How Communication Skills Power your Performance

OPENforum has a guest blog from Chris Brogan, the social media guru, about simple ways to make your email communications clearer. Read it on the OPENforum website by clicking here, or scroll down.


Back when I worked for corporations, no matter what my official title was, my role was quite often, “the guy who explains to the senior team what the tech guys mean,” or “the guy who tells the tech guys what the senior team just said.” It went both ways. Over the years, I’ve learned that my communications skills are often the tool that gets the job done. I have a few skills for you to practice.

Bring Conversations to Ground

Something happened when the world discovered email. The twenty-five message thread was invented. Frankly, I’m not a fan. I like messages to go no more than three replies and then consider that communication over. I call this bringing the conversation to ground. Here are some ways to do that.

  • Ask brief, definitive questions versus open-ended questions. (bad example: “what do you want to do about lunch?” good example: “I’m thinking either Korean barbeque or sushi for lunch. Do you want to go?”)
  • Clarify the other person’s points in your response to their message, and answer each briefly: “You asked whether I would be willing to honor the 200 books for a half/day consultation deal. Absolutely. I just need the sale by Saturday.”
  • Use bulleted or numbered lists for the briefest of message threads.

Tell it To Me Like I’m Six Years Old

One of my favorite college professors, Ken Hadge, said that one day in class. “Tell it to me like I’m six years old.” He made that the rule for business transactions, no matter how complex. I’ve made that a hallmark of how I talk about things. One way to do this is to use metaphors instead of jargon. Another is to strive for brief sentences in words with fewer than three syllables on average.

It might seem condescending or counter-intuitive, but business communications are often made more complex for no viable reason. We talk like humans to each other outside of work. Why not attempt to do the same inside?

Subject Lines are Your Friends

Great subject lines clear up email fast. Here’s a sampling of useless subject lines in my inbox right now:

  • (turns out, they want to interview me, but I don’t know this from the subject line.)
  • CNN Radio (same as above)
  • Re: Follow Up (that’s not doing me any favors)
  • Making the transition (from what to what by whom?)

By contrast, here are some subject lines that are effective:

  • Our post about Trust Agents (Trust Agents is my new book)
  • Details on the bulk book order
  • Susan G—- recommended I get in touch with you

When you look at these, it’s obvious what they’re about, why they’re important, and what I’ll do.

Visual Dividers and Headlines

This blog post is easy to read. I chunk it up. I use lists. I can add photos. I can do lots of things to keep your eye happy. Why aren’t you doing that at work? Do your eyes deserve worse treatment at work? Go back and look at a few sent emails in your box. Are there emails that look like you were paid by the word? Are they dense and hard to dig through?

Your defense of “sometimes things take a lot of explaining” isn’t going to fly. If you’re drafting documents, that’s not writing for communications value. That means, you’re delivering information. It’s something different—which is okay, but be clear of your goal. Keep things visually simple, crisp, and broken up.

Does This Help?

One last thing: a call to action is rarely useful at the end of an email. It works fine on a blog, but in an email, make all your “asks” at the top. Making me fish through 779 words to find your request to me is a slog. Start with that at the top even if you have to fill in the story so that I understand what you’re asking of me.


What do you think? Should email conversations be simplified like this? Would it help? Tell us here!

Explore posts in the same categories: Resources, Second-hand resource

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