Workplace Communication: How to Avoid Making Mistakes

Freddie Adams

Human language is what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. But, all too often, we respond to the wag of a dog’s tail rather than the CEO’s message. Workplace communication has broken down.

Here are four tried-and-true methods for getting a message across, remembered, and repeated.

Instead of ad copy, use natural language.

The ad copy may be catchy, but it only serves to entice the viewer or reader to seek out more information. That is frequently not possible in our 24-hour, get-it-done-now society. If Martin Luther King had only said, “I have a dream,” his speech would have vanished into history. Real language fleshes out the sender’s intent as well as the possibilities he or she wishes to convey.

It is not full of puffery and pompous language, but rather words that allow the reader to see what the speaker is saying. For example, King provided specific examples of how that dream would manifest itself, such as a slave owner and a former slave sharing a meal together.

Symbols are used in the workplace to communicate rather than spreadsheets.

Numbers, profit and loss statements, and statistics are useful, but they are not remembered or repeated. Symbols, on the other hand, have far greater impact. One manager, for example, walked into a meeting and dumped a stack of manufacturing parts on the table. He stated, “This is the kind of nonsense that keeps breaking. What are we going to do about it?” You can imagine the expressions on his colleagues’ faces.

In the incredible story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic Expedition, when the ship was crushed by an expanding ice pack, Shackleton determined that a sled march to the ocean might be possible. This could only happen if every non-essential item, regardless of value or emotional attachment, was discarded. Shackleton threw away gold sovereigns and a gold cigarette case from inside his parka. The significance was not lost on his crew.

Instead of telling, tell a story.

Facts speak for themselves, but emotion sells. Stories elicit more emotion from us than a dry recitation of facts.

I was hired to write a report for a biotechnology firm. The report’s goal was to attract potential employees. Instead of discussing benefits and employment practices (though that was included as an addendum), I interviewed employees about the value they saw in their work. Hearing someone describe what it was like to meet the recipient of a heart valve or listening to a parent describe their child’s recovery as a result of a device elicited an emotional response.

Instead of a discussion, use dialogue.

The term “dialogue” means “communication through words.” The word “discussion” is derived from the same root as “percussion,” which is derived from the Latin: “to beat.” So, tell me, which would you prefer: a dialogue or a discussion? Discussions are heated and frequently imagined as a game of one-upsmanship with a winner at the end. A dialogue, on the other hand, is exploratory in nature, attempting to comprehend various points of view. Dialogue is a free-form exchange of ideas. When a leader engages in dialogue, the Biblical adage “seek first to understand rather than be understood” comes to mind.

All of these forms of workplace communication necessitate deliberate practice. A true leader works diligently to craft clear and compelling communication, as opposed to some so-called leaders we see today who shoot from the mouth and are perceived as messing up their message.

True communication is achieved through deliberate practice and a commitment to acting as a true leader.