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Tools for No-Room-for-Interpretation Communication

Raise your hand if you’ve ever:

  • Had an email exchange with a colleague that confused the heck out of you
  • Delivered the totally wrong deliverable by mistake
  • Lost your cool when trying to explain yourself to your boss
  • Felt dumbfounded by what was being asked of you


You’re not alone. I coach creative professionals all day long and this experience of frustrating communication is universal. English itself is a challenging language (anyone with a young child in their lives will agree). It’s not super nuanced, same words have different meanings, and slang makes it even easier to be vague. Then layer on the fact that what we do is abstract by nature, it’s no wonder most people hate writing creative briefs.

Then there’s the challenge of creatives and non-creatives communicating. Yikes. It can be as simple as partnering with legal to create warehouse signage, or it can be as crazy as creatives who report into HR, IT or Procurement. I’ve had many a client who has this reporting structure, and it can be difficult to articulate what is needed on both sides of the relationship.

First, let’s define the goals of effective communication:

  • No surprises
  • No room for interpretation

  • Print this out, hang it up at your desk, tattoo it on your forearm. When we keep these two statements front and center, we begin honing all forms of communication to a style of articulation that is the envy of our peers. We eliminate the unnecessary editorializing, we’re quick and to the point, and we’re using people’s time respectfully.

    Now that we’ve defined our goals, let's move on to the top tools.

    Replay
    In your own words repeat back what the person said to gain clarification that what you heard is accurate. “May I say back what I think you’re asking of me to make sure I understood it correctly?”

    I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s a respectful, fast, and potentially fun way to expedite clear communication. Everyone I know who has tried this has had great success and improved relationships as a result. It builds trust, which greases the wheels of creativity and productivity.

    “Contextify”
    Start each email, phone call, or in-person conversation with a contextual opening sentence. This is a fantastic way to deliver no surprises and no room for interpretation. When we set up the conversation by letting the other participant know where we are (in the project, the situation, or the topic at hand), they can more readily jump in and respond in a helpful way.

    Often people skip this contextualizing step and the result is a lot of round-and-round and frustration. This kind of communication so easily slips into the other person being “stupid” or “just doesn’t get it.” It’s possible this may be true, but it’s more likely that they’re lost and scrambling to get back on the path. It’s up to us to start them on the path so we travel together.

    Bullet It
    After the contextual foundation, list out the relevant facts.

    • Short, sweet, each word with meaning
    • Each bullet point is a bridge between the Contextifying sentence and the Ask
    • The bullet points may build on each other, so the sequence is important
    • Leave out editorial commentary; just the facts

    Ask (and Receive)
    What exactly are you looking for: a blessing to move forward with your idea or a budget? It doesn't matter if what you’re asking for is intangible or tangible, there’s a way to articulate what you need.

    Close out this communication with a Clear Ask. Often this is where people get scared and write a fluffy sentence. The result is a recipient wondering what was the point of the communication. I get it; it can be scary to ask for something, but we have a choice to be professional, clear and respectful of people’s time or not. It’s that basic.

    People like to get things done. Make it easy for them to get your Ask off their list of “to do’s” by clearly articulating what it is you’re asking for.

    Word Choices
    I highly recommend using layperson language. Corporate speak is confusing. It’s full of hidden meanings and vague implications. Even if your culture is very corporate, try to incorporate as few buzz words as possible. Stay with your intention to deliver:

    • No surprises
    • No room for interpretation

    • Want a really great email structure? Follow this pattern:
      • Contextify
      • Bullet It
      • Ask (and Receive)

      • And so we close with this exercise: go to the top of this article and see if you can spot my opening contextify-ing sentence(s). Now scan the middle section for bridge points (hint: they’re bold, not bulleted, but stand out as I wanted them to). And now my closing Ask that you identify the tools I teach in this very article.

Rena DeLevie

A people-oriented transformational leader, Cella Consultant Rena DeLevie has spent almost 30 years in the creative industry, including significant retail experience (Talbots, J. Crew, Kenneth Cole, dressbarn), first as an art director, then in creative operations/management. Rena has extensive experience in corporate management trainings, workshops, one-on-one coaching and presentations. She writes on the subject of leadership and management and has been interviewed on HuffPost LIVE, among other media, about Compassionate Management, a subject on which Rena is passionate. In addition Rena is a core member of Cella’s professional development team featured at Beyond the Creative and Creative Manager Boot Camp training seminars.  

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