Improving Business Communications
How you communicate with coworkers, management, clients, and other business professionals is
as important as what you communicate. This short course provides you with practical
communication techniques you can use in any business setting to make your communications
more effective so you can achieve your personal and business goals. Business Communications Basics
Communication skills. How many times have you heard that good communication skills are the
key to successful business relationships? And just as often, have you wondered just what exactly
this broad term refers to?
Don't worry; you're not alone. Not only can most people use a refresher course on the subject --
even those who have seemingly aced their careers can also usually identify an area that could
stand some improvement. Think of the star financial analyst who can't spell, or the software
engineer who barely speaks above a whisper. Business communications is a broad topic that might seem obvious at first glance. Reading,
writing, and talking -- what's so difficult about that?
But, as you will see here, there's more to it than that -- quite a bit more. For instance, are you
aware of the impact your body language makes, even on the subconscious level? Believe it or
not, body language "conversations" can run entirely counter to the spoken conversation going
on! Think of the edge you could gain in your next important meeting if you knew how to harness
the subliminal messages that are being exchanged through body language.
In fact, body language is such a broad topic in and of itself that entire books have been written
about it. We can't explore it in detail here, but we'll cover a few important basics in the "Running
Successful Meetings" section of this short course. You might be surprised by the big difference
these tips can make.
Listening skills is another topic that might hold some surprises for you. The ability to be a good
listener is regarded as one of the most important communication skills. Why? Because most
people don't realize that it's just as important to show you are listening as it is to hear and
understand what is being said. And since nearly 75 percent of Fortune 500 business executives
rate the ability to listen as "extremely important," it's one of the easiest ways to make a good
Another important and time-tested way to make an impression is with letter writing -- but
whether it creates a good impression or not depends upon your writing skills. Remembering to
pay attention to a few important points that can improve your letters, memos, and e-mail
In short, good communication skills can separate you from the crowd. Here is a list of the ways
in which you will be able to communicate more effectively after reading this short course:
q Write effective letters and memos
q Communicate clearly through voice mail and e-mail
q Run successful meetings
q Strengthen your listening skills
q Use communication tactics to focus your thoughts and stay on track
q Crafting Clear, Concise Memos and Letters
One of the most common mistakes when you're writing interoffice memos and business letters is
failing to remember to write for the reader rather than for yourself. People in a hurry often tend
to ramble, which obscures the heart of the message and ultimately produces something that
leaves out important facts, contains too much extraneous detail, and takes more time to read
than it should. As a result, your memos run the risk of being transferred directly into the trash,
and your business letters can get you remembered for the wrong reasons.
Even though they have different applications, well-written memos and letters follow the same
essential guidelines. Perhaps the only major difference is the form each one takes. Many
companies have their own standard letter and memo templates for employees to use, but if you
need a template, they often come with word processing programs. A variety of templates can
also be found on many Web sites.
Once you have your template, you have two main ways you can make an impact on your reader: Visually/VerballyVisual Impact
Designing for visual impact not only creates an organized, aesthetically pleasing document that
reflects well on you, it also automatically coaches you to be concise. White space:
Balancing white space is half the battle. Too much white space and your reader will
doubt that you have anything to say; too little, and the content you have worked so hard to
produce will seem too dense to wade through. Create white space by limiting most paragraphs to
five or six sentences and double-spacing between them. Widening the margins will help a text-
bare letter appear more substantial. Shrinking font size (within reason) will help a wordy letter fit
onto one page. Lists:
Never pass up an opportunity to organize the important points of your message into lists,
whether numbered or bulleted. This makes the heart of your message easier to understand at
first glance, and easier to find again later. Headlines:
Headlining your lists using a slightly larger font size adds even more emphasis.
Headlining paragraphs -- every single one if you like -- not only helps your reader, it will also
help you over time to distill your ideas into concise language with greater ease. Bold type:
Boldfacing your headlines is another way to add emphasis, but perhaps even more
useful is boldfacing important dates or deadlines within a paragraph. Boldfacing instructions or
actions you want the reader to take can also make a big difference when you need results.Verbal Impact
Using your dictionary and thesaurus regularly will improve your verbal skills more rapidly than
you can imagine. This is perhaps the single most efficient way to make your work stand out and
convey that you are of exceptional intelligence. There are no two ways about it: good spelling,
word choice, and grammar make you look smart.
Don't save your dictionary for tough words -- use it to look up easy words, too. It only takes 15
seconds, and new meanings of old words are easier to remember than new words. Also, placing
a small dot next to all the words you look up, each time you do so, helps identify problem words.
Do the same with your thesaurus -- use it to simplify rather than to complicate. Mining your
thesaurus for 10-dollar words is a dead giveaway that you're trying too hard. But if you find that
you're writing the word "communication" for the 20th time, a thesaurus can lead you to terms
like "speech," "content," and "text." This can give you a whole new start and save your letter or
memo from being boring and redundant.
