What does it take to run a successful business? Some people tell you it’s the art of identifying and seizing an opportunity—the union of preparation and luck. Some say preparation and education best prepare people for the rigours of the business world. Still others claim it’s all about connections. But none of them offer the whole story.
There’s one major element that’s essential: effective communication. Indeed, strong communication, more than any other factor, may be the leading predictor of business success. In some way or another, communication contributes to all those other factors. Communication helps us learn about new opportunities, manage our education, and ultimately maintain and cultivate important connections. But it also helps within a business; with employees, customers, and shareholders; and in virtually every other aspect of business.
In an economy where 80 per cent of new businesses fail, every step of the process counts. Here are some key ways to review and improve your business communication and make sure you’re making the most of it.
This isn’t about telling people what they want to hear, though that’s a part of equation. Really, it’s about knowing how to talk to people. In other words, organize your communication so you reveal the information that’s most important to your audience first.
Naturally talented speakers do this automatically. It makes sense to organize a list with the most important information at the beginning, where it is most likely to be noticed. Imagine an inverted pyramid: the key information is at the top (which makes your case stronger) with supporting information arrayed below. The art of correctly gauging your audience’s priorities and adjusting your speech on the fly to better accommodate it takes more subtlety. Politicians on the campaign trail face this challenge regularly. They never know who will come to public events or what impromptu questions they’ll get from citizens and reporters. Imagine your customer as a critical reporter: Make sure all of your communication emphasizes what they care about most.
You may think this goes without saying, but it’s worth repeating: Problem solving is an indispensable part of business.
These fixed steps provide structure to any process, and are extremely important when communicating how to deal with problems in case you aren’t there to do it personally:
These steps may seem irrelevant until you encounter a problem you don’t know how to solve right away. With a problem-solving protocol established, there is a framework to react to new problems. Even if a problem is completely unfamiliar, a set order of operations can be devised to quickly isolate it. A protocol helps you stay active and ensures you have less downtime, even when facing an especially tricky problem.
People are raised in a variety of ways and are comfortable and uncomfortable with different things. Despite our differences, we should all employ good manners. In an article for Inc. Tim Askew writes, “There is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other... It is the glue of civilization and a utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business.”
Social graces are necessary in face-to-face interactions and emails. Now they also apply to customer relations on social media, where increased visibility makes it all the more important to respond promptly and politely to customer concerns. Having good manners and social graces make every interaction, business or otherwise, smoother. Go out of your way to be polite.
Emotional intelligence is being in tune with others’ feelings and emotions. It can be as simple as noticing and taking extra care when someone is having a rough week, or as complex as understanding the historical or social issues that may personally affect someone.
At work, high emotional intelligence guides social interactions and helps people work together more effectively. It improves communication and allows teams to tactfully discuss differing opinions. Leaders in a company who actively pay attention to others’ emotions have happier employees because they are more socially aware, are respectful of diversity, and know how to handle conflict. This further translates to more positive interactions with vendors and customers.
Especially in our modern world, where tolerance and acceptance are mandatory in good business behaviour, it’s important to think about historical and social context with every move you make. Others will appreciate your tact and empathetic interactions with them.
Even though a number of studies place the importance of nonverbal communication equal to or surpassing that of verbal communication, it continues to be misunderstood and underestimated. Businesspeople who have mastered the ability to communicate nonverbally have several distinct advantages in the business sphere, from exuding confidence to reinforcing authority.
Facial expressions, posture, eye contact, voice, and hand gestures all fall into this category. Mastering the art of nonverbal communication for business relations is not easy, but can provide a new dimension in your communications with colleagues, as well as friends.
Nonverbal communication is best used to supplement your understanding or experience of the interaction, not be a substitute for basic communication (especially when discussing important matters). For this reason, always interpret signals you see as a group. Don’t take your cues from one signal alone, but rather as a whole, and for the general mood of the situation. Pay special attention to the nonverbal cues many people miss out on.
By the same token, it’s important to control the nonverbal cues you project to your colleagues. Chances are you’re giving away clues and extra information all the time, even when you’re not aware of it. Slowly and carefully consider how gestures and expressions may be interpreted, both to help you understand people, but also to help people understand you.
The bottom line: It’s best to master nonverbal communication before testing out gestures and expressions that are outside of your comfort zone during an important meeting.
It’s nothing short of frustrating when people pretend to listen when they really are just waiting for their chance to speak. An unfocused gaze, interruptions, and listening only for the bottom line are all poor listening habits. Here’s some unwelcome news: You probably exhibit poor listening on occasion too—and people notice it.
This ties back to nonverbal communication. So much of the information we exchange with other people isn’t verbalized. If you manage to be a good listener, worlds will open up to you. People love being listened to. It’s probably the easiest way to put someone at ease: Just listen to what they have to say, and actually be present for the conversation.
Paradoxically, bosses especially need to master great listening skills. Even though it’s ostensibly the boss’s job to tell people what to do, if the boss wants to be appreciated and valued by his or her subordinates, he or she will genuinely listen to concerns and try to understand. It’s this careful attention that separates good bosses from great.
No one likes negativity, but there are situations when the only appropriate action is a thorough and detailed questioning of the subject. It’s human nature to make assumptions—it saves us time every day—but what if you or someone else arrives at the wrong conclusion? Some assumptions can be downright dangerous to relationships, business transactions, or both, and it’s your job to question them when you see them.
We aren’t mind readers. Rather than make assumptions about why a colleague hasn’t responded to an email, if a client is satisfied with your work, or if an innovative product will be profitable, ask questions. Stick to the facts you do know, and let the other person fill in the rest. There are many examples of businesses missing out on real opportunities because they failed to challenge their assumptions about new products or technologies until it was too late. Subtly and deftly attempt to understand the context of the assumption to gauge its value. When you take the time to challenge assumptions, you may learn more information about the subject and improve your business as a result.
This may seem similar to the previous tip, but it’s actually different. Somewhat counter-intuitively, when you ask people questions in the social sphere, getting information is actually a secondary goal. The goal is to get them to talk and relax, and give you the opportunity to practice those listening skills. In business, the more information the better—but you need to ask the right questions to glean that information.
Asking the right questions takes effort, but it can have immense rewards. If you know the right questions to ask, you can find out the information you want, and also communicate metadata about yourself. Asking intelligent questions is one way to show your competency and expertise over the subject matter, and is an indispensable part of business networking.
Though many of our tips have focused on being less assertive, it’s impossible to be a good leader without knowing when to put your foot down. When employed judiciously, being assertive can have a great effect, one that is only enhanced when people know you as a sensitive and considerate person. This can show you’re committed when you really need to. Being assertive doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive or pushy, but rather clear and effective.
In fact, with a less assertive leadership style, it doesn’t take much firmness to make things happen. Your employees will see your strength of purpose and your drive to succeed and respect that. Give orders judiciously and people will take notice.
When you communicate with people in your organization more effectively, you’re more aware of potential problems and better able to implement solutions. Focus on the skills in this article to improve your communication in the workplace: You’ll be more informed about every aspect of the business and you’ll understand the concerns of your coworkers. If you communicate with your customers well, you can catch potential pitfalls and other issues early on. Appraise the communication system at your business and see how these tips work for you.
This article was written by John Siegel and Nick Rojas.