How to Improve Communication at Work with One Simple Rule
All entrepreneurs are professional communicators. It’s how we spend almost all of our time.
According to a recent study, CEOs spend 61 percent of their time in face-to-face meetings, and 24 percent on electronic communications. The remaining 15 percent is spent reading or responding to written correspondence. Yes, that’s right: When you’re not reading, you’re communicating, either verbally or in writing.
I’ve always thought of myself as a skilled communicator. I went to journalism school. I’ve even written for a few high-profile business publications. When my wife came home one day from business school and shared what she’d learned in her communication class, I initially scoffed.
Her professor said there was one secret to good communication: “Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Then say what you’ve said.”
How rudimentary, I thought. Sure, that seems like a decent rule for all the mediocre communicators out there. Maybe it’s a good way to teach fifth graders to write essays.
But me? I’m a sophisticated communicator. I understand all the nuances of good communication, and I know how to structure each communication according to the content and the audience.
Then I tried it, and realized I was wrong. It’s an incredibly valuable insight. Studies pioneered by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus — and subsequently reproduced by other researchers — have shown that people are most likely to remember the first and the last thing they hear. This is known as the “serial position effect.” By summarizing your point at the beginning and end, you increase the likelihood that your audience will catch it.
It also forces you to make sure your point is clearly articulated. If you can’t summarize your point in one to three sentences, you probably don’t know what your point is.
We’ve integrated this idea into our leadership training program at my company. We have a 12-week training program for new managers, and we talk about the “say what you’re going to say” rule in almost every session.
Each week, at least one person gets cold-called and has to answer a question or do a short presentation. Then the rest of the group provides feedback. And, inevitably, we frequently coach them, “Say what you’re going to. Say it. Then say what you’ve said.”
That’s because while this rule seems simple, it’s actually very difficult to follow. Here are three ways I put this rule into practice every day:
1. When I’m “thinking out loud”
In a meeting or conversation, it’s not always possible to “say what I’m going to say” because I don’t always know my point up front. That makes it even more important to follow this rule.
If I’ve been rambling for a minute or two, I can make sure to “say what I’ve said” when I wrap up. Even if I didn’t have a point in the beginning, I always make sure to have one by the end.
2. When my point is too long or complex to summarize
Sometimes, I can’t summarize my point in a sentence. Instead, I can preview it, so my listeners know what to expect.
If I have a lot to say, I’ll try to start with something like, “I’m going to talk through my three main takeaways from yesterday’s meeting with the client,” or “I want to tell you a story that will illustrate why I think this training is so important.”
Give it a try. You’ll be surprised to find that composing even this high-level summary really forces you to articulate what you want to say.
3. When I’m communicating electronically
Emails are often so short that they serve as summaries themselves. For longer emails, I summarize or preview my point in the beginning or in the subject line. A summary at the end typically isn’t necessary — if the reader has forgotten what I’ve said, he or she can just go back to the beginning and read it again.
By contrast, in instant messaging, I find that summarizing at the end is critical. Most people are lax about grammar and punctuation when communicating on text, Skype, or Slack, which makes it easy to miscommunicate. So if the topic is important, I always reiterate what I’ve said.
In summary, you can improve your communication skills by following one surprisingly simple rule: Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Then say what you’ve said.