How To Communicate Effectively

In a world filled with so many ways to communicate, it’s easy to offer too much. Here's how to be heard.
December 08, 2011

In a world filled with so many ways to communicate, it’s easy to offer too much communication. E-mail, voicemail, text, instant message, cellphones, laptops and tablets all conspire to make 24-hour communication instantaneous and multimedia.

But what gets lost in translation? How do we know when to communicate, what to communicate and how often? Whether you’re messaging employees or customers, there’s a fine line between saying too little and saying too much.

Here are some tips to make sure you’re being heard and not tuned out. 

Communicating with employees 

Be precise. Filter your message down to just the essentials. The key is stating those clearly, briefly and without room for interpretation. To find those essentials, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What’s the core of my message?
  • What do all my employees need to know about it?
  • Is there a timing factor to communicate?
  • When can they expect more information?
  • Where should I lead them for more detailed information?
  • Am I prepared for questions?

Don’t sugar-coat it. We’re all called upon to deliver bad news from time to time. Employees respond best when they know the facts and understand the specific challenges the facts present. Trying to temper the negative only sends a mixed signal that dilutes your message and will eventually require more communication to clarify.

Employers can still be positive or upbeat about the future, even when they are delivering negative news. Your optimism motivates your listeners through clearly defined tough periods rather than muddying a negative message with a false spin.

Anticipate and invite questions. All good communication invites questions and follow-up. The key is to be ready for questions, but don’t lose your audience by trying to answer every possible question up front. Let your employees follow up one at a time or by department with questions that are relevant to them. Fielding a laundry list of general questions wastes everyone’s time and allows your audience to disengage.

Provide resources for more information. Not all of your employees are concerned about the same things. Sales wants to know about new product launches, HR wants to know whether to staff up or stay lean, customer service is concerned about catalog release dates and so on. Avoid hitting your audience with details they don’t need to know. Present the information that is universally needed and then provide resources for each team or individual to get more specifics. 

Communicating with customers

Know your audience. A large technology firm I worked with recently spent nearly half of their marketing budget researching the correct “developer tone” to announce the launch of a new service. The company realized that developers and tech-savvy people would be the early-adopters. Hitting the right tone involved writing copy in the correct casual voice, matching the developers’ verbal shorthand, and communicating key pieces of information with just enough detail.

The campaign was a success because the company understood and respected its very distinct audience, and targeted them correctly. Smaller companies operating on a shoestring marketing budget have to assess their own voice to see if it matches real-world customers, but it's worth the effort.

Match the message to the media. The glut of ways to communicate hasn’t been matched with training on how to leverage the right tool for the right message. E-mail marketing is best for longer life-cycle messaging, specific campaigns or ongoing newsletter distribution. Facebook pages work well for building buzz, developing a loyal fan base or hosting surveys. Whatever the goal of your message, distribute content that’s relevant to your customers and appropriate to the medium.

Keep it brief. We know customers have notoriously brief attention spans. Today more than ever, customers are inundated with marketing messages and their filters are rightfully set high. Cut through the clutter by tailoring your message to answer the three questions customers are most concerned with. 

  • What is the offer?
  • Why should I care?
  • What sets your service apart from the competition?

By following this formula, you’ll provide just the right level of information to get your customers’ attention without losing them in superfluous copy. If more information is necessary, provide a link or source where customers can go for further details.

Time it right. When contacting your customers with an e-mail campaign, timing can make all the difference. Getting your message noticed in the first place means communicating less frequently. There’s no hard and fast rule for frequency, but monitor your conversion and unsubscribe rates immediately after deployment to see what’s giving you the best results. The same holds true for what time of day you contact your opt-in customers.

New technology allows some e-mail service providers to deploy messages to individual addresses on your list based upon a user’s previous open and click activity. If this level of sophistication isn’t available to you, divide your distribution list based upon broader time ranges of your openers and clickers. Launch separate campaigns to those who opened previous e-mails between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. EST or between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. EST, for instance. 

Clarify your call to action. Some companies still struggle with the right online call to action. Users click to buy a product and then are presented with more product information or asked to update their profiles or led in a different direction altogether.

Don’t forget that you want your users to experience clear communication delivered consistently and simply. Lead customers through the process of learning and buying online by focusing on the words you use and the paths you take them down. Segment users based on actions (register, learn more and contact customer service).

The goal should always be to reduce the number of clicks for your buyers.

The tools available for individuals and companies to master effective communication strategies present limitless opportunities. Employees and customers are aware, tuned in and talking with each other now more than ever. The smartest companies have traded in the bullhorn for more tailored and targeted tools that reach the right audience at the right time in the right way.

Kentin Waits is a freelance writer and marketing specialist based in Portland, Oregon. His work has been featured in US Airways magazine and top-rated blogs such as Wise Bread, the Consumerist and MSN SmartMoney. When he's not writing, Kentin runs a small online antiques business.