Throughout my adult life, I have given hundreds of presentations and sat through just as many. Some of the presentations I gave did not grab the audience’s attention, and some I’ve sat in bored from the second the presenter began reading the slides. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. We’ve all experienced sitting in a room having to listen to someone who does not communicate effectively, and eventually – or instantly – find ourselves tuned out. Conversely, I’ve had thousands of conversations at work with colleagues and what I thought I communicated was not what the other person received.  

Why is it easy for speakers like Stephen M.R. Covey or the late Steve Jobs to captivate an audience while others drain the life out of them? How is that some bosses are incredibly effective at giving a clear, concise message while others leave us more confused than when the conversation started?

When it comes to conveying a point or persuading someone, effective communication is the hardest thing we do.  

In the 21st-century workforce, success and failure can depend largely on how effectively you communicate. According to a study performed by Watson Wyatt, businesses with effective communication practices were more than 50 percent more likely to report employee turnover levels below the industry average. According to a survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association, 28% reported poor communication as the primary cause of failing to deliver a project within its original time frame.

The stats are staggering, and businesses are losing organizational energy and productivity due to ineffective communication. 

Landes’ lesson

Mark Landes, a valued mentor and serving Army General, taught me years ago that communication is the hardest thing we do. When I first heard this concept, I didn’t understand it. As he laid out the idea, however, I began to understand and assess my communication skills. What I discovered was concerning: the way in which I was communicating with my direct reports was not effective and was causing organizational issues.

I asked Mark to help me learn to communicate effectively. Over a year-long process, Mark walked me through the “how” and “what” of effective communication, with the focus being on the receiver.  

Let’s look at three components to effective communication.

Why, How, What

Effective communication is essential – both in business and life. For our purposes, let’s focus on business. There are three ways I structure messages. First, start with “why.” Second, understand the “how” in relation to the receiver. And finally, carefully craft the “what” to compel the receiver to action. 

Always start with “why.” Simon Sinek made this idea famous almost a decade ago and it still holds true today. Starting with “why” provides the purpose and helps the receiver understand your intentions. Get this wrong, and the message may be lost.

When determining the “how,” think of the different mediums possible. In today’s workforce, understanding all of the “hows” is in direct correlation to the receiver, the message you want to convey, and how they’ll receive what you communicate. If I want to communicate something important and personal, I may want to do it in person. This is usually the hardest and most time consuming, especially if it requires a “touchy” subject. I can also communicate by phone, email, or text, however, using these methods is tricky and requires extra diligence to ensure the message is conveyed correctly without misinterpretation. Another aspect – again staying focused on the receiver – is asking yourself how does the receiver best receive information? Some are okay with emails or texts, but others prefer to receive information through phone calls or in person.  

If “why” is the vision and “how” is the strategy, then the “what” are the tactics. Whether you are trying to influence a decision, a point of view, or a change in behavior, carefully crafting the “what” should compel the receiver to action. 

When you want to influence a decision, state your intentions up front and make clear which choice you require. This strategy does two things: it gets the receiver in a decision-making mindset and alerts them that you’ll ask for some action at the end of the communication. Next, make sure that you clearly define the challenge that requires a decision. Many times, we seek a resolution for an undefined problem, which wastes time and money.

Influencing someone’s point of view first requires an understanding of the receiver’s point of view. Next, seek to be understood and ensure that you’re clear on what change in the viewpoint is required. Finally, to compel a change in behavior, one must precisely define the issue and action steps for the receiver to take. A clear, concise message is most effective in influencing behavior change in this situation. 

Bringing it all together

  • When communicating, always start with the “why” to impart purpose and intent.
  • “How” you communicate must be a direct correlation to the receiver’s preferences.
  • The “what” must be crafted to compel the receiver to action.

Even in today’s 21st-century workforce, Landes’ lesson is beneficial. If organizations want to improve the engagement and productivity of their people, then everyone must learn the benefits of effective communication.

It will take educating and equipping employees with the “why”, “how”, and “what” of effective communication, but it will be well worth your while since communication will continue to be one of the biggest business challenges moving forward.