In addition, following these guidelines for achieving verbal impact will help you produce
professional-grade memos and letters: Message placement:
Place your main message at the top. Think about what it is, and then write
it first. The same goes for each paragraph -- your most important point should be either in a
paragraph headline or in the first sentence. Paragraph focus:
Limit paragraphs to one topic. Sentence length: Limit most sentences to 15
This is the most enduring guideline there is. Spell-checkers are helpful tools, but
they don't find punctuation errors or words that have been left out. They can also trick you into
complacency. For example, an all-too-common and embarrassing mistake that a spell-checker
won't catch is when a sticky "s" key adds an extra letter to the end of the word "as." So it really
pays to proofread.
If all this seems like a lot to keep track of when you're just dashing off a quick letter or memo,
remember that it's a natural progression from the main rule: Write for your reader, not for
yourself. From this launching point, simply focus on maximizing Visual Impact and Verbal
Impact. Carry these skills over to electronic communications, discussed in the next section, and
you'll be an expert in verbal communications before you know it. Don't Leave Your Desk without It Communicating Effectively by Voice and E-mail
Combining voice mail and e-mail in one section may seem odd -- since all of the written
communications guidelines in the previous section also apply to e-mail messages, it makes sense
to wonder why e-mail wasn't covered there.
But voice and e-mail have something in common that paper communications lack: immediacy.
Voice mail and e-mail don't sit on your desk during lunch, waiting for you to discover that one
last typo before being sealed and stamped.
In fact, a good rule of thumb to help you avoid the major pitfall of sending an e-mail message
you later regret is to ask yourself: "Is this something I would be willing to say to the person over
the phone or face to face?" If not, don't send it. E-mail
E-mail is largely regarded as a more casual mode of communication, but that's no excuse for
errors, vagueness, or inappropriate content. To stand out from the crowd, always use proper
grammar and punctuation in all your business e-mails, and watch your tone. In other words,
save your casual writing style for home.
Use all the guidelines for memos and letters when composing e-mail. Also, consider the
Avoid using all capitals. IT'S THE E-MAIL EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING.Conversely, avoid using all
lower-case. it's difficult to read. also, it makes your message seem trivial.If your message
exceeds the length of one screen, put it into an attachment.Hold the humor. It doesn't translate
well in e-mail, even when flagged by "emoticons" -- those little smiley faces that take the place
of vocal intonation. The fact is that in e-mail, irony sounds serious, puns look like misspelled
words, and jokes can make you sound like a stand-up comic who's trying too hard.Watch your
tone. Make sure you are not being too curt. For instance, when giving instructions via e-mail,
writing "I need this from you yesterday" sounds harsh, even though it might be more acceptable
in conversation.Voice Mail
When leaving voice mail messages, all the rules of common telephone courtesy apply. Always
give your name, your company or department, and your telephone number first, then state your
Opting not to leave a message tends to encourage a round or three of phone tag. If you find
yourself in that frustrating cycle, expand your next message to include the information you
intended to discuss, or state a specific time and number where you can be reached.
Creating a courteous outgoing message in your own voice mail will prevent others from getting
annoyed about not being able to reach you. The best way to achieve this is to be as brief as
possible while providing some appropriate options, such as:
q Leave a message
q Call another extension or cell phone number
q Hold for a receptionist
If you are often called away from your desk, it makes a great impression to periodically re-record
your outgoing message with the date and time updated. This shows that you are on top of your
voice mail messages and reassures your caller that you are making an effort to connect. Running Successful Meetings
Most people attend more meetings than they run, but sooner or later, you'll need to make a
presentation to a group of colleagues. Remembering a few simple rules will boost your
confidence and help you run a productive meeting that doesn't waste anyone's time. Being Prepared
Planning your agenda includes creating a list of attendees, so do that first. Eliminate anyone
whose presence is not necessary.Invitations can be made by phone if the meeting is small.
Larger, in-house meetings should be announced one week in advance. Formal meetings that
include attendees from another company should be announced two-to-four weeks in advance.
