It’s happened to all of us. You’re on the way to lunch, or an important meeting—or maybe even the restroom—when you run into a coworker in the hallway. He asks for an update about an important project or issue. If the project is going great, your answer may be pretty simple: “Things are going well.” Then, you give him a quick summary. But what happens when things aren’t going well? You launch into “explain yourself” mode: “Well, here’s the thing…”
Everyone, from executives to frontline employees, tells me the same thing: When people report on issues or projects, they usually provide way, way too much information—the dreaded TMI. So how do we solve the problem? By using my Inquire to Influence™ strategies, you’ll be able to connect and communicate with anyone, giving them the right level of detail every time, all while building the rapport and trust that enhances your reputation. This strategy has three steps: who, what, and when.
The first and most critical thing to consider when providing a status update is your intended audience. Based on who you’re communicating with, you can quickly identify the appropriate communication level using what I call the COPS assessment. First, consciously consider the person’s technical competency level. Most IT professionals undermine their communications by ignoring their audience’s competency level and filling their updates with technical jargon and acronyms. This is an easy trap to fall into, as it makes you sound competent, but what really impresses people is not how smart you sound when you talk, but that you deliver real results by successfully completing the effort you’re discussing with them. So, try to match your vocabulary to your audience’s level of technical competency.
Second, consider the organizational level. If your audience is an executive, you’ll want to increase the level of detail you provide. According to Lawrence L. Tracy, author of The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations, executives need “precise information in a condensed form and in a limited time period.” If your audience isn’t an executive but is instead a technical contributor or power user, she may appreciate more detail, but don’t assume she does. Keep the audience’s position and informational needs in mind as you craft and deliver your update.
Next, identify your audience’s personality and preferred communication style. Have you ever taken a personality assessment? If so, how often do you find yourself actually using that knowledge in real-time? If you’re like most people, you may have found that while personality, leadership, and social-style assessments do provide valuable insights, it’s really quite challenging to apply them in the work environment.
In “The Platinum Rule” system, Dr. Tony Alessandra presents a simple, but extremely effective method for assessing a person’s communication style “in the moment,” based on observable behaviors that allow you to quickly adjust your communication style to be most effective. According to Alessandra’s model, there are four basic styles: director, socializer, thinker, and relater.
Directors are bottom line–oriented. They’re motivated by saving time and money, and they’ll want you to get to the bottom line quickly. When you observe the director style in your audience, be ready to keep it concise and address time- and finance-related questions.
Socializers are fast-paced, but more people-oriented, and they’ll want to talk about more than just business. If you observe socializer behavior, take some time to connect with your audience on a more personal level; don’t stick strictly to business.
Thinkers are more analytical and slower paced, and they’ll typically want more details than directors or socializers. Relaters also communicate at a slower pace, but they’re more focused on building deep relationships than any of the other observable styles. Therefore, with relaters, be sure to connect with them on a more personal level, perhaps by asking open-ended questions about their progress on specific business projects or efforts.
Finally, consider the situation. Where are you? Are you in the hallway, or are you in a meeting? Are you delivering a formal presentation? Your situation will dictate how much time you have to speak with your audience. If you catch a colleague between meetings, she won’t have time to get to her next one if you’re droning on about something. On the other hand, if you’re the one in the meeting, this will afford you greater opportunity for information exchange (just enough, but not too much—again, avoid the TMI trap). Another situational aspect to consider is the security of the current scenario; if you’re discussing secure or sensitive information, you may need to provide the update in a more private environment.
So, keep COPS in mind. Consider your audience’s competency, organizational level, and personality, and read the current situation to determine how much information to give or hold back.
After who comes what. You may not have considered this before, but it’s important to first ask your audience what level of detail they prefer to see in status updates. There are two key steps in this phase: simplifying the what and structuring the what.
To simplify the what, give your audience time-bound options based on the situation’s scenario: “Do you want the one-minute overview? The five-minute update? Or the ten-minute explanation?” Give your audience options and they’ll tell you what level of detail they want; they can always ask for more detail afterward if they need it (this is key). Once you’ve simplified the what with the correct level of detail, it’s important to structure the what. This entails structuring the update in such a way that you’re able to focus on three specific areas: status, challenges, and successes.
The rule of primacy states that the information we lead with is more likely to be retained, so keep this in mind as you collect your thoughts. In this case, it’s best to lead off by reporting on the overall health of your project or incident. Are things going along as planned, or have there been some snags along the way? By delivering this information first, even if your audience has to stop you to get to a meeting, they’ll have the information they need to provide their superiors with updates when/if asked.
The second step in structuring the what is addressing challenges. Ask yourself, What issues is my initiative facing? As much as one wants to avoid addressing them, every initiative comes with challenges. Share anything that may have slowed your progress, as well as any challenges that may crop up in the future. If you’re currently facing any significant challenges, explain what you’re doing to overcome them. Remember that transparency builds trust. By being straightforward with your audience, you’ll build rapport and respect, which will help you develop advocates in the organization.
The third component, and arguably the most powerful, is sharing your successes. What milestones have you met? What goals have you accomplished? What are some of your positive outcomes? Sharing this information in this way will give your audience deeper insight into an initiative’s overall status and a rough timeline for completion or resolution without having to stare at a spreadsheet. With open incidents or problem efforts, you can share positive progress that has been made. The rule of recency tells us that people remember most what they hear last, so save the best news for last and end the communication on a positive note.
Your ultimate goal should be to provide sufficient information to engage your audience and show them that you’ve got things under control.
Finally, address the when. Regardless of how long you talk or how much information you share, offer to follow up with your audience. You’ll be surprised how much rapport and trust you build just by offering a follow-up.
People don’t normally ask for follow-ups because they take them as a given. Yet, so often we get caught up in the next initiative and simply forget to circle back. But there’s no excuse for forgetting these days, not when we carry such powerful devices in our pockets. As soon as the person you’re communicating with walks away, break out your device and enter a reminder to follow up with her at her preferred time, via an appropriate and agreed-upon communication channel.
Following this who-what-when model will not only help you engage your audience and build rapport, it will also help you train a spotlight on the value your organization brings to the business every day.
Manley Feinberg works with organizations that are ready to get out of their comfort zones, build momentum, and get what’s important done. He’s obsessed with helping IT professionals provide world-class service and customer experiences through better communication. Manley is an award-winning speaker, HDI Faculty member, and coauthor of World-Class Speaking in Action (forthcoming, 2014). He can be reached at Manley@VerticalLessons.com.