Communicating Effectively For Dummies
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For everyday sharing, reports, project-hunting, client correspondence and more, you need email. For the ongoing back-and-forth between team members, you may depend on Slack or another instant messaging channel that is restricted to a group. The difference in how we use email and work chat today is that we need to help counter what is lost through the growing absence of in-person contact.

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Make email more personal

As you depend on email to help bridge the gap between yourself and the rest of the world, consider thinking about more conscious, strategic use. One appropriate adaptation, in line with the more isolating lives many people now lead, is in the tone of your messages. An upbeat, positive tone is always more than welcome and supports relationship-building. A few specifics:
  • Avoid giving your message a negative vibe with statements like these: “This is not what we agreed on”; “It worries me that . . .”; “I don’t really like . . .”; “You seem to have forgotten that . . . .”
  • Frame even a critical message in a positive spirit: “I appreciate how quickly you provided the report”; “I have some ideas for clarifying the data next time around”; “You make a lot of good points. It led me to think about how we might improve . . . .”

Use positive sentences that lead people to feel good—it costs you nothing! “I appreciate that . . .”; “What a great job on . . .”; “I really liked what you said about . . .”; “I enjoyed working with you on . . . .” And always and perennially, “Thank you for . . . .”

  • Humanize your messages. Use people’s names in the salutation (“Dear Sarah”) and/or the body of the message (“Thank you, Sarah, for crunching the data so quickly.”) Use a conversational and somewhat personal tone to make yourself real to people, rather than coming across as an efficient, narrowly focused work machine.
  • Take space to connect emotionally: Show empathy, or interest, in the other person on an appropriate level. Rather than
Dear Al: To follow up on the plan to print flyers . . .


Dear Al: I hope this finds you and your family well. Are the west coast forest fires affecting you much in Nevada? It’s sad to read about what’s happening in California.

I’m writing to see if this is a good time to follow up on the plan for the flyers . . .

Even if you spend just a sentence on the weather or sharing how you spent the holiday, you can warm up a virtual relationship incrementally over time.

  • Use writing deliberatively to stay connected with clients, collaborators, prospects and more. Develop a list of people important to you and check in on them via email—and/or consider whether to increase your social media and blogging activity or use teleconferencing and other channels, such as an e-newsletter.

Using team chat to your advantage

There are numerous instant messaging apps to facilitate collaboration on a company-wide or team scale, including Slack, Google Chat, Skype and Microsoft Teams. They are at the top of the informality scale for business communication, so I won’t advise on writing style, except to remind you that clear and concise is always in season. Issues with chat media for business revolve more about protocols. If the organization does not provide guidelines, set your own with group discussion, and consider these:


  • Deluge coworkers with a steady shower of messages and notifications that are irrelevant to them.
  • Write messages that are rude or inconsiderate in tone or substance, air grievances or criticize people, especially in an all-staff channel.
  • Tell jokes or include any humorous material that could offend anyone.
  • Attend to chat so much that you are distracted from the project or goal—team chat is not a social media tool.
  • Use chat to communicate about complicated matters that demand nuanced conversation.
  • Use chat as the constant default channel. When you need an immediate response or need to discuss something personal or sensitive, pick up the phone!
Note that you can create channels or rooms to accommodate specific teams and projects. Separate public channels can be set up for non-work interactions, so social life is supported separately from work needs and people can elect whether to participate and to what degree. Some groups see this as a water cooler stand-in; other groups dedicate channels to recipes, personal news and so on according to group interest.

If you’re not team leader, suggest a conversation about setting such rules at a meeting or via teleconferencing.

How to use teleconferencing effectively

Videoconferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype are not a simple substitute for live events. They impose different demands. Meeting by video takes more planning to succeed, and this depends on solid written preparation and less improvisation to be productive. Far more than in-person meetings, videoconferencing depends on good written agendas, plenty of informational materials and thorough documentation.

Beyond serving as the new meeting rooms for groups and teams, videoconferencing has become indispensable for interviewing job candidates and interacting with clients. In these situations, too, writing is prime. When you compete for a job or contract virtually, your written credentials need to do a lot more speaking for you, and you need to be extremely well-prepared to make your case.

Therefore, to use videoconferencing tools to your advantage, call on the tools of good writing: analyzing your goals and audience to writing clear and concise emails; developing résumés, elevator speeches and presentations; creating stories and using talking points to field questions and challenges. Here, I focus on some particularities of teleconferencing that require rethinking the usual approaches.

Videoconferencing limits

When a group of people gathers for a purpose in person, the experience is three-dimensional. We see each other and interact subtly through body language, facial expression and reactive glances. Side comments arise. A comment can tip the conversation in a more creative direction. A group spirit develops—enthusiastic and goal-driven if the meeting is well planned and managed. But these elements don’t naturally happen with a video meeting.

Videoconference-style conversation is linear: We speak one at a time to many, which has a different effect than addressing one person. We learn not to interrupt a speaker and may even be asked to raise our hands to speak. We avoid making even a sound of approval or interest. Body language is basically absent, since we typically can’t see anyone’s hand gestures, and subtle facial expressions are hard to discern.

