4 Communication Tips For My Younger Self

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Over the years I have spent time mentoring university and MBA students and young professionals. It’s been 12 years since I completed my MBA at The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and over 17 since I started my first full-time job as a copywriter at a then-digital marketing agency (today, if you’re in marketing…you’re in digital!) Despite the time that has passed, I still remember how I felt as a “newbie” in the professional world. On my journey, I have learned many lessons through on-the-job challenges, interviews, and transitions – and I am still growing both personally and professionally. Not a week passes that I don’t acquire new knowledge or insights – sometimes through successes, other times through failures. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, failure is all the rage these days. So go ahead, embrace it. These 12 famous people have.

Sharing what I’ve learned over the course of my career in a candid and honest way is one way I enjoy giving back. And since I often find myself sharing similar guidance with different audiences, I’ve summarized the tips that emerge most often in hopes they inspire, encourage, and most of all…remind us all that we’re not alone. Believe it or not, even big-time executives don’t have all the answers! And if you ask me, we can all use a cheerleader in our corner – and ever better if that cheerleader has some tips up her sleeve to help you shine even brighter!

Now pass me the pompoms please…

4 Communication Tips For My Younger Self 

1)   Give people something to react to

Many years ago, “Dealing with Ambiguity” was on my development plan. If I didn’t know all the answers, I didn’t feel like I knew where to start. If I couldn’t provide an answer with 100% accuracy, I was hesitant to provide anything at all. Thankfully, I wasn’t totally paralyzed and I did provide my managers and team members with content when I didn’t have the full picture; but it probably took me longer than it should have and I likely wasn’t as confident as I could have been when I shared information and recommendations.

Then someone shared this little gem:

Give people something to react to.

And it stuck.

What does it mean? When someone asks for information – a data analysis for example – use the material you have (and don’t be afraid to ask colleagues for help!) to formulate a response as thoroughly as possible. If there is data missing, make an assumption and state it clearly. Or make a few assumptions and provide high, medium, and low scenarios. Or complete the part of the analysis you can with the data you have and acknowledge that you require more information to complete the task. Or…you get the picture.

Recently, I opened my email when I arrived at work and read a note from my manager requesting an analysis…by noon. It was an ad-hoc request, not related to any of my current projects. Early in my career, this might have given me a fright…and stopped me in my tracks. But that morning, I efficiently pieced together the requested information, using data I had plus insights from colleagues who were kind enough to spare a few minutes. Ultimately, whatever was in my manager’s hands at noon would be more than he had at 9 a.m. – so there was only upside. And if I gave him something (vs. nothing at all) at least he would have something to react to.

Next time you’re not sure where or how to start…just start. Whatever you jot down is one step closer to a solution to the problem you’re solving. Because even if it’s not theanswer…it promotes healthy dialogue, discussion, and debate. 

2)   Don’t ask…recommend

People don’t want more problems. They want solutions…YES, from all levels in the organization. Perhaps you’ve heard the advice about removing words such as “just” from your communications (give it a try…it works wonders!) I also suggest reframing questions as recommendations when it makes sense – especially when you’re confident your audience will agree with your proposal. For example…

Instead of:

“Are you aligned with moving the project forward and incurring the costs stated above?”

Try:

“I recommend moving the project forward and incurring the costs stated above. Please confirm by Friday end of day that you are aligned.”

Replacing a question with a recommendation (in bold font if necessary) is a great tool to showcase your leadership and highlight your ownership of your initiatives.

3)  Tailor your text

I always re-read emails I’ve drafted and remove wordy sentences and unnecessary content. For all communications – emails, presentations, and conversations – I ask myself a few key questions:

  • Who is my audience? (And who might they forward my email to?)
  • What do they know (or not know) already?
  • What do I want to tell them?
  • What questions might they have (HINT: anticipate them and answer them proactively)
  • What do I need from my audience? Approval? Information?
  • What am I going to do next? And when?

Our messages should assure our audience we know our stuff (and know what we don’t know), we understand what we need to move forward, and we’re confident in our approach.

True, this is a bit tougher when delivering negative news. But I used this approach to share an update with my manager highlighting a project’s unexpected delay. It wasn’t the best information he received all week – but by using this framework, I felt secure about the message I delivered.

4)   Questions are great…at the right time and in the right place

As a naturally curious person, my initial tendency is to want to know everything about everything (um…yes…I might have control issues). However, I have discovered that knowing more doesn’t always add value to an initiative. I have also learned to be more thoughtful about when I ask questions and to whom.

In recent months, I have participated in several meetings that feature some fairly technical content. As the business lead of the project, I don’t need to understand all the nitty gritty behind the scenes; I must know that the project is on track (and if not, why…and what are we going to do to get it back on the rails), and that we have done our due diligence in key areas (think legal, regulatory, compliance, and risk) before we go to market. In these situations and others, I hold my tongue and think before I ask:

  • Will my question and its response have a significant impact on the trajectory of the project?
  • Am I the only one who doesn’t understand something? Or would my question benefit a broader group?
  • Is my question better suited for a one-on-one conversation with the subject matter expert – i.e. can I and one or more colleagues “take it offline?” (Shame on me! I wrote a blog about those pesky corporate buzz words and phrases!)
  • Do I really, truly need to know the answer? (Surprise! Sometimes the answer is NO).

Like most things, it’s a work-in-progress to strike a good balance. For me, that means maintaining my natural curiosity and desire to be thorough, while holding back the urge to ask anything at any time.

_____________________________________________

Any ideas to add to my list? I would love to hear from you! Don’t know where to start? I’ll let you figure that one out.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here with my pompoms…and my control issues.  

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