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5 Ways to Communicate More Clearly

Miscommunications cost your business time and money. How to make sure what they heard is what you said.

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Does everyone in your start-up do the right thing all the time? I didn’t think so.

I would like to interview 50 start-up entrepreneurs, and ask them to describe how often people do the wrong thing and how much that costs their business.

Based on my own experience working with people, the odds are very high that the idea that you have in your head is not always going to be received as intended once you start trying to communicate it.

That miscommunication will probably lead  people to do something other than what you wanted. For example, if you suggest that your vice president of sales follow up on a lead you got from a trade show but he ignores your suggestion because he doesn’t think the lead is very important, then you might lose a big potential customer.

Here are other communication blunders: You think of the wrong idea; you articulate a good idea in a fuzzy way that confuses your reader; you send an email, text, or voicemail to the wrong person; your message never makes it to the intended recipient; or your recipient ignores the message or does something different than what you had intended.

There are five steps you can take to lower the odds that these things will happen, or to nip them in the bud before they cost your start-up too much time or money.

1. Think clearly

You may be the boss, but that doesn’t always mean you will have the right idea. Nevertheless, people are depending on you to be right almost all of the time.

So before you send out an important message, share it with one or two trustworthy people who understand your business and are not the intended recipient. If they understand what you mean and think it’s a good idea, then you’re starting off on the right foot.

If not, you should go back the drawing board and talk through your next iteration with those advisors until you all agree that you’ve got a good idea.

2. Write what you think

Of course not everyone is great at putting their ideas into words.

A shorthand description of an idea, the use of a three-letter acronym that many people do not understand, or a typographical error can all help create a gap between what you meant to say and what your recipient reads.

There are a few ways to avoid this. One is to write out an email or memo using short words that you might use in an animated face-to-face conversation with your intended audience. You should also reread the message before you send it, and make corrections.

If it’s really important, you might send the email or memo to the same advisors you spoke with before. Make sure that they agree that your chosen words reflect what you really meant to say.

3. Check with the recipient after you send a message

Let’s say you get the message written right and you send it out in an email or text. That doesn’t mean that the right people received it.

Plenty of things can go wrong. You can send it to the wrong people, the message can get bottled up somewhere along the Internet and not make it to the intended recipient, or it can get buried deep in a spam folder.

You should assume that unless you get a response to your message, it has not been received. One way to make your life easier is to tell people that if they get a message from you, you want them to let you know they got it and that you will be happy with that -- even if they say that they can’t give you the answer you’re looking for until next Tuesday.

But if you still don’t get a response, leave a voice mail message or resend.

4. Make sure you and the recipient see eye-to-eye

Even if you’ve done all this, you still have room for communication errors.

That’s because people who read your email may not understand what you meant, or they might not see your message as something that’s as important as you think it is.

You can see this in the response you get to your message. If they reply by telling you the details of what they’ve done and you are happy with the result, then you can celebrate your communication success.

If not, you have a problem on your hands, but it may be easy to solve. If the recipient does not take action or does not present a plan to do so, you may want to give them a ring.

If that doesn't work, then you might be able to get to 'yes' through a face-to-face meeting. That will allow the person to articulate his or her objections to your idea, and for you to try to overcome them.

5. Follow up until the right thing happens

People are busy. If you ask someone to do something, he or she will decide when to do it based on how your request fits his or her priorities. If person reports directly to you or their boss does, then the request is likely to make it pretty high on the priority list.

But personal and professional emergencies can intervene even with the best laid plans. So don’t stop following up until you get the result you need.

Of course, following up is an art. If you do it too often or too insistently, you may create the opposite outcome from the one you want. But if you do it in a helpful way, your odds of communications success will rise.

Follow all five of these tips and your start-up will run more effectively.

IMAGE: Thomas Barwick/Getty
Last updated: Dec 4, 2012

Strategy consultant, startup investor, teacher, corporate speaker, pundit, and author PETER COHAN has invested in six startups, three of which were sold for a total of $2 billion. Before founding Peter S. Cohan & Associates in 1994, he worked with HBS strategy guru Michael Porter.




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