There is little small talk or interplay, and the natural bouncing off each other that good meetings generate is typically absent. It is hard to promote a conversation or debate that leads to a creative solution. The experience is more akin to watching a series of speeches and giving our own, rather than participating in an interactive meeting of minds.

On a personal level, people are self-conscious and less forthcoming when they talk into a computer screen rather than a live situation, especially since it’s hard not to fixate on our own face or how visible we are to everyone else. Small talk is minimal and generating trust is difficult.

In short, the impersonality of the videoconference experience does not easily lend itself to camaraderie, flights of imagination or creative brainstorming. To counter the agreeableness that meetings tend to fall into, some companies deliberately foster conflict. They present a goal or idea—for example, what should we change about X—and channel people to take sides.

More commonly, many organizations react to videoconferencing shortfalls by making meetings briefer and more structured, tightly focused and efficient.

Structuring meetings with agendas

If it’s up to you to plan and run a meeting, remember that many people feel “Zoom fatigue.” Acknowledge this by scheduling meetings only when you need to accomplish something specific, rather than hold them for the sake of it or because you always meet on Monday mornings. For many enterprises, experience with videoconferencing is leading them to backtrack on how they approach in-person meetings as well. The new-normal agenda is the key.

A central principle: Build each agenda around a concrete and clearly expressed objective. That objective—which may be to generate ideas, decide on an action or solve a problem—can often be framed as a question, such as: “How should we counter online criticism of our customer service?” “How can we trim $X from the department budget so we can support more training?” Once an objective and the outcomes you want are clarified—which isn’t always easy—you can determine the process needed to achieve the outcomes specified. This too should be spelled out: who will speak on specified topics and which components are to be involved—brainstorming, SWAT analysis and so on.

In “earlier times,” an agenda might include a whole series of decision-oriented items or just list topic areas or people’s names (“John Smith, update on HR)”. But given our shorter patience with teleconferenced events, savvy organizations are finding it better to hold short, more closely focused meetings with a single purpose.

To make the most of group time, create and distribute all relevant informational materials and written input from team members in advance of the meeting. When everyone prepares for the session by reviewing everything before the meet, they need not sit bored through a tiresome on-the-spot grounding. When they think through their own part of the discussion in more depth, they come up with ideas, commit them to writing and are prepared for a more useful discussion. This enables the group to accomplish the goal in a tight timeframe.

If your organization dictates a format for agendas, which might require following Robert’s Rules or a company protocol, you may need to cover a range of items such as approval of minutes and categorize topics under labels like “new business” and “old business.” Then just fit your objective, process and outcome into the format.

Don’t be surprised if a good agenda—one that engages everyone in addressing a specific situation or problem—takes time to create. It forces you to think the challenge through much more thoroughly.

Do not depend on open-ended brainstorming, where everyone is asked to throw in bright ideas on a subject, on the spot. This can occupy a lot of time and yield little concrete results. It’s better to have team members brainstorm their own ideas and commit them to paper before the meeting.

Should you start meetings with a touch-base or socializing time? Research shows, as you probably know from your own experience, that the most successful teams are characterized by mutual trust. Ideally this is achieved through some light-hearted activities or personal sharing, which deepens over time. Teleconferencing, however, does not offer a warm atmosphere that invites personal confidences—participating feels more often like being a deer caught in the headlights.

An intermediate approach is to make an opening exchange less personal—for example, go around the table asking each person to remark on the best and worst of their week. Better if possible is to devote a session to getting acquainted before launching the collaboration. In general, stay aware of realities and show some flexibility: a work-at-home parent may have children at home and an occasional guest appearance may be hard to avoid. If a home is small, it’s hard to silence the sound of a barking dog. Technical glitches happen.

Take advantage of the breakout room feature of some teleconferencing apps and build that into your plan, or use it impromptu. The larger your online group, the harder it is to focus on specifics. Breakout rooms offer a good way to assemble people in smaller groups to work out an aspect of the shared challenge.

Reporting on meetings

These are often called “minutes,” which understates their value and influence. I recommend calling them “reports” and assigning this role to someone with good judgment who thinks fast enough to take good notes and also writes well. The report’s format can vary as long as it’s clear, concise and complete to the right degree. Distribute to all—these reports are indispensable documentation. Without them, team members will have entirely different memories of what occurred and what needs to be done. Trust me on this.

An agenda gives the notetaker a healthy head start on creating the report efficiently. It can follow the same structure, and most include discussions and approval of proposed actions and follow-up. It should always detail responsibilities, deadlines and a next-meeting alert if called for.

How thorough should a report be? In most cases, as complete a record as possible will provide a good resource for the immediate future and beyond. It’s also an official record that belongs to the organization. The questions that arise usually center on how much of an open discussion to report. Minutes may need to be publicly posted, and in controversial or sensitive situations, a discussion can be specified without necessarily including details.

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