repeat or paraphrase key messages to ensure certain points are being received.  Even in staff meetings or town halls, ask team members what they heard — if you get consistent, on point responses, you’ll know that the message is getting through.  If not…
  • Be flexible — if the messages are not getting through, shift your approach, try something new (either the message itself and/or the vehicle).  Effective communication is not a one-shot deal: it requires adjustments.
  • Practice active listening.  To be flexible and shift strategies as needed, communication should be a two-way street, with messages being sent and received in both directions. Research referenced by Harvard claims we only hear about 50% of what others say, so focus on not just hearing the words but the entire message.  Listen, absorb, understand, and adjust.  Then listen again.
  • Pause to give people time to process, reflect, and absorb information as well as ask questions and offer reaction.  In fact, invite questions, discussion, dialogue.  People don’t like to be talked to: for communication to go both directions, you can’t be the only one talking.
  • Ensure that you can be heard and understood: for verbal communication, make sure the environment and circumstances are conducive to effective communication.  Eliminate distractions; observe recipients’ engagement levels — are they nodding their heads, following along, engaging with questions or comments or do they seem distant, disinterested, distracted?
  • Avoid communicating through implications — be clear and don’t expect your inferences and subtle or hidden messages to come through.  Say what you need to say.  However…
  • Use stories, case studies, metaphors, and examples.  Messages should be rooted in facts, but the most effective messages use stories to bring the facts to life.  People absorb (and remember) data better when it’s delivered through story (Forbes estimates that our retention of information is 22 times greater through story).
  • When communicating verbally (as opposed to in writing), be mindful of nonverbal communication — facial expressions, gestures, body language. Cited by Forbes, nonverbal cues can have between 65-93% more impact than the spoken word, so make sure your nonverbals are consistent with what you’re saying (and also pay attention to others’ nonverbal cues).
  • Try to share causation in your messages.  “Because,” “as a result of…,” and “so that” are powerful phrases that connect cause and effect in your message, giving listeners a more solid case for action.  Speaking of which…
  • Have an explicit call to action.  Admittedly, some communication is just to provide updates and information, but most communication is meant to inspire action.  Think in advance about what it is you want your recipients to do as a result of hearing or reading your message.
  • Practice delivering the message.  With the written word, this means review, edits, iteration (give your piece to someone you trust to provide independent feedback — is the message coming across and with the right tone?).  With the spoken word, run through your prepared remarks a few times.  The more important the message, the more you need to “get it right”. So practice, rehearse, perfect.
  • Finally, develop a communication style that includes respect, authenticity, and consistency.  Pay attention to what might offend certain audiences; use humor and levity when appropriate (even tactful, occasional self-deprecation can be effective); be consistent and predictable with your messages.  In both written and verbal communication, watch your tone: oftentimes, miscommunication is not what you say, but how you say it.  And align your words with your deeds: after all, your actions do speak louder than your words.

It should be no surprise that communication is usually mentioned as a top three (if not the number one) skill required to succeed in the current business environment (reported by Indeed, Forbes, Gallup among others).  Effective communication increases employee engagement, reduces turnover and enhances team motivation, improves productivity, and reduces workplace conflicts.  Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have the biggest impact: invest time and energy in improving your and your organization’s communication.

What other insights/tips do you have on effective communication?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment (and follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!).

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credit: Adobe Stock