The New Communication – 11 tips to help

The New Communication is better communication.  Why address communication in a KM blog?  Because communication is part of the “how we do things” component of knowledge management.  Here are 11 tips on how to better communicate:

1. Be Concise. Nobody wants to read though paragraphs of blather to reach your point.  Enough said.

2. Choose the right tool for the job. Don’t send an email if you need (1) immediate confirmation of receipt of your message or (2) an immediate response.  While some people have the ability (or luxury?) to respond to emails immediately, others are not always in front of a PC or able to check their BlackBerrys.  The only way to ensure that your message got through is by way of a synchronous communication (like a telephone call or face-to-face meeting).  As fast as some people seem to respond to email, remember that it (like snail mail) is an asynchronous communication tool.  Don’t assume that everyone reads all of your email as soon as you click “send.”  For more ideas about using the right communication tool for the job, see my previous post on the topic.

3. Indicate the need for action up front. If you’re in the unfortunate group of people at your firm or company whose emails are routinely ignored after the first sentence, then make that sentence (or even the subject line) count.  If I need someone’s attention or action in response to my email, I start it with “Your action is needed” (yes, in bold, red letters).  If it’s an important update, use a headline (e.g., “Note: meeting time has changed — info below“).

4. Make your point up front. Your email should not be a suspense thriller like The Sixth Sense, where only at the end do you realize that Bruce Willis’ character… I won’t spoil it for you.  Sometimes an email will be longer and more complex than you would like.  If that’s the case, consider an executive summary or a short statement that will make the recipient want to read the whole thing.  Instead of starting off with “I met with opposing counsel today regarding settlement.  At first, the plaintiff would not consider our proposal…” try “I have negotiated a settlement in the Martin case; here are the details.”

4. Don’t change the subject without changing the subject. Sometimes email strings get pretty long.  And sometimes, the topic of the email “conversation” changes midstream.  If that happens, then change the subject line of the email (or simply start a new email).  Your email recipient will appreciate it.  And you will too when you try to find the email weeks or moths later.

5. Name your shared appointments properly and respectfully. I keep my Outlook calendar up to date.  If someone wants to meet with me, they can simply schedule an appointment and pick any free time (while people can’t see the contents of my calendar, they can see whether I am available).  It’s handy and it obviates back-and-forth emails suggesting meeting times.  When inviting someone to meet with an appointment invitation, remember that it’s not all about you.  If you send me an appointment invitation called “Meeting with Patrick,” it may help you, but it is meaningless to me (all of my meetings include me).  Instead, name the appointment by its topic (e.g., “Monthly Performance Review” or “Smith v. Jones Deposition Prep”).  Be concise, but not vague.   “Monthly Meeting” is confusing to someone who has multiple monthly meetings with various people.  “Monthly IT Budget Meeting” is better.

6. Stop using “ASAP” as soon as possible. ASAP is meaningless.  What you mean by “as soon as possible” may be very different than what I mean by it.  Don’t leave things up to chance.  If you’re asking someone to do something, you probably need (or want) it done by a deadline (real or contrived).  Say so.  While you’re at it, eliminate all temporal vagueness from your communication.  Rather than “send me a draft ASAP” or “send me a draft next week” (both vague), try “send me a draft by noon on Wednesday” (certain).  Be clear and leave no room for interpretation.  It saves time for everyone and eliminates misunderstanding.

7. Don’t leave them hanging. If part of your job is to respond to requests for assistance (e.g., a Help Desk or Reference Librarian), then let your customers know that you’re taking care of them.  Promptly acknowledge receipt of your customers’ requests and let them know when they can expect results (or ask when they need an answer).  If things change and you can’t meet the agreed-upon deadline, then let your customer know as soon as you learn things have changed.  Don’t wait until the last minute.  Nobody likes to be surprised by delays.

8. Avoid jargon. Do not use KM jargon or “geek speak.”  As a former practicing lawyer who now tries to bridge the communication gap between other lawyers and techies, I can attest that this is very important.  Speak in the language of your audience–not your language.  There’s no better way to lose the attention–or the confidence–of your audience than to make their eyes glaze over in confusion.  If you want to communicate your point, speak in terms your audience can understand.

9. Avoid the details, if they’re not important. This concerns the previous point about concision.  Sometimes people just need to know when something will be done so that they can act on it.  They don’t necessarily need the details.  Perspective is important.  If a lawyer asks a litigation support analyst when he’ll be done with a project, she probably doesn’t need to know when each step of the process (initial culling, de-duplication, data processing, database creation, etc.) will be completed.  She really wants to know when she can begin doing her job: reviewing the electronically stored information (ESI).  Don’t waste someone’s time with minutiae.

10. Include details, if they are important. On the other hand, it’s important not to withhold information if it’s important to a decision.  Using the litigation support scenario again, a lawyer may ask if all of the electronic documents in a matter can be “TIFFed” or turned into images for attorney review.  The answer is generally yes.  But other factors, such as cost, ability to keyword search the documents (by applying optical character recognition (OCR) processes), the processing time, and better alternatives (in this case, perhaps initial native file review) should be discussed.

11. Measure twice, cut once. Today’s forms of communication are fast.  That’s great, but they can lead to hasty mistakes.   Take a moment to check some things before sending that email: (1) double check the recipient list [we’ve all heard of “reply all” horror stories]; (2) spell check; (3) proof read; (4) did you forget an attachment referenced in your email?  (thanks to Jennifer Perez for this list).  Slow down, and get it right.  It can avoid embarrassment and wasted time.

How do you ensure better communication?  Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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