Create any materials you will need well in advance to give yourself time to review them. To
create a positive, lasting impression, always use the best quality materials for visuals and
handouts.On the day of the meeting, arrive early and arrange your materials so that you don't
have to fumble when you need them.Getting and Keeping Their Attention
If you don't know everyone present, introduce yourself to attendees as they enter, if
possible.Speak with authority, and begin the meeting at the appointed time.If you notice people
becoming distracted, try slowing down and raising the volume of your voice -- but only very
slightly. Coming on too strong in this manner makes a person seem pushy and may lose more
listeners than it gains. Used judiciously, however, it can be helpful.If you are sitting down, stand
up when making important points. If you are already standing, lean forward.Don't monopolize
the floor. Encourage discussion by inviting and/or asking questions.Keeping Time
If you can, appoint someone as timekeeper and instruct him or her to signal when time is up. If
you absolutely need to continue, do so with an eye on the clock.Try not to look at your wrist to
check the time. If you have to be the timekeeper, put your watch on the table so you can glance
at it without seeming to be in a hurry.Be succinct. Plan in advance to eliminate less-important
material on the fly if you go into overtime. If that is not an option, schedule another meeting.Body Language Tips
Don't touch your face or scratch your head. These are signs of indecision and uncertainty that
will undo the authority you're working hard to establish.
Make and hold eye contact. If you lack confidence, following this rule will disguise it and, in turn,
serve to increase your confidence level.
Don't cross you arms or legs -- these are "closed" stances that will turn your audience off.
Be an Active Listener
Whether you're running a meeting or participating in one, put your time to optimum use by being
an active listener. When you're the one running the meeting, using active listening techniques
while you and others speak keeps you connected and responsive to your audience. As a
participant, effective listening skills help you focus, tune in to the speaker, and make the most of
what you're hearing. The same simple techniques apply to both situations; we'll cover them in
the next section.Developing Effective Listening Skills
If you run meetings on a regular basis, you have no doubt encountered people who don't or
won't listen, no matter what you do to capture their attention. There are times when it is not
your fault -- specifically, when you are dealing with someone who needs a lesson in etiquette.
But listening is more than just a matter of etiquette -- it can make or break a good impression or
make you miss important cues. And of course, failing to pay attention can create major problems
if you tune out and miss important instructions. Here are some ways to improve your listening skills:
q Do not interrupt. Be patient when someone else is talking.
q Maintain eye contact. Watch the speaker even if the speaker is not looking at you.When
you are given an opportunity to speak, try to repeat a few key points back to the speaker.
This will illustrate that you have listened and comprehended -- something that will
certainly be appreciated.
q Body Language for Good Listening.Certain mannerisms can be employed to both let the
speaker know (perhaps even subliminally) that you are paying attention and to help
yourself tune in if you find you are distracted:Blinking your eyes shows that you are
interested.Tilting your head to either side takes it a step further by showing that you are
processing information.Resting your chin on your knuckles shows that you are not
opposed to what the speaker is saying.Conversely, identifying these signs in listeners
when you are the speaker can give you a great deal of useful information.
q Demonstrate What You've Heard.An excellent way to tie your listening skills to your other
communications skills is to organize the information you have been given into a thoughtful
memo, letter, or e-mail message and send it to the speaker. That way, if you have
misunderstood anything, there is an opportunity for it to be clarified. Using Good Communication Tactics to Sharpen Your Focus
Many people don't realize that business communications aren't simply a hot seminar topic -- they
are the most basic element of business itself. Without communication, no business can be done.
Therefore, it follows that good communications pave the way for good business.
As you go through the process of improving your business communications skills, you will begin
to enjoy the fruits of your labor in a myriad of ways. Maybe you are being trusted with more
important project or finding that your opinion is sought more often. Perhaps you've even
received a raise or a promotion!
Inevitably, however, there will be times when you find that you're a bit scattered. At such times,
you can use your improved communication skills to help sharpen your focus in several ways:
When chatty co-workers show up at your desk just as you are trying to finish a time-sensitive
assignment, it benefits both of you to gently postpone the chat by saying something such as,
"Let's go over this when we both reach a good stopping point."
Let your voice mail take your calls. In general, this is not a good habit to get into, but when you
are racing the clock, sometimes it makes sense to eliminate the phone as a potential distraction.
Prioritize your projects in much the same way you prioritize information for a letter or memo.
This will help you tackle your work in a much more efficient way. When you need to handle
multiple deadlines, try to clear your mind of distractions and focus only on the project you are
currently working on. Thinking several steps ahead to the next project keeps you from giving the
work at hand your full attention.
Maintaining folders for each active project helps you maintain focus and keep materials at your
fingertips. As ideas come to you about other projects, use organizational tools to file away your
thoughts until you need them.Moving Forward
Employing these communication tactics can really help make things happen in your job and in
your career. If you find yourself feeling more connected to your colleagues and co-workers, then
you are right on track. Using the techniques we've covered here, you'll find yourself wasting less
time -- your own time as well as that of others -- and better able to communicate your own
thoughts with ease, power, and clarity. Furthermore, you'll tune in more easily to the messages
Once you have begun to improve your business communication skills, the techniques will become
second nature and you will notice others responding to you differently. When you maintain focus
in all aspects of your business day, from e-mails to meetings to voicemail to project
management, you accomplish more and feel better. Practice these skills every day, and enjoy
the results that come your way!
- Local Disk