Communication isn’t rocket science. But when we aren’t equipped with the right tools, getting this skill right can feel like an overwhelming task. Here we look at how to avoid common communication mistakes with a simple, but effective, technique.
Recently I was asked about the biggest mistakes people make in communication. In my 20 years in the field, I’ve seen a lot of good examples of communication. There are also….well, let’s call them areas for improvement. Of all the potential communication traps out there, the most common mistake people make is to focus too much on WHAT they want to say, and not WHY they’re saying it.
Sounds obvious, right? That may be true, but I can’t tell you how many times leaders have run over to me in a panic, saying: “We need to get this communication out”! First of all, as a professional communicator, I’m not entirely sure what this phrase even means. What exactly is “a communication”?
Do we need to make an urgent employee announcement about an unforeseen disruption in operations? Is there a crisis situation developing in one of our primary markets? Are sales lagging after a new product or service launch and we need a promotional boost?
Think About The Objective of Your Communication
What all of these questions have in common is WHY. What are you trying to achieve? In other words, what is your communication objective? This is always the first question I ask when developing any piece of communication, whether for myself or when coaching others.
Usually when I ask about the WHY of their communication, people give me a blank stare. Or a response along the lines of: “Because I’ve got something to say”. As compelling an argument as this may be—especially in a time of crisis—we need to think first and foremost about why we are communicating, and with whom.
Communication is a two-way exchange. There is always a speaker and a listener: even in a virtual presentation where you can’t see your audience. And if the listener isn’t paying attention to what you have to say, you’re essentially talking to a wall.
Understanding why you are communicating will help you shape content to meets your audience’s needs. This way you stand a better chance of having them stick with you. Plus it’s a great trick to get going in the face of a blank page. When you don’t know where to start on creating a presentation or announcement, the first place to look is your communication objective.
How to Start with WHY
You’ve probably heard a lot about purpose over the last few years. This buzzword has taken the business world by storm ever since Simon Sinek’s TED Talk in 2010 about how great leaders inspire action. It’s no accident that Sinek started his career in advertising. In the communications field, we’ve long known about this secret to effective persuasion.
Let’s break this down into more concrete terms. Can you think of an upcoming presentation you have to deliver? Maybe it’s a webinar about a new product or service. Or a one-on-one meeting with a prospective client. It could be an announcement to a large audience with important potential repercussions for your career. The example can be big or small. Don’t overthink it. We communicate a lot more than we think we do.
If you’re feeling stuck on WHAT you want to say in this presentation or announcement, take a step back a moment and think about WHY you are communicating. (I’ll give you a hint here: “Because I have to” is not an answer!)
Check out our Simply Comms video with communications leader, Aimée DuBrule, to learn more.
There are many reasons why we might need to communicate. It could be to persuade a group of people to buy into your idea. Sometimes we communicate to educate or inform people about a new initiative coming down the line.
Your objective might be to entertain or inspire your audience. For example, in this post—and the video above—my objective is to share with you some new information. Or, at the very least, to remind you of a fundamental communication skill you can put into practice more frequently. The end result should be that you come away with a tool to help improve your communication. To sum that up then, I’d say my primary objective is to educate.
Can I Have More Than One Communication Objective?
You may be wondering if you can have more that one objective for your communication activity. The answer is…yes-ish. Sometimes we have multiple objectives when running a complex communication campaign. In general, though, I would recommend you stick with one main objective for most of your communication activity.
This is because your communication objective translates into a whole bunch of things down the line. It shapes your messaging; defines the distribution channels you choose; and even the timing of your communication. The crisper and clearer you are about WHY you are communicating, the easier the rest will come.
Should My Communication Objective Match My Business Goals?
Here’s an insider tip: your business objective is not the same as your communication objective, even though the two are very closely linked. Let’s take an example to illustrate. Imagine you’re an independent consultant selling wellness services. You have an opportunity to participate in an upcoming webinar attended by potential new customers. Your business goal is, of course, to sell your services. You aim to increase sign-ups to a new program offering and, ultimately, grow your revenues.
The webinar is an opportunity to showcase your services and build awareness about the new program. This means that your communication objective is most likely to educate, or inform, the webinar audience about points of relevance to them. These points will be linked to your product or service offering. However, unless the webinar is overtly designed as a sales pitch, you want to avoid giving an outline of the program’s features. Instead, offer the audience a taste of the actual content or experience they would receive by signing up.
People generally tune into webinars because they are looking for interesting information and ideas, or insight from experts in the field on a given topic. If you mistake your communication objective with your business goal in that context, you might lose the opportunity to convert this audience into potential customers.
Avoid This Common Communication Mistake!
Last year I witnessed this mistake firsthand from an experience presenter. I attended a webinar featuring a well-known author in the field of behavioural psychology. I’d heard of her work before and had even listed one of her books on my ‘To Buy’ list. The presentation segment was interesting enough. But once the moderator opened the line for participant questions, everything fell apart. Rather than showcase her knowledge with answers to our questions about the substance of her research, the author simply repeated: “You can find that information in my book”.
As a result, I ended up leaving the call before the webinar was finished. Moreover, I lost trust in the author’s integrity. Even worse, I decided not to purchase her book after all. My experience had nothing to do with the quality of this author’s arguments or research, which I still believe are credible. Nevertheless, her communicate style had a negative impact on my subsequent engagement with her product.
Perhaps if the author had been clearer about the purpose of the webinar—for instance, to inform—she might have taken a more appropriate approach to the Q&A segment. You build credibility by reinforcing your expertise. In this example, the author could have answered questions by describing, at a high level, related principles from her book. This way she leaves the audience wanting to know more, and potentially converting us into customers.
Knowing the difference between your business and communication objectives—and preparing content accordingly—will inspire better outcomes with your audience. This leads us back to the top rule for how to avoid common communication mistakes. Ask WHY before WHAT. This simple question will contribute to building a stronger connection with your audience, which will ultimately lead to better business outcomes.
Do you set objectives for your communication activities? How do they help you? We’d love to hear your experience with applying this technique. Let us know in the comments how it goes. And be sure to let us know if you have any other pressing communication questions so that we can address them in future posts.