Communicating online is a skill like any other. The problem is that it takes self awareness and focus to improve. Think of how many hours you spent in school sharping your communication skills. Now think back to how many of those hours were dedicated to online communication.
Being a competent writer helps but sometimes communicating concepts and more nuances pieces of information is done best through the use of diagrams and other visuals.
In this post I'm going to share with you my top 10 tips for improving your communication as a service provider. If you're an analyst that works with a wide range of personalities, or a freelancer like myself that works with clients around the world, this post will be very useful.
Tip #1 - Keep it short
One of the biggest issues I had with how I communicated online was writing long emails and messages. I thought I needed to communicate extra info to support the main message and this resulted in long, difficult to consume messages.
I failed to put myself in the recipient's shoes and realize that no one has the time to read paragraphs of text in emails.
The lesson here is to keep your message short and to the point. A good email doesn't have to be long. It does however need to communicate the point and end there or help lead to a follow up action.
Tip #2 - Use boomerang
Boomerang is by far the tool I use the most in my day to day work as a consultant. I also used the tool at my previous company and recommend it to anyone that is a heavy user of email.
In a nutshell Boomerang allows you to "boomerang" emails back into your inbox at a specific time in the future.
Let's say I send an email to a potential client to get some info about the project we are discussing. If I send the email and don't record a follow up task in a task manager I risk the chance of it falling between the cracks.
Instead of creating follow up tasks I simply set the email to "boomerang" back into my inbox in 2 days from now. This way when the email lands back in my inbox I can send out a follow up email.
Boomerang is also great for pushing off emails to the future to keep your inbox empty. This might sound like a funny thing to do but mentally I like to keep my inbox empty. Sometimes there are admin tasks which aren't high priority which I'll push forward to a date where I take care of all of them in a single sitting.
This is a concept called batching which is important to know if you want to increase your productivity.
Tip #3 - A picture speaks 1,000 words
If you're a long time follower of the ProjectBI blog then you know I frequently use Lucidchart diagrams to explain concepts in my posts.
Below is a great example I used in my feature adoption post. The diagram shows the feature adoption funnel, and how each step should be compared to future cohorts.
There are times when the use of a diagram is a 100 times better than writing out 3 paragraphs of text trying to communicate a concept.
You'd be surprised how effective taking a screenshot and highlighting a section of the image using Paint can be.
Tip #4 - Write lists as separate messages in Slack
Slack has become the most popular communication platform in the hi-tech space and there is a high probability you are using the tool for internal communication at your company.
One of the biggest tips I learnt on Slack is to write lists of questions as separate messages. Below is a diagram I quickly made to illustrate the point.
By writing each question on its' own line you'll be able to easily respond to start an organized thread and keep communication organized.
If your fellow Slack users aren't yet using this method then suggest they try it out.
Tip #5 - The 2 email rule
One useful rule I learnt while working at my previous company is the 2 email rule.
The rule states that if you can't achieve what you need within 2 emails then move to a different channel.
In most cases this new channel will be a face-to-face discussion or meeting, especially if you're working in an office.
Email isn't always the best way to communicate on a specific point. The smart move in these cases is to move to online chat, a face-to-face meeting, or even a quick phone call.
Tip #6 - Be flexible
This tip is more relevant for freelancers but it can be relevant if you find yourself in an organization with loose communication protocols.
The tip is to be flexible in the way you communicate with people. I can tell you that in the last week I've had business calls on Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom and even Whatsapp. The reason I communicate through so many different tools is because I'm a business consultant and want to limit as much friction for my clients and leads as possible.
Thankfully all the popular communication tools work great today and the learning curve is flat or non-existent.
Now if you're in a large organization things will be a bit different. You want to be flexible but also nudge the people you communicate with frequently to use the tools recommended by the company.
Tip #7 - Don't make assumptions
I have a good friend who is a genius software engineer. We often talk tech and he will go on these tangents talking about super complex computer science concepts that usually go straight over my head. I smile, nod my head and do my best to be involved in the conversation.
My friend makes the assumption I know what he is talking about and this frees him up to throw jargon into the conversation.
Don't make any assumptions when it comes to communicating with people, especially people that aren't working in the same field as you. This is even more relevant if you've been hired to help a company with a specific challenge. The company hired you because they DON'T KNOW the specific area.
You need to use simple language and analogies to explain concepts which are basic to you but foreign to the other party.
Tip #8 - Decide on a goal before communicating
This one might seem obvious but just think back to the last few business calls or meetings you had and you'll realize that frequently you're initiating communication without a goal in mind.
You want to get into the habit of construing emails and other forms of communication with a specific goal in mind. If you create this habit then you'll find that you're sending less messages and all of a sudden you have more time on your hands.
Your colleagues will appreciate this change and things will move faster will less friction. You'll also be more focused and this will help accelerate your growth in the company.
Tip #9 - Put yourself in the other person's shoes
This is one of the most important tips in this list. This tip can be applied to a wide range of areas and it's one I constantly remind myself to use.
If you put yourself in other people's shoes you'll naturally act in a manner that will reduce friction. If you quick a few steps a head and imagine being the recipient of your communication then you'll be able to shape your message to get around foreseeable issues.
As an example, if I'm going to send a list of questions to one of my clients I'll go through the list and see if there are any roadblocks preventing the client from answering these questions. I imagine myself in the client's shoes and use any information available to me to see if the client can do what I hope which is to answer each question in my list.
If I know that some of the questions will require input from the CTO then I'll make sure to CC the CTO and ask both of them to respond. I might go one step further and create two lists, one for the CEO and one for the CTO.
Before sending any email, Slack message or online chat, put yourself in the other person's shoes and think of ways to make it easier for them to give you the information you need.
Tip #10 - Always have an agenda for calls and meetings
You know what is the most expensive activity in most companies? Long meetings with multiple participants cost companies huge amounts of money each year. If you set up an hour-long meeting between you and 9 other people, that's 10 man hours dedicated to a single meeting. That could cost the company over $1,000.
The most effective way to improve the ROI of meetings is to demand that every meeting have a clear agenda. This agenda should be sent to each participant at least 1 hour before the meeting (ideally 24 hours before the meeting) so everyone can come prepared. An agenda sent before a meeting also allows the participants to decide if the meeting is worth their time.
If you organize the occasional meeting between colleagues then make sure you create an agenda which lists the topics of discussion, the participants invited to the meeting and the main decisions that need to be made during the meeting. Try your best to send this to each participant at least a few hours before the meeting.