July 2023 | 

Small Changes, Big Benefits: Professional Communication

Small Changes, Big Improvements in Professional Communications

Management theorist Nitin Nohria famously identified communication as “the real work of leadership.” Yet research shows that communication at work is surprisingly difficult — and mistakes are expensive. One study found that poor communication, and the resulting employee misunderstanding, cost U.K. and U.S. businesses $37 billion per year. That means it pays — literally — to improve your message and delivery.

Whether you’re writing a memo, preparing to give a presentation or speech, or ready to hit “send” on your next email, try using these tips for better communication from Wharton faculty and friends of Executive Education.

Talk the Talk

Tiffany Willis, vice president and head of investor relations at Starbucks, emphasizes the importance of mastering specific terminology to convey messages clearly. She explains that, in particular, being able speak with those in finance using the appropriate language can help avoid misunderstandings, establish credibility, and foster trust. A week after she returned to work from Wharton’s Advanced Management Program, she was asked to head investor relations, and says it required her to acquire finance acumen because “you're speaking the language of numbers. You have to have the communication side because you're the storyteller, the spokesperson.” Consider her advice the next time you need to reach across business functions — what specific concepts and words are used by those in your target audience, and how can you incorporate some of them to make a stronger appeal by talking their talk?

Tell a Story

Michael Platt, director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, agrees that sharing a common language and embracing your role as storyteller are critical. But start with the brain. “Two of the most effective methods for connecting with your audience, whether an individual or a group, are making eye contact and mirroring (subtly mimicking the gestures of the other person). Both of these methods lead to synchronized brain waves, which are linked to engagement, learning, and good rapport. Both methods are much harder to do when you’re not meeting in person, but that doesn’t mean you can’t engage.”

Platt says, “because everyone comes with their own experiences, biases, and distractions that can get in the way of a common understanding,” you can’t just tell one story and expect collective engagement or synchronized brains. “The group needs to make sense of what they’re hearing in a similar way. Start by priming your listeners’ brains by first explaining what your story means or why you’re telling it to get everyone on the same page,” he explains.

Keep It Simple

The brain synchrony described by Michael Platt is hindered by complexity, so follow his advice: drill your message down to its essential core and keep it simple. Instead of “short and sweet,” though, aim for “simple and profound.” Research on movie trailers by Moran Cerf at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management highlights the power of such simplicity. He found that the most effective ones, in terms of creating brain synchrony and driving ticket sales, had the fewest spoken words and the fewest faces and other stimuli on the screen. The simpler the message, the easier it is to understand, and ultimately the more likely it is to be remembered.

Make It Clear for Hybrid and Remote Workers

“Building exemplary communications in a hybrid and remote setting requires a lot of clarification of expectations and goals,” says Deputy Dean and Professor of Management Nancy Rothbard. “People are busy making assumptions about what you want, even more so than they were when you shared the same office space. And those assumptions are probably not correct. Instead, you have to do a lot more ‘telling.’ Be very specific, such as, ‘My goal is to be committed to achieving the next level of this project. I’m ready to pivot when necessary to get it done well and on time.’”

Rothbard directs the Women’s Executive Leadership program, which uses a communications-style assessment to help participants understand their existing strengths and weaknesses. It provides a base level of understanding to improve on. “No matter what your style,” says Rothbard, “keep in mind the importance of using a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication. It can’t be all email and text, or all phone and Zoom. This is critical advice for anyone, but it’s especially important for women.”

Keep Information Flowing Up and Down

Many new managers make the assumption that the information they need most comes from those senior to them. Professor Tom Donaldson says you should also work on communicating with those below you to “ensure that you’re in the loop.” Corporate relations disasters and other crises often catch leaders off guard because they have insulated themselves, only hearing bad news that many employees are already familiar with when it’s too late. He says you can avoid critical communication lapses by “being there. Make a habit of finding unplanned, casual moments with employees. How an executive treats employees in the elevator or the parking lot can make all the difference between hearing (and having the time to act) and not hearing. Leaders should seize these opportunities.” Try making “MBWA” (management by walking around) a frequent practice, and schedule “skip level” meetings where you can engage with workers two or more levels below your own.

Professor Greg Shea, academic director of the Leading Organizational Change program, says keeping the lines of communication open with those you lead is also critical for meeting team goals and succeeding with change initiatives. “Spend time with them in person. When your followers feel that you are listening and you understand them, they in turn will see the effort and feel more connected. Then, together, you can have conversations about what strategic initiatives could happen next, and they may be genuinely excited about growth.”