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Effective communication is not about what you say

How to craft the messages people need to hear to get the right results.

Melanie Ensign

Artwork: Susan Haejin Lee

Photo of Melanie Ensign
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Melanie Ensign // Founder & CEO, Discernible

The ReadME Project amplifies the voices of the open source community: the maintainers, developers, and teams whose contributions move the world forward every day.

Everyone knows communication is essential to projects of all types. But many of us struggle to communicate effectively. Poor communication often leads to misunderstandings and frustration. A common misperception is that merely saying something—whether through written, visual, or oral communication channels—is enough. You, as the message sender, made the information available, so you’ve fulfilled your end of the interaction, right? Not quite.

It’s common to think of communication as broadcasting a message, but effective communication is focused on what people need to hear in order to reach the outcome you need. The outcome of any communication is what determines how effective it is. Simply pushing out a message or publishing information is not enough to measure its impact. There’s a huge emphasis on writing in software development and many developers view writing skills as critical to their work, but if we’re not assessing the outcome of what we say we could end up talking to ourselves. The same can be said for all the public talks we give about our projects. 

How another person might process the information we share matters for driving outcomes and a good communicator tailors their message to maximize the receiver’s understanding. With this approach, priority is given to how someone else perceives the message because a misunderstanding can cause delays or costly mistakes.

What does effective communication look like?

While fundamental communication is something we all do as human beings, there’s an entire field of study—including an academic and professional discipline—dedicated to understanding and improving the effectiveness of how people communicate with each other. From this discipline emerged several models of communication to explain what it is and how it works. One of the most universally recognized models was developed by Harold Lasswell in 1948. 

Who ➡️ says what ➡️ to whom ➡️ with what effect?

The aspect of “to what effect” emphasizes the point that simply distributing information isn’t enough. Before we send messages to other people, we have a responsibility to consider how someone else will interpret what we’re about to say and whether our choice of words, timing, context, and channel are suited to helping the other person process and understand the information. 

Communicating for desired outcomes

An outcome is the effect, consequence, or impact of communication, and it represents the perspective of who we’re communicating with, often expressed as a quantifiable change in attitude or behavior. In contrast, the individual messages we send (email, pull request, spoken word, Phab comment, social media posts, etc.) are outputs. We can count outputs to measure what we did, but outcomes are the measurement of whether we made the impact we wanted.  

So, when we’re communicating with colleagues and contributors on a project, the best way to start is with the question, “what do I need this person to do?” For example, a message like “please review” may not get you the same result as a more specific request to review for correctness or compatibility with an upcoming code change. 

Sometimes what we need someone to do is communicate the information to someone else, which is very common for senior leaders who need managers to carry messages on their behalf. In that case, we need to optimize our communication decisions to reduce the potential for meaning to be lost or changed as it moves from person to person. 

Once we have a clear outcome identified, we then need to consider what specific information is needed from us to make that action possible. If you don’t know, ask. “What do you need from me in order to do X?” A best practice is to include a suggested communication path for recipients who need more information or clarity if your initial message isn’t enough. 

When metacommunication steals the show

A lot of focus is put on the words we use when communicating, but metacommunication (nonverbal or written cues) associated with any message also impacts its effectiveness. In fact, an entire conversation may be going on beneath the surface of what we intend to communicate. 

For example, when we send a message—the time of day or day of the week—can cause different interpretations among recipients. Did we send it first thing in the morning, late at night, or over the weekend? Are we having the conversation within the context of a specific project or did we engage out of band using a different platform?

For verbal communications, things like our tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions also carry meaning that either enhance or distract from the words we say. Additional contexts should also be considered, including whether we’re communicating with an individual, a group, a large audience, or even publicly. How and when we attempt to communicate plays a significant role in how well information is understood by the people who need it.

Understanding metacommunication is important for improving overall communication skills. It’s impossible to improve the effectiveness of our communications without the capacity to understand how communication works, including the elements that can affect the meaning of what we say.   

Choosing the right communication channel

The tools we use to communicate and the context in which we send and receive messages influences how other people process that information. In 1964, Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan first proposed that a medium itself carries meaning. Certain communication channels used by developers carry inherent or assigned messages, such as PagerDuty for incidents needing immediate attention or GitHub where input is solicited from private or public groups.   

When choosing which communication channel to use, there are several things to consider. First and foremost is your audience. Are there personal circumstances, such as blindness, deafness, or a reading condition that need to be considered? What about language barriers or cultural norms? All these things matter just as much as what you eventually say. 

Additionally, the inherent characteristics of communication channels dictate whether they’re advantageous to use in certain situations:

  • Synchronous vs. asynchronous: Do you need an immediate response or is it helpful to give others more time to process and respond to the information? If you’re not currently communicating with the recipient, is it worth interrupting what they might be doing right now? 

  • Written vs. verbal: Written communication can lack important context that helps others understand your meaning, particularly when it comes to complex ideas. Verbal discussions also give you an opportunity to confirm in real-time that everyone is on the same page. On the other hand, documentation is a critical part of good project management communication. 

  • One-to-one vs. one-to-many: How many people need to understand the same information? Do they need it at the same time or in a specific sequence? Thinking about this early, and taking time to conduct communication planning in project management, can save you headaches down the road when you need more people to take action.  

  • Concise vs. comprehensive: How much context do you need to provide within your message? Short instructions don’t need lengthy emails, but a curt message on Slack without sufficient detail can be easily misinterpreted. Either way, when using written communication, be careful to avoid stream of consciousness, which can distract or dilute a message. Get to the point quickly and don’t ramble on and on.

  • In-band vs. out-of-band: How important is it that the communication happens on the same platform or inside the same context as the work itself? Commenting on a Phab ticket, for example, permanently documents important information directly to a task. In contrast, a traditional doc outlines how tasks are assigned or how decisions are made.  

  • Search capabilities: Finally, how easily do you need to be able to locate specific messages in the future? Some channels have better retention or search capabilities for when you need to revisit a discussion later. It’s possible you may need to use multiple channels to combine the benefits of verbal communication and searchable written messages. 

When you don’t have control over which communication channel to use, it’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of the one you have to use so that you can optimize communications for the desired outcome. For example, your organization or project may have a cultural norm or policy for using Slack for team communications, but many people experience notification fatigue on Slack and turn them off. Or your message may be perceived with an inaccurate level of urgency due to the immediacy of Slack alerts. In this case, it’s helpful to provide context within your message such as labeling it urgent or non-urgent, or assigning specific SLAs to different Slack channels so everyone knows where urgent messages can be found. 

No matter what, never initiate communication with “hey!’ or “we need to talk” without additional information in the same message. Research shows that many people respond to the ambiguity of these messages with anxiety levels similar to being chased through a dark alley at night.  

Pro Tip: Regardless of which communication channel you choose, it can be helpful to briefly explain your choice in your message. For example, “I’d like to set up a video call so we can talk through the complexity of the issue without delay,” or “I’m reaching out over email so you can respond at your convenience.”

It can take time to internalize this way of thinking about communications. But if you think about the above points before each output you send, you’ll quickly find yourself communicating more clearly and effectively.

After leading security, privacy, and engineering communications at Uber, Melanie founded Discernible to help even more organizations adopt effective communications strategies to improve technical communication and risk-related outcomes. She coaches executives and engineers to cut through internal politics, dysfunctional inertia, and meaningless metrics in order to build relationships and influence beyond their immediate organizations. 

Additionally, Melanie is the press department lead for DEF CON, the world’s largest hacker con. She is also a certified rescue scuba diver and brings to her work many lessons learned preparing for and navigating unexpected, high-risk underwater incidents. 

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