How to avoid bad business communication

Another answer to your questionsHere’s an answer to another question I received: What are some examples of bad business communication? I assume that the person wants to avoid that type of communication, not emulate it.

Good business communication is clear, accurate, and timely. It provides recipients with the information they need to do their work. When communication fails to do that, work gets delayed or is done incorrectly because the information is inaccurate or misunderstood.

What are some examples of such bad business communication, and how do we avoid them?

The Endless Email Thread

You have a question that you email to a number of recipients. Instead of answering your question, the recipients exchange emails discussing possible answers, raising additional questions, and going off into unrelated topics. This goes on for several days, or longer if the recipients are in different time zones. When someone claims they have the answer (and you have to scroll through screens of indented messages to find it), you send another email to ask if this answer is correct. This launches another long email thread that can go on for several more days and arrive at an answer that may be different than the first one given.

How do you avoid this problem?

  • Make sure your question is clear and focused. Provide enough specifics so that people can understand the question enough to answer it.
  • Limit the email distribution list to just the people who are responsible for providing the answer. If you don’t know who they are, get their names before you send the email.
  • If there is disagreement or uncertainty about an answer, call a meeting. Get the people involved who have the information and can make a decision.

The Answer that Isn’t an Answer

You ask someone a question, but that person’s “answer” leaves you with more questions. He may answer your yes-or-no question by saying everything except yes or no. If you ask for a simple explanation, he bombards you with jargon and technical detail. What do you do?

  • Ask for clarification. Something I have noticed when I talk with technical people is that they believe all of that detail and jargon is necessary to answer a question. Work with them to identify the information you need and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand. Most technical people are happy to share their knowledge with you.
  • Look for conditional words, like “could,” “might,” or “possibly.” The responder may be telling you about conditions you need to consider, or that person may be using those as weasel words because he’s not confident about his answer. Ask for clarification to find out.
  • Ask if there are other people who can give you more information. Some people don’t like to admit that they don’t know, so they’ll make something up or obfuscate with a lot of unnecessary detail and jargon. By asking politely if there are other people who have more information, you let that person off the hook and give him or her a chance to save face by offering them another way to help you.

The Late Reviewer

You ask your team for feedback on a document that you need to submit by a deadline. One of your team members is chronically late with feedback. She often shows up an hour before your deadline with pages of comments she demands to be included. How do you prevent her from giving you lots of work that could prevent your from meeting your deadline?

  • Set a specific deadline for reviewers to give you feedback with the date and time. Also include the time zone if you are working with people at different locations. For example, “Please return your comments by October 1 at 2:00 p.m. US Pacific Time.”
  • When you send out the document, find out if there are any issues that may delay reviewers in responding to you. Some reviewers are late because the information they need isn’t available until the last minute. By finding out those issues at the beginning of the review period, you can alert the person who needs your document of potential delays. In turn, that person can make resolving those issues a priority.
  • Set consequences for late comments. When I send documents out for review, I often include statements like, “If I don’t hear from you by the deadline, I’ll assume that you have no comments and accept the document as is.”  Or, “Late comments will delay the release of this product.” These remind reviewers about the importance of responding on time.

Ensuring Good Business Communication

Good business communication is clear, accurate, and timely. To ensure this type of quality communication, do the following:

  • Make sure your questions are clear and sent to the right people who can answer them.
  • When issues need to be discussed and resolved, have a meeting instead of discussing it by email.
  • Ask for clarification if something seems unclear or is buried in too much detail.
  • Set and enforce deadlines to get information on time.
  • If you work with people in different locations, consider time zones in scheduling meetings and setting deadlines.

Make good communication a priority in your business so that people can work more efficiently with more accurate, timely, and useful information.