Message Construction

By some estimates, business professionals spend most of their time communicating with others. The more senior an executive, the more time spent…as much as 90% of the day in conversation, meetings, sending email, or on the telephone. No wonder that communication effectiveness is often named as the number one key to career success.

Business communication, by definition, is communication designed to accomplish a task. The most important elements of effective communication make that happen.

The single most important element of any message is that it accomplishes the desired task. This might seem obvious, but a surprising amount of communication misses the mark.

Respond as requested

Listen carefully to the request, and even more carefully to the unstated requests. When asked to provide a summary, don't provide analysis. When asked to send an email, don't text instead. When asked to help with a decision, don't stop with a review of the data. Every message, however short, must be responsive in three areas:

  • Provide the content. Include all requested information. Anything less simply doesn't get the job done, and you will need to communicate when the rest will be available.

  • Use the requested medium. You might have a technology preference, but effective communication is the method that works best for the audience. If you must use an alternative, explain the circumstances and send a duplicate message in the requested format as soon as possible.

  • Respond quickly. Timeliness is relative, but business moves quickly. Many clients and supervisors will judge failure to respond within a day as failure to respond at all.

Stay focused on the task

Even if you have communicated the right information, if the audience can't find it, the message has failed. Focus begins with a first sentence or paragraph that announces the topic and sticks to that topic throughout the message. With so much going on, it's surprisingly easy for a professional to lose focus.

  • Separate relationship building from other communication tasks. Building relationships is such an important part of business success, the social aspects of a situation can loom large. Recognizing the effective transmission of information and building rapport as separate tasks can help. A telephone conversation will start with a bit of chit-chat, for instance, but once you've started to share the task-related message, dont wander off into social topics.

  • Keep the audiences' needs in mind. Your knowledge of the task might be larger or longer range than your reader's, but more information than needed just gets in the way. You might realize that more information will be help get the job done, but if the additional data or commentary just advertises how much you know, leave it out.

Complete the job

Sometimes missing information results in an incomplete message, but the responsibility remains on the communicator. There is no partial credit in the business world for a job left undone (Rogers et al., 2004). The effective message must include a plan for completion.

  • Specify exactly what information or assessment is missing. By summarizing what you have left out, you are confirming both that you realize what was requested and that it will be provided. This verifies your responsiveness even when delays occur.

  • Specify when you will complete the job. Treat this as a firm deadline. Since it was your own choice, missing a rescheduled deadline is worse than not responding at all.

  • Specify alternative information or methods of communication. If your professional judgment calls for an alternative to the requested task, say so clearly and immediately. Recognize that this is a negotiation, especially when the audience is a boss or client.

Some tasks or documents will require that topics to be covered in a particular order. (For more detail, select Business Documents from Reasoning and Writing Skills at the right.) In the absence of any specific rules or requests, a professional organizes messages for task efficiency at every level.

Overall Message Organization

Completing any task in the most effective manner generally involves having a clear goal, marshalling the necessary resources, and implementing some appropriate behavior. An effective message incorporates these three elements into a standard three-part structure.

  • Introduce the goal. The introduction in a phone call might take just a few words. In a report, the introduction could extend to several pages. Regardless of length, the first part of any message verifies that everyone understands its goals. The specific information being transmitted is key, but a complex task might require clarification of the specific message topic, the task and its purpose, as well as the business relationships of those sending and receiving the message.

  • Provide the details. The main part of the message, often called the "body" of a presentation or the "data paragraphs" in an email or memo, provides the reader or listener with the information, ideas, or issues necessary to accomplish that purpose. The exact information will vary widely, but the structure will always respond to the needs of the task.

  • Clarify the action step. Often the last agenda item, paragraph, or sentence, an action statement clarifies what will happen next. The reader or listener typically needs to know who does what, by when. An action step might also include clarifications of the exact follow-up action needed, a persuasive appeal to encourage a particular action, or instructions in how to perform the expected action.

Choosing an Organizational Structure

Organize the body of any message for the user's convenience. It is seldom appropriate to provide information in the order you thought of it. Instead, structure an effective message to facilitate the task.

  • Doing a new job. The audience for an instructional memo or training video probably needs information in the order in which they will perform the task: step one, then step two, then step three. Be sure to organize paragraphs to include all information needed to complete each step.

  • Summarizing information. A manager might ask for information from several departments or individuals responsible for different sections of the work. Consistency in measurement units, level of detail, and format are key. Pay close attention to the request, and provide the information in exactly the format and order requested.

  • Reviewing options. Useful comparisons require consistency in categories. If you provide pricing advantages and disadvantages on one option, along with distribution advantages and disadvantages of the second option, the audience faces "apples and oranges" instead of a fair comparison. Line up the categories so the reader can compare the options side by side.

