To communicate effectively in business, it’s essential to have a solid grasp of these seven elements. Find out what they are and how to use them.
There are seven essential elements to successful business communication:
- Psychological Rule of 7±2
If you’re going to communicate effectively in business it’s essential that you have a good understanding of these elements. So, let’s look at each in turn…
How you structure your communication is fundamental to how easily it’s absorbed and understood by your audience.
Every good communication should have these three structural elements:
- an opening
- a body
- a close
This structural rule holds true no matter what your communication is — a memo, a phone call, a voicemail message, a personal presentation, a speech, an email, a webpage, or a multi-media presentation.
Remember — your communication’s audience can be just one person, a small team, an auditorium full of people, or a national, even global, group of millions.
In this instance, size doesn’t matter — the rules remain the same.
An opening allows your communication’s audience to quickly understand what the communication is about.
Short, sharp, and to the point, a good opening lets your audience quickly reach a decision as to whether or not to pay attention to your message.
Time is a precious resource, after all, and the quicker you can “get to the point” and the faster your audience can make that “disregard/pay attention” decision, the more positively they’ll view you — which can be VERY important if you need or want to communicate with them in the future.
Here’s where you get to the heart of your message.
It’s in the body of the message that you communicate all of your facts and figures relative to the action you want your communication’s audience to take after attending to your message.
Keep your facts, figures, and any graphs or charts you might present to the point. Don’t bog down your audience with irrelevant material or charts with confusing, illegible numbers and colors.
Pitch your presentation’s graphics at a child in grade seven. If THEY can follow and understand them, chances are good that your audience will, too.
The close is where you sum up your communication, remind your audience of your key points, and leave them with a clear understanding of what you want them to do next.
The more powerfully you can end your communication, the more easily remembered it will be by your audience.
Be clear about the message you want to deliver, as giving a confusing message to your audience only ends with them being confused and your message being ignored.
If you’re giving a message about, say, overtime payments, don’t then add in messages about detailed budget issues or the upcoming staff picnic — UNLESS they ABSOLUTELY fit in with your original message.
It’s far better and clearer for your audience if you create a separate communication about these ancillary issues.
Nothing more upsets a regular reader of, say, your newsletter than inconsistency in your message.
Taking a position on an issue one week, only to overturn it the next, then overturn THAT position the following week, only breeds distrust in your message.
And distrust in you!
People who distrust you are exceedingly unlikely to take the action you want them to take. They’re also highly unlikely to pay any attention to your future messages.
In addition to consistency amongst multiple messages, be aware that inconsistency within your message can be just as deadly to audience comprehension.
At the risk of sounding like the Grouchy Grammarian, please make sure that your tenses remain the same, that your viewpoint doesn’t wander between the first and third person and back again (unless you deliberately want to create a linguistic or story-telling effect — be careful with this!), and that your overall “theme” or message doesn’t change.
If the only tool you have in your tool bag is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.
Similarly, if all you believe you have as a communications tool is PowerPoint™ then pretty soon all you’ll do is reduce every communications opportunity to a PowerPoint™ presentation. And as any of us who have sat through one too many boring slideshows will attest, “seen one, seen ’em all.”
You have many options for delivering your message — the trick is to use the right one.
Which is the right one? The one that communicates your message:
- with the greatest accuracy
- with the largest likelihood of audience comprehension
- at the lowest fiscal cost
- at the lowest time cost
Note: it must meet all of these criteria. There’s absolutely no value in spending the least amount of money if the medium you choose doesn’t deliver on any of the other criteria.
So what media are available? You have a choice from any one or combination of the following:
- paper-based memo letter
- one-to-one face-to-face presentation seminar
- one-to-one phone presentation meeting
- one-to-many personal presentation
- plain text email
- one-to-many phone presentation
- text and graphics email
- voice email
- webcast/web video
- radio broadcast
- television broadcast
- press release
- TV/film commercial
Choosing the right medium or media is obviously critical, as the financial costs of some items in the above list are higher than others. Get the media mix wrong, and you could end up spending a lot of time and money on a very visually attractive business communication that delivers next-to-zero ROI (return on investment).
It never ceases to amaze me that business managers still believe that everyone would be interested in their message — and then proceed to subject anyone and everyone they can find to a horrendous PowerPoint slideshow put together by a well-meaning but aesthetically challenged subordinate.
I think you know what I mean: Screen after screen of lengthy text in a small, barely legible font size (because a small font size is the only way to fit all of the words onto the slide), which the manager duly and dully reads verbatim.
The psychological reality is that unless a person is interested in the subject of the message, they’re highly unlikely to pay any attention.
