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iOn the Contrary-i And the Point Is

Vague communication is a waste of time. Pay more attention to the specifics.

April 1, 2000
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Drivinginto downtown Denver the other morning, I passed a young man who was standing ona street corner holding a brown cardboard sign that read: “Won’t work. Nothungry. Need beer.”

   Wow, I thought to myself. I could be standing there with that very same sign. Socould a fairly large percentage of my friends for that matter. Just to make surehe wasn’t someone I knew, I took a closer look at his down jacket and Oakleysunglasses. Nope. He was a stranger, and since I had no beer in the glove box, Idrove on.

   Thinking about the beer man later that day, it dawned on me what a perfect rolemodel he is. No, I’m not suggesting that when the going gets tough you ditchyour laptop and scratch out a plea for free alcoholic beverages. Sure it’stempting, but what really impressed me about this guy was how specific anddirect he was. In six simple words he told us about his ambitions, desires,physical state, work ethic, culinary preferences and why you wouldn’t want tointroduce him to your daughter. Not only that, but his plea -- “Need beer”-- was profoundly unambiguous.

   We all can learn from this guy because a lot of what passes for communication inorganizations is really nothing more than vague references to desires, thoughtsand ideas. We may think we’re communicating with others, but in reality mostof us are only hinting at what we want to accomplish.

   Consider the employee who leans casually against the bosses’ doorway, nibbleshis thumbnail, and says: “I’d like to take on more responsibility.”

   Now, compare this person to an employee who schedules a meeting to present theboss with a black, hard-sided, three-ring binder complete with cover letter andindex that details how he would manage the team training project scheduled tobegin in June.

   Which employee is likely to actually get more responsibility: the thumb cheweror report writer? Who was more specific?

Cutto the chase
    Specificityis vital to effective communication because language is so relative. The word“inexpensive,” for example, means something very different to the divorcedwoman with a personal shopper at Saks than it does to the mother of five in thecheck-out lane at Wal-Mart. Without specific details, we have no idea whatinexpensive -- or faster or better or sooner or later -- really means.

    Theneed to be specific isn’t limited to employees who are seeking to influenceupward; it’s even more important for people who have managerialresponsibilities. For instance, if you’re the boss, don’t tell yourassistant, “I need this report as soon as possible.” Instead, it’s muchclearer to say, “I need this report completed, proofed, copied and ready for aFed Ex pickup tomorrow at 4:30.”

    I’veknown managers who were reluctant to provide such detailed instructions becausethey didn’t want to appear to be impolite, patronizing or over-controlling.But in reality, managers aren’t doing anyone any favors when they setemployees up for failure by leaving directions open to interpretation.

    Sure,in a perfect world, listeners would take time to clarify requests -- forexample, “What kind of beer do you like, sir, and how much would you like meto buy for you?” -- but we can’t always rely on others to make our ownpoints clearer.


Makeyour feedback crystal clear
   Theneed to be precise is important not only when making a request, but also whengiving feedback.

    Recently,I attended a going-away party for a friend and long-time colleague. At theparty, this person’s former co-workers each took the time to tell him, ingreat and loving detail, about how he had touched them over the years.

    Afterward,my friend admitted he was overwhelmed by their comments. “I’d been told manytimes that I was a good manager, but I had no idea until today what it was thatmade me good.” You have to wonder how much more effective this person wouldhave been if he had known sooner what he did well and why.

    Thinkabout it: how many times have you slaved away on a report, turned it in, andheard nothing more about it other than “Nice job?” Kind of minimizes theeffort, doesn’t it?

    Itwould be so much more motivating to hear, “The report you turned in was notonly well-organized and thoroughly researched, but it has the potential tocompletely change our strategic direction. Your effort was noticeable and weappreciate all the sleepless nights you must have had.” I don’t know aboutyou, but detailed compliments like this have caused me to change the beneficiaryon my retirement funds.

    Asyou interact with co-workers over the next few days, try being as specific aspossible and see what happens. Don’t ask for a little time off. Justify whyyou need a week’s vacation. Don’t ask if it would be possible to review yourcompensation. Detail why you deserve a substantial raise.

    Whetheryou prefer e-mail, face-to-face meetings, telephone conversations or handwrittencardboard placards, I can almost guarantee your communication will become moreeffective. If it doesn’t, let me know. You can find me downtown wearing Oakleysunglasses.

Workforce, April 2000, Vol 79, No 4, pp. 20-22 SubscribeNow!

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