  • Making a decision. Regardless of how big a role the message plays in the overall decision-making process, the information needs to fit into a problem-solving structure. (For more detail on these typical structures, select Problem Solving from Writing and Reasoning Skills at the right.) An effective communicator will understand the role the information plays and organize it accordingly.

Clear Paragraph Structure

Regardless of how they are ordered, organize the content of each paragraph to communicate the message most effectively.

  • Start with the topic sentence. Business readers prefer short, straightforward paragraphs that place the topic sentence first, followed by supporting detail or reasoning. If the detail doesn't directly support the paragraph topic, create another paragraph or reconsider the relevance of the information.

  • Follow formats consistently. If the paragraphs of a regular message follow a particular order or include the same type of information each time, follow the order even when there is nothing to report. Similarly, if the request asks for specific topics, list all of them, indicating that no information is available. Simply ignoring an expected or requested topic will result in someone having to ask why the information is missing (and, worse, consider the writer unresponsive.)

  • General, then detail. Whether ordering a series of paragraphs or the content of a single paragraph, give the audience the big picture before diving into the detail. Similarly, start with the basics that an audience already knows, and then proceed to fill in the new details or nuances.

Transitions and Signposts

The technique varies with the mode of communication, but clear messages always signal a new idea.

  • Written documents. Paragraphs, headings, subheadings, and bullet points cue the reader that an idea has changed. Equal headings mean the ideas are of equal importance, while subheadings indicate a hierarchical relationship.

  • Oral presentations. The classic rule, "tell them what you're going to say, tell them, and then tell them what you said," exists because audiences have nothing visual to help them follow the organization. Effective communicators include signposts-short sentences to guide an audience through the logic of a message-as well as short summaries of main points after each is completed.

  • Transitions. In both oral and written messages, transition sentences at the beginning of an idea or paragraph give information about the nature of whatever follows. For example, emphasis words can alert the audience that an upcoming piece of information is especially important: "The most important factor is..." "This last part is especially significant..."

  • Physical cues. Not all transitions are verbal. In oral situations, full-face contact, eye contact, leaning forward, and active gestures can communicate the importance of a point. Presenters will use menu slides or graphics such as checkmarks, color changes, or process diagrams to provide visual cues that guide an audience through the message.

The most difficult part of constructive effective messages involves the selection of the content. In part, this is because a professional must fully understand the content before he or she can make good choices. An ambiguous situation or conflict over goals can make this a difficult step.

Explain Ideas

Clearly explaining ideas seems obvious, but often this fundamental purpose of creating the message gets lost. The explanation must always be clear to the audience, and even successful professionals can have trouble with the translation.

  • Consider context. Before jumping into the explanation, think about what the audience needs to know about the situation. Provide whatever background knowledge, industry assumptions, or company politics an audience will need to understand your ideas or perspective.

  • Bring the audience up to speed. Your message probably involves work that you do on a regular basis. Unless your audience includes just the people in your own immediate work group, it will probably need to know what has happened since the last communication.

  • Appreciate your own knowledge. The biggest challenge in clear explanations often stems from the sheer amount of knowledge in your own head. An idea that seems obvious to someone immersed in a project or topic might be opaque to an audience that lacks a detailed knowledge of the circumstances.

  • Explain step by step. Any audience will need to follow the explanation in order to understand it. Don't skip around or jump across steps in your logic. You need not take a long time explaining each one, but make sure the audience can see that you took a step.

Provide Support

Support can include explanations, evidence, or examples. The amount of support needed will vary with the situation, but an assertion can never stand alone. In general, each paragraph's topic sentence provides a statement of fact, interpretation, or value, and the following sentences provide the thinking behind the claim. (For more on business expectations of support, select Persuasive Arguments under Writing and Reasoning at the right.)

  • Explanations show logical connections. Develop the content to show how or why you arrived at the topic sentence. It is not enough to repeat the assertion in different ways or provide an opinion, emotion, or intuition. Business audiences expect to see cause-effect relationships, analogies, and a complete train of thought.

  • Evidence is objective, current, and credible. Many business decisions draw on primary research or statistical analysis of data. Other evidence might come from trusted professional authorities, business databases, or academic research. Provide the source of any evidence used, including the date collected and the location of the primary materials.

  • Examples are relevant. Real situations create compelling support, but think carefully about the specifics of the situation. Too many divergent details, contrasting stakeholder perspectives, or changes in the business environment can render an example irrelevant to the current situation.

Regardless of the language, linguistic rules develop so that sentences accurately and efficiently communicate the desired message. Rules of syntax, spelling, and punctuation can seem tedious to learn, but imagine the chaos if people could rearrange the words in sentences on a whim. Effective message construction involves arranging the words so that any user of the language will effortlessly decipher the intended meaning.

