Need to Communicate? Choose the Right Vocabulary
Many of the business analysts, project managers and organisational leaders we work with lament their inability to appropriately communicate and influence the stakeholders with which they work. Needing to get a point across or to inspire the required action, they spend significant energy trying to share their passion or urgency for attention to the business matters at hand. Often it falls upon deaf ears or becomes lost in the tsunami of information we all have to handle.
Typically their messages are not wrong or misplaced and their sense of need is quite real. Why then do so many of these communications fail to achieve the desired result? Are they failing to utilize the right vocabulary for their target audience?
Here we explore the three ‘languages’, or sets of vocabulary, that best convey messages to different audiences within the organization. (Italicized items in the article below indicate key terms for each vocabulary type.)
The Strategic Vocabulary
This is the language of senior leaders, multi-tasking managers and those in charge of significant initiatives within the organization. The people who embrace the strategic vocabulary are searching for relevance and the need for action amongst a sea of emails and demands on their time. Usually reading only the first line or two of the 300 or so emails they receive a day, the biggest challenge in a senior leader’s day is to determine – from these short snippets of communication – whether to delete, file, delegate or take action on the number of items that cross their desk. It is a daunting chore.
The vocabulary that reverberates with these managers is conveyed in short, succinct sentences. The topic is clear and focuses on overall objectives, key process indicators, or direct outcomes. The language of risk and mitigation is welcome, even when the news is not pleasant. Open ended questions are taboo, as answering them requires study and homework within the organization. Senior leaders rarely have time for that type of activity. Instead, questions should be crafted in multiple choice format, with risks and opportunities attached to each alternative. Instances and particular circumstances are not usually absorbed; addressing them directly can result in impacts elsewhere. Instead, discussions of trends or market trends, integration opportunities or strategic convergence or divergence capture attention.
The vocabulary of the senior manager is focused on vision and direction and projected results. Historical results or other items focusing on the past are only mildly interesting, except in cases where they indicate a repeated trend that is in process. Short term focus gets more attention than long term focus (probably to a fault in this business climate). Short term items that yield benefits, that also have positive long term trend indications are universally welcome.
Keep it short. Pictures are best as they can convey a significant amount of information and can be absorbed quickly and efficiently.
The Tactical Vocabulary
Individuals that are battling the day to day delivery of value to the business respond best to tactical vocabulary. Items such as prioritization of scarce resources, and the production of deliverables or products are at the heart of their world. Their focus tends toward requirements from customers and the management of stakeholders quickly capture the attention of the busy juggler that is a project manager, line manager or team leader.
The attention span is longer than those who respond to the strategic vocabulary, but the topic must present itself plainly and early in the communication. Work breakdown structures, business processes, or gap analysis items have a tendency to be heard quite readily. These are all focused on the ability to deliver on time. The terminology of deadlines is especially effective, particularly in cases where evidence or actuals enter the discussion. These can cause a very strong emotional reaction however, so the sender of messages using this terminology should take care and make sure their facts are accurate. Exaggeration in any shape or form can destroy the lines of communication and should be avoided. Capabilities or skill pools grasp the attention quickly and can inspire action with little effort. Constraints also can lead to fruitful discussion, especially when they are cleanly expressed and are tangible. The languages of risk or metrics are effective in the tactical world as well as the strategic, but the nature of the communication needs to focus on items that can be dealt with via tactical action, otherwise it is dismissed as being for ‘the Board’ to handle. Lastly, the best attention catalyst can be the issue, which can cause an eruption of communication, physical responses and fast action.
The Operational Vocabulary
This is the language of the people in your business who do the real work. These are the ‘coalface’ team members. Their concerns are for today. Questions or statements which focus on how to get things done, or what the procedures are, represent the ‘front and center’ in their world. Metrics and measurements are also effective tools in the operational vocabulary, as long as their focus is on the individual or small team, and not a larger demographic. They are very keen to understand the checklists that form their role, and are quickly interested by discussions that talk about quality assurance. Their world is often a series of inputs and outputs, and that vocabulary captures their attention in an instant. Roles are a great way to capture the attention of the operational team member.
Any vocabulary items that talk about the volume of what they have to deal with are especially effective communication tools, including things such as backlogs, inventory levels, or quotas. Quick attention grabbers are sentences that address errors or to-do items. Of particular note are any communication items that address reviews or, more significantly audits, which can have a very positive effect on activity, but also include the risk of creating a total freeze on activity, rendering the operational area ineffective.
Food and food related terminology are great ways to inspire action, especially when it comes to attendance at meetings or other functions. Any discussion of salary or compensation is also a sure fire attention grabber, but care needs to be used in this area to ensure the originator of these communications are viewed as credible.
Some of the above was deliberately delivered in a tongue in cheek manner; however the point is absolutely serious. Effective communications depend quite heavily on the type of vocabulary that is used; different groups in business value different vocabularies. Crafting your communications, whether they be written or verbal, around the commonly used and valued vocabulary of the group that will receive your communications are paramount to success.
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Bob McGannon and Haydn Thomas are Principals of MINDAVATION; a company providing program & project management and business analysis training, consulting, leadership workshops, keynotes and project coaching worldwide.