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Effective communication

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Has this ever happened to you? You e-mail a colleague soliciting immediate feedback on a specific project — but he responds two days later. Or, you present a new corporate business opportunity to your boss, but she seems less than enthused by the idea.

If these scenarios sounds familiar, there’s a good chance your communication style may be sabotaging your efforts in the workplace.

“There’s a feeling that communications is about sending out an e-mail or putting up a nice poster. But it’s a two-part piece — getting the message out, and making sure people understand the message. People forget this fact, and then don’t understand why they’re not getting the response they wanted,” says Rawle Borel Jr., president of the Toronto chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.

As well planned as our e-mails, voice mails, presentations and other communications initiatives may be, Borel Jr. says, the trick to ensuring our messages get heard, and acted on if required, is understanding our audience.

“When communicating with people, you need to speak into their listening — you need to touch on things that will mean something to your audience,” says Borel Jr., who is also director of communications for Rogers Customer Care.

You can discover people’s “trigger points,” as he refers to them, through active listening — the more you really listen to colleagues, superiors, contractors, clients, etc., the more you can learn about their needs and priorities, and the better you can tailor your messages to them.

“For example, if you’ve paid attention and know your CEO is making decisions based on money and wants to be fiscally responsible, mention how your idea will help achieve that goal,” Borel Jr. says. “If he’s very concerned with creating a fun work environment, make sure you incorporate that into your idea and make that component clear to him.”

Where many of us get stymied by communications today is with e-mail — how do you send messages that will stand out from the hundreds of others clogging people’s inboxes?

“Make sure your e-mail has a subject line — one that’s clear and motivates people to act,” he says. For example, he says, depending on what you need, you can include “Please read,” “Please respond” or “Please approve” directly in the subject line.

To make the most impact, craft e-mail messages that get to the point quickly, and feature easily digestible nuggets of information.

“Make sure the most important item is right at the top so I know how to respond right away,” he says. “Also, bullet points are heavenly — they’re easiest to write and to read.”

Avoid sending e-mails that cover many different subjects, and that mix professional and personal matters, he says — this is inefficient and can overwhelm people. Stick to one subject matter per e-mail so receivers can easily organize their messages into appropriate folders. Brevity is even more important with communications tools such as BlackBerries, Borel Jr. says.

“People are reading these messages on the fly — they may be on the local transit, in between meetings, and so on. So be as brief as possible and emphasize your most important points quickly,” he says.

When it comes to phone conversations, conference calls in particular call for an extra dose of professional etiquette, Borel Jr. says.

“If your conference call is scheduled for 7 a.m. Toronto time and you have participants in Vancouver, that’s showing you obviously don’t value their feedback very much,” he says.

Make sure any documents or presentations discussed at conference calls are made available to all remote participants well in advance, he says.

“Inclusive and respectful”

“Also, people in the room shouldn’t have their own sidebars or crack jokes — you want to be inclusive and respectful,” he says.

Where many of us have difficulties communicating effectively these days is in personal interactions with others. As we rely more and more on electronic and phone communication, we lose the chance to make the most memorable impression on others.

“We’re so time-strapped and we don’t have the time to meet with everyone, but the truth is that face-to-face is by far the most effective way to communicate,” he says.

He offers the following in-person communicating tips: Speak clearly, smile, dress presentably — clean, crisp clothing and good hygiene greatly improve your message’s effectiveness — and don’t forget about the importance of body language.

“About 80% of our communication comes from our non-verbal cues,” he says. “When speaking to someone, don’t fold your arms — this is a defensive position. Look them in the eyes to let them know you’re interested, and make sure both of you are either sitting or standing, so no one’s in a position of dominance.”

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