ManagementSpeak: Prepare an executive summary.
Translation: Write something a first-grader can figure out.
Alternate translation: Oversimplify your proposal. Then I can ask why it will cost so much.
This week’s submission anonymously summarizes how executives read.

As regular IS Survivalists may recall, in graduate school I researched communication between electric fish.

This involved me in many stimulating discussions of how to define communication … because after all, how can you research something when you don’t know what it is?

Back then, the standard sociobiological definition of communication was behavior on the part of one entity … the sender … that changes the behavior of another entity (the receiver).

It isn’t communication unless it changes the behavior of the recipient. Electric fish understand this. Do you?

Companies squander a lot of effort because somewhere between figuring things out and explaining the answer, many employees mistake their responsibilities. They think their job is done when they provide the information.

It isn’t, of course. There’s little more pathetic than a thick report in a three-ring binder, ignored and gathering dust on a shelf.

Your job isn’t done until your target has both understood your message and taken action on it. That action is the change in behavior on their part that proves communication has happened, validating your efforts.

What are the steps to effective communication?

1. Understand your audience. If it’s one executive, do everything you can to determine his or her “hot buttons”: Key motivators, personal and organizational goals, likes and dislikes. If it’s a small group, analyze each member this way. If it’s a large group, divide it into categories and profile each category.

2. Determine your key messages. You know way too much about this subject, and you’re going to be tempted to explain everything you know. Resist the temptation. What you have to say is the center of your cosmos, but it’s just one asteroid in your audience’s solar system. Choose no more than five key messages (three is better). If you can’t winnow your list down that far, you need to pull back to a higher-level perspective.

3. Choose your medium. Your key messages and knowledge about your audience’s preferred communication styles should determine the medium. “They should read their e-mail,” is about as useful as any other choice that substitutes how things should be for how they actually are. If your audience is an executive who wants to look you in the eye, make sure you meet face-to-face. And even though you “… like to scribble on the whiteboard while I’m talking,” … that’s your preference. If your audience will reject your message because whiteboard-scrawling connotes lack of preparation, stuff your preference in the closet and prepare a formal PowerPoint presentation. Or vice versa.

4. Use formatting to reinforce your message. When you communicate face-to-face, your vocal intonation and body language deliver as much information as your words. In memos and reports, intonation and body language aren’t available to you. That’s what formatting is for — to substitute for them. You know what your key messages are. How are you going to make sure the reader remembers them?

The act of formatting helps you think things through. Deciding what to bold or italicize, what to put in a bulleted or numbered list, what to separate into a sidebar, what to illustrate through a chart or graphic … or in PowerPoint, whether and how to animate a graphic or bulleted list, and what to put into a “kicker box” at the bottom … these decisions help you think through your message.

Carefully chosen formatting can have another benefit: It constitutes “meta-communication” — communication about the communication. It says you’ve thought through your communication instead of just blurting everything out. That’s a good message to send.

Ever receive an e-mail whose author couldn’t be bothered to capitalize the first letter of a sentence, or to break the message into multiple paragraphs?

Me too. This kind of if-you-can’t-say-it-in-pure-ASCII “anti-formatting” sends a message of its own: That the author’s attitude was, “Here’s everything I want to say,” and not, “Here’s what I think you’ll find interesting enough to remember.”

Complaining about feature-bloat is a popular pastime in some circles. Go ahead if you enjoy it. Me … I’ll use every technique I can to communicate. There’s too much information floating around as it is.