Whether you are writing or talking, communicating effectively is important. To demonstrate the point, I often tell the story of the golf course groundskeeper who hired a young trainee. The day the trainee showed up, the groundskeeper said, “See those bundles of sod on the truck? I want you to re-sod the areas that I’ve staked out around the 18 flags on the golf course. I’ll be back at the end of the day to check on your progress.” With that, the groundskeeper went off to have a few beers with his buddies.
When he returned, he found the greens were dirt-brown around the first hole. Same with holes two, three and four. He caught up with the trainee at hole five. “What the heck have you been doing?” the groundskeeper shouted. “You’ve placed the sod upside down!”
The trainee looked at the lump of sod in his hands and sputtered, “But… you didn’t tell me ‘green side up’!”
The point of the story? When you are communicating, you have to be as explicit as possible. While not all communications involves delegating, when you communicate with someone verbally or in writing you are most often asking the person to take action. If you are not explicit, you could end up with the opposite of what you wanted.
How do you figure out what to say or write if you want to communicate effectively? Start by answering the 5 Ws—who, what, where, when and why. Sometimes it also helps to answer a sixth W—hoW.
Before you speak or write, think about and jot down answers to the following:
- Who? Who am I? Who am I talking to? This helps you determine the tone of your message.
- What? What do I want the person to do? What do I need done so I can do whatever I have to do? This clarifies what has to happen and who has to do it.
- Where? Where does the person I am communicating with have to do it or send it? If you don’t say where, it may not get there.
- When? When do you want the what done? Be specific. If you say ASAP you might mean by the end of the day; however, as soon as possible for the person you are communicating with might mean “in a couple of days.” If you want it done by Tuesday, say so.
- Why? Why do I, or why does the organization, need this done? In other words, communicate your purpose, even if you are the CEO communicating with a worker bee. If you want someone to get something done, give that person a reason why so they do it with an understanding of the purpose of their actions.
- How? Does the person you are communicating with know how to do what you want done? If you are not sure, ask. If you have to give instructions, be explicit—green side up! Ask the person you are communicating with to demonstrate understanding by giving you feedback. In other words, ask the person to repeat what you said to demonstrate that he or she has heard you.
Finally, if you need the person to let you know that he or she has done what you want, where and when you want it, ask to be kept informed. If you don’t ask, you may not hear back. And if you don’t hear back, you may not know when or if the job is done.
If you think going through this process – answering five simple questions – will take too much time, ask yourself: What are the consequences of not getting done what I need done, when I need it done? How much time will it take me to correct a job that is not done well?
If there are no consequences to a job done poorly, or if you have time to fix a botched job, then there is no need to communicate effectively. However, if having a job done well—even if you are only asking someone to send you some information—and having it done on time is important, then communicate effectively using the five Ws.