What are you trying to say? Getting your message across more effectively

Learn how to improve your communication skills with these tips.

May 17, 2012
from Robert Half International

Effective communication. It’s a term we’ve heard for years. We know it’s important, but can we just get past the rhetoric?

In essence, it’s about working smoothly with clients, supervisors, co-workers, and other professionals you interact with in the course of the business day. Have you ever left a voicemail, sent an email, or had a one-on-one conversation and afterward felt that you didn’t quite get your message across the way you wanted? The answer is likely yes.

The stakes can be high when it comes to communicating in the workplace. Client service levels, as well as your prospects for advancement, are closely tied to how well you communicate. In response to a survey commissioned by Robert Half Finance and Accounting, nearly one-third of CFOs said communication was the area where employees need the most improvement.

Honing your communication skills is a critical, worthwhile goal. Here are some suggestions for becoming a better communicator.

Pretend everyone is the client

Treat your listener or the recipient of your written message with the same respect, courtesy, and professionalism you would use when communicating with your firm’s clients. Responsiveness and a proactive attitude are crucial to good customer service and to good communication as well.

Adapt to your audience

While you want to treat everyone with consideration, it’s also important to adjust your tone and demeanor to the audience. The informal tone you use with co-workers or while networking with colleagues is likely too casual for communicating with the boss or a client. Adapting to the audience will enable you to communicate easily with anybody while still delivering your message. In addition, you’ll find that your listeners are more receptive and less likely to misunderstand you.

Have the end in mind

Don’t waste the other person’s time with small talk or a lengthy buildup to your point. Chances are your listener has a full schedule and other concerns. To save their time and yours, think before you speak. Determine your goals and clarify what you want or need from the other person in terms of instructions, guidance, feedback, or information. This will enable you to make your request concise and specific.

Watch what you say—and how

When making a request, use language that reflects an awareness of and respect for the pressures and demands the other person faces. Watch that your tone does not come across as impatient or demanding. Soften your requests with phrases like “Would you have time…” or “When it’s convenient for you….” It may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how often people forget these simple courtesies in the workplace.

Strive for clarity

Use direct, specific language when both talking and writing. Be sure to give enough color, but avoid unnecessary details or tangential comments. If you’re handling a sensitive or confidential matter, consider how much information the other person needs to know before you speak or hit “send.”

Fix your flaws

If you make assumptions about what the other party already knows or omit critical details, you are likely on your way to misunderstandings. Examine your communication style and try to zero in on your shortcomings. Perhaps you jump to conclusions before the speaker is finished, or you interrupt the moment a good idea enters your mind. Or maybe your email messages are too informal or replete with misspellings. Although these may seem like minor problems, they can undermine your professional image.

One final tip that applies in any circumstance, with any communication partner: Remember that the real key to good communication is not eloquent speech but active, engaged listening. Shut out distractions and disturbances and focus on what the other person is saying, as well as on his or her nonverbal cues. This type of listening “between the lines” will enable you to respond more effectively.

Robert Half International is the parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources. Robert Half is one of the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time, and project basis. Follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.