This means that if you force them to attend to your message, you’ll actually turn them against you and be even less likely to receive their attention in the future.
Save your in-depth budget and performance analysis Excel-generated charts for those who genuinely care and need to know about such things.
If your business communication needs to touch on several areas that might not be of interest to your entire audience, let them know of alternative resources that more fully address each of these additional areas.
You can do this by, for example, providing them with an easily remembered and written link to a webpage where a greater depth of information can be stored.
It’s essential to know that, one week later, a business communication is remembered by one or both of two things:
- the power and memorability of its opening
- the power and memorability of its close
Psychologists call the effect of remembering the first few items presented as a “Primacy Effect.” Similarly, they call the effect of remembering the last few items presented to you as a “Recency Effect.”
Since individuals differ in which effect is the most dominant for them, it is best to cover your bases and make an effort to have both a powerful and memorable opening and a powerful close.
A powerful opening can be anything that captures the audience’s attention:
- a quote
- a joke
- a loud noise
- a preposterous statement
Just make sure that your opening remains consistent with and relates to the subject of the communication.
For example, while the opening line, “Free sex is available in the foyer” would no doubt get your audience’s attention, if the theme of your communication thereafter is about some process re-engineering going on in your department, your audience would be annoyed (some would be very annoyed at your duplicity.) They’d feel duped!
Equally, a powerful close that bears no resemblance to the main body of the communication would just confuse and disappoint an audience brought up to expect something more.
And don’t think that humor will save you.
Business communication is a serious business, and very few people have the skill to be able to deliver a humorous message that the audience will retain and act upon.
A fantastic example of how humor engaged an audience but failed to elicit the desired response is from Jeffrey Robinson’s superb book The Manipulators.
One of America’s great comedic writers, Stan Freburg, was convinced to dabble in advertising. Deciding that his own agency should be called, “Parsley, Sage , Rosemary and Osborn, a Division of Thyme, Inc.,” Freburg created a series of incredibly funny adverts. On the strength of these, he was hired to create an advert for Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), forever remembered in the annals of advertising as “White Knuckle Flyer.”
He was aiming at people who hate to fly and are forever worried that planes crash. To pacify them, he got the airline to hand out security blankets — literally, tiny blankets with the PSA logo — to any passenger worrying that flying might get them killed.
It was hilarious.
And the airline died laughing.
“Somewhere between gag writing and all the fun,” comments Jerry Della Femina, who was called in by PSA in a panic to undo what Freburg had done because they didn’t think they were going to survive him, “someone had to sell something. The kiss of death in advertising is when you make the mistake of falling in love with your own words.”
PSA had succumbed to humor and, unfunnily, went out of business.
As Granville Toogood says in his excellent book The Articulate Executive, humor is a very risky strategy.
If you’re determined to use humor in your presentation, then please follow Toogood’s recommendation:
Tell the story as if it were true. The punch line is a lot funnier if we aren’t expecting it
Tell the story to make a business point. If you don’t make a point, you have no business telling a joke
Make sure you tell the story correctly, don’t mess up the punch line, and make sure it’s appropriate.
The opening and closing of your business communication are the two most easily remembered and therefore essential elements. Make sure you give your audience something to remember.
7. The Psychological Rule of 7±2 (seven plus or minus two)
Psychologists have long known that the human brain has a finite capacity to hold information in short-term or “working” memory. Equally, the brain is also structured to retain information in “clusters” or groups of items.
These clusters or groups average, across the whole of mankind, at seven items, plus or minus two. This means that your audience is only able to hold on to between five and nine pieces of information at any one time.
Similarly, your audience will group your business communication’s message with between four and eight other messages in their long-term memory.
Now do you see the importance of clarity of message and of having a distinctive and memorable opening and close?
If you want your key points to be remembered even five minutes later, it’s essential to limit your business communication to between just five and nine key points.
Equally, if you want your key action points to be remembered five weeks later, ensure that your communication is among the five to nine most memorable messages your audience has attended to in the last five weeks.
The human brain “chunks” information together, so if you have a long document or communication that you want to deliver, especially on paper, then structure your document so that you have:
- 7±2 “chapters” or sections
- 7±2 subsections in each section
If you find that you end up with 10 or 11 subheadings in a chapter, or subsections in a section, see if you’re able to either consolidate two or three subsections or create a new main section out of them.
Clear and effective communication is as important in the business world as it is in the rest of life. Keep these seven aspects of good communication in mind the next time you need to convey an important message.
Lee Hopkins is a business psychologist who advises his clients on communicating for better business results.