  • English is the language of business. This is fortunate for speakers of English, but business English allows a narrow range of dialect and idiom. A U.S. citizen might be able to understand (and even use) a Southern drawl, Valley Girl, rural Midwesternisms, or hip hop slang, but international speakers learn only Standard American or British English. As a result, professionals are careful to avoid potentially confusing phrases or idioms that only make sense to their regional users.

  • Official business requires dictionary spelling and usage. There are internal cases of "business casual" writing that include abbreviations or simplified spelling, but any business document, which carry legal implications, must conform to the rules of a mainstream English dictionary such as Merriam-Webster, Oxford, or Macmillan.

  • Use consistent punctuation. There are some differences between U.S. and British punctuation, and the choice might depend on a company's home office location. Furthermore, some punctuation choices, especially when it comes to commas, are discretionary. The correct rule might be whatever the company webmaster prefers, and it's never correct to mix styles within a single document.

  • Clarity is always the goal. With a language full of synonyms, rich syntax, and nearly 200 possible combinations of tense, aspect, and mood to choose from, the user of English has wide latitude in picking the best word, sentence structure, or grammatical construction. In general, short words, direct sentences, and simple tenses are preferred, and the goal is always quick, accurate interpretation of the message. For more on using a businesslike style and tone, select that section from the Communication & Presentation Skills tab at right.

The basic steps of creating effective communication recognize the complexity of the process. The first version of a message will never be responsive, perfectly organized, fully supported, and clear. That outcome takes multiple steps, even if sometimes the steps occur very, very quickly.

Every message occurs within a context-sometimes referred to as the rhetorical situation-that includes both personal and organizational purposes, a unique audience (often multiple unique audiences), and a dynamic environment of competing, contradictory, and consistent messages. Selecting the right content requires attention to all of it.

Purpose

Start with the immediate purpose, to be responsive to an immediate request or situation. Then consider both short and long-range goals, both personal and organizational objectives, and the needs of all stakeholders. As you draft the first version of a message, include everything that seems relevant to all purposes. You'll edit later, and it pays to discover any research needs right away.

Audience Analysis

Consider the immediate and future audiences of the message, including those who disagree you're your position or won't understand your information. Check to see that enough information is included for each of these audiences to accomplish its own specific task. As you start to organize this first draft, consider each audiences' needs. Organize information needed by only some individuals as an appendix, hidden field, or footnote so it doesn't slow others down.

Communication Environment

Professionals keep their ears and eyes open, paying attention to what others in the company or industry are saying about a topic or project they work on. Take stock of the assumptions and misconceptions the audience might have, as well as points on which they are likely to agree without a lot of support.

A team composes most professional communication, whether it's a project team or afunctional department. This provides a ready-made test audience for the most important step in composing an effective message-revision. Either role-play or imagine the response of the target audience. When anticipating multiple audiences or conflicting stakeholder perspectives, conduct separate rounds of revision with each in mind.

Check Overall Organization

Start with the big, obvious parts. Make sure the introduction clearly expresses all short-term goal for all audiences. Your long-term goals must be met, but aren't always explicit. Make sure the organization fits the expectations of the document or technology. Make sure the action step clearly specifies which audience is taking the action and which might be getting the information as a courtesy or backup.

Review the Organizational Structure

As you imagine the response of the target audience, think about how they will respond to each step in the process, each option they review, of each piece of information they use. Identify points of confusion or misunderstanding or redundancy and rearrange the message paragraphs until the test audience agrees everyone will "get" the message as intended.

With the basics in place, a close editing tries to imagine how an audience will respond to every word.

Paragraph Editing

Review each paragraph for coherence, unity, and completeness. Highlighting each topic sentence can help a writer focus paragraphs. Add missing information; remove anything extraneous.

Format for Clarity

With paragraphs doing their jobs, you can begin to think about readability, memory, and wording.

  • Readers get grumpy when asked to read more than three paragraphs in a row. Add headings and subheadings to create visual transitions from point to point.

  • Listeners can't remember more than three points without taking notes. Add signposts, visual cues, or directional words to insure the audience doesn't get lost.

  • Simplify any graphics, charts, or tables so they are clean, crisp, and easy to read. For more hints on visual design, take a look at the Business Style and Tone and Presentation Technology sections in the Communication and Presentation Skills tab at the right.

Sentence Editing

After you have finished several rounds of revision, most sentences will be clear, but a final edit for style and tone is in order. Clarity is the most important, but the message shouldn't come across as rude or impatient. Completeness is important, but the information shouldn't be so dense the audience falls asleep. Correct language is important, but the tone shouldnt be so formal that relationships are damage.

Before mailing the letter, hitting the send button, or transmitting files to the printer, take one more step. Proofread carefully for language mechanics, formatting errors, and potential embarrassments like attached files, tracked changes, or incorrect recipient addresses. For major, costly projects make sure to leave time to clear your mind between final editing and proofreading. Even better: find a new set of eyes to take a fresh look at the message.

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