Communication is The Job

There are a lot of people who build things in Silicon Valley. They spend their time writing code or designing flows or building models. But how do they know what to build? Well, they work with a group of people whose job is to connect them with the information they need to answer that question. Those connectors in turn work with people whose job is to collect that information in the first place. This pattern repeats throughout.

The success of all these information connectors and collectors depends on precisely one skill: communication.

Each of us are always communicating. Try as we might, we cannot help it. Saying nothing can often be even more damaging than saying the wrong thing. The people around us are so eager to understand the world around them that in the absence of true communication, they will attempt to find a signal in noise. None of us gets to control what others are hearing or how they are interpreting things. We can only control what we contribute to that milieu.

Given that we cannot prevent communication, we must embrace it. While perfect communication is impossible, my goal is to get most people most of the information most of the time. Here are some strategies I employ.

  1. Layer Your Message. If you take away one thing from this post I hope it is that communication is important and unavoidable. Beyond that I have a numbered list of eight tips with short descriptions. Beyond those I have longer explanations of each. The structure of this post is not an accident, it is a model for getting your message across to a large audience whose level of engagement in the content will vary. The same is true of meetings or all-hands where we tend to have one topic or theme and then several points we plan to cover, and then we lay out the detailed content. The larger the audience, the more this type of structure becomes important as the variance in interest levels only grows. People have to be able to engage at their level of interest and get value — and progressively learn whether or not they want to invest more — so it can’t be all or nothing.

  2. Consider the Second Order Audience. You aren’t just communicating to those who attend your meeting or read your posts and emails. You are also communicating to the set of people that everyone in your audience talks to subsequently. Focusing your message into a format that is readily repeatable by others with high fidelity can be a huge advantage, especially if you can distill it down to short memorable phrases.

  3. Communicate Defensively. You need to consider the most cynical interpretation of your message before you say anything. For audiences of any reasonable size there will be someone inclined to take the most critical possible interpretation of your words. If you give them enough space, that person will build a logical (but incorrect) interpretation. If they then share it with others that becomes a de facto communication that you are responsible for even if you never said, or intended, it. So before you communicate take the time to consider all parts of your audience and how you might be misinterpreted and then refine your message to reduce the likelihood of miscommunication.

  4. Repetition is Key. Advertisers have known for a long time that ensuring someone hears a critical message several times is key to them retaining it. Within any given communication be sure to keep tying things back to the critical message. In the case of this post, the idea that communication is unavoidable is something I mention several times. Including just there.

  5. Use Multiple Channels. People absorb information differently through different media so if you want to ensure you’ve really reached everyone it is wise to get your message out on many different ways. In this case I gave a talk on this in person to some colleagues and am now writing a post. With some individuals I’ll probably also raise this one on one. For important All Hands meetings we will even create posters in the Facebook Analog Laboratory that mirror the themes to even take advantage of physical space around us to communicate. This also helps with the goal of repetition.

  6. Maintain Channels. All the right text is worthless if nobody reads it. Building and maintaining strong channels of communication is critical to being able to communicate effectively. If you wait until you need such channels, you are already too late. All Hands and meetings are somewhat easier because you can control an invite list and, to some extent, influence people’s calendars. For written communication we invest a lot in maintaining Facebook Groups but other companies might us email lists or channels. The important thing with broadcast channels is that people know if something important happens, they will read about it there. It is equally important that the communication there be exclusively content we think is important to almost all of the audience or people will tune it out. The channels also have to be used frequently enough to stay well ranked in peoples inboxes and feeds, so investing in regular, high-quality content production is important.

  7. Communicate Early and Often. The most common mistake I see is leaders waiting to say anything until they are certain what they are communicating is absolutely correct. That sounds laudable but in practice it tends to slows down communication dramatically and gives space for the rumor mill to run amok. In my experience, people would rather hear about the current state of our understanding and have it revised as we learn more than hear nothing at all. People can deal with imperfect information but they cannot stand information insecurity.

  8. Debug Miscommunication. When I’m doing a poor job of communicating it can feel like I’m pushing with a rope. I have some clear vision in my head and people just aren’t doing what I expect. It can be a frustrating experience and it is tempting to blame the audience for not understanding. But make no mistake, when this happens, it is your fault. You have to sit down and ask questions from a place of humility to hear what they took away from what you said. Take full responsibility for any discrepancy from what you intended and make corrections with your entire audience.

I think that a lot of the reason people fail to communicate well is that they aren’t comfortable with their responsibility. Whether they be leaders or managers, many would much rather imagine themselves as just a part of the team. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option and indulging the fantasy is irresponsible because you let people down who are counting on you to step up. Even if you don’t think you’re a leader or a manager, you’re still a communicator. We are all leaders to someone whether we like it or not. People are looking to us. We don’t have the capacity not to communicate. So let’s invest to do it well.