In the age of tweeted headlines and Slack channels, getting your message across quickly and clearly is paramount.
But how can we improve our communication while staying as concise and authentic as possible? According to Jonathan Soble, editorial and communications lead of the World Economic Forum and former New York Times reporter, the answer lies in a good story.
We sat down with Soble to discover a few simple strategies that can help anyone communicate effectively in the office.
Get to the point.
Insights: What are the biggest differences between how journalists and businesspeople communicate?
Soble: The best business communicators communicate like journalists. There are a lot of commonalities—that’s because the best journalism is simply good storytelling. If you dig down to the core of it, good communication is all about the fundamental principles of storytelling.
One difference for business communicators it that it’s easy to fall into the trap of the captive audience. A lot of business communication is internal. You’re talking to your colleagues, your employees, people who have a financial interest in listening to you. It’s easy to take for granted that your audience isn’t just going to walk away if they’re bored. Journalists don’t have that luxury.
Journalists are constantly working to keep their audience engaged. They know that almost no one they’re writing for actually has to read what they’re writing. That can lead to some bad tendencies like sensationalism or clickbait. But it’s also making good writing happen.
Good communication happens when you have to work for your audience’s attention.
The number one thing is to always be reminding your audience why they should care. This is especially relevant for internal communication because that’s where it’s easiest to fall back into thinking, “Well, these people have to listen to me because it’s their job.” That’s where your communication falls apart.
If you don’t motivate them, if you don’t focus them on the task at hand, they forget what you say as soon as you said it. That’s not good.
If you want to motivate your team or boss to agree with you, or get them to sign off on your project, constantly reminding them why it’s important is key.
Insights: What are some communication skills that businesspeople can utilize to keep their message focused on what really matters?
Soble: In journalism school, the first thing that they teach you about story structure is the inverted pyramid. You have the big and important things up top. Then, eventually, your points get narrowed down.
At the very top of a journalist’s inverted pyramid, you have a headline, which is a small number of words that communicates the core of the story. Then you have the first paragraph that gives you the who, what, when, where, and why—all the things you need to know. As the story goes on, it gets more detailed. This way people get the information they need quickly. It also means that at any point, someone could stop reading and they could still get the message.
You may be tempted to give a memo or a presentation slide a title like “our business in the third quarter.” Consider picking a highlight or achievement as your headline instead. Otherwise you’re wasting valuable attention space.
Authentic communication is effective communication.
Insights: Authentic communication is important in the office, but information can be sensitive. How do you maintain authenticity if you’re obligated to hold some things back?
Soble: First, understand that there are perfectly legitimate reasons to keep some pieces of information private. This is especially true in business settings where there are rules like compliance, NDAs, and the like.
Authenticity isn’t necessarily about whether you’re holding a certain piece of data or info back. It’s about fundamental honesty and being legitimately invested in what you’re telling others. Authentic communication relies on your own character and how you choose to communicate the information you’re disclosing.
In the end, a leader’s character needs to be in sync with basic facts. If you’re a CEO and claim that your profits have doubled, but then a few weeks later it turns out that wasn’t the case, your audience will catch your inauthenticity. You’ll lose your credibility.
Focus on being transparent. That includes communicating why you may not be able to disclose certain things. The worst thing you can do is be evasive and give your audience the sense that you’re hiding something when, in fact, you might have a good reason to hold that info back.
Insights: It’s easy to cross the line of what’s appropriate in an effort to seem authentic or earn trust. How do you know where to draw that line?
Soble: Journalists have to work to earn the trust of those that they interview. Otherwise, why would the interviewee give up any information? The same concept applies in business settings.
The best way to do that is to get people relaxed and comfortable. You want them to understand you aren’t going to misuse information that they provide—you have good intentions. But you also want to avoid coming off like a robot spitting out clean, phoned-in questions and answers.
Practiced business communicators will solicit opinions or clarifications from their audience.
Engaging your audience and making sure they know you care about what they have to say—rather than just what you have to say—is a great way to be authentic and build trust without crossing any sensitive boundaries.
Don’t deny drawbacks and challenges.
Insights: Finally, what’s one element of storytelling that communicators should always keep in mind?
Soble: I think that in business communication, there is a temptation to make it sound like everything went smoothly and perfectly. You developed a wonderful product, and it was all great, and nothing ever went wrong! That’s probably not true. There had to have been some sort of conflict or setback that you faced to get where you are now.
There’s a fear of addressing conflict, but conflict is what makes a story exciting.
You can engage your listeners without sacrificing your message by addressing the challenges that you had to overcome along the way. Conflict doesn’t have to be something entirely negative, or something that you should avoid talking about.
The challenges you faced—and how you overcame them on your way to success—is what makes your story human. We all go through conflict in life and work. If we embrace that fact in our communication, we can ultimately get our audience behind us. That’s what it’s all about.