October 6, 2021
Every day, thousands of communications bombard us. These range from a short tweet to lengthy memos. How do you ensure your communications have the optimal impact and give the recipient the correct information in the format she wants?
You may think everyone, including yourself, is doing this. But many don't. Many attorneys communicate in ways that are not impactful or effective. They are losing a valuable opportunity to brand themselves positively and create a meaningful connection. Here are three ways to make sure your communications are hitting the mark.
Knowing your audience entails asking them what their goal is. To understand the client's purpose, you need to ask and listen, and this is not just a surface comprehension.
It is not enough to know that they want to understand the legal and business ramifications of a contract provision or the factual information to brief the CEO. You want to know:
By understanding the goals, you can appropriately frame the information. Investing your time upfront will reap benefits, as you are on the same page and understand the endgame. It also lets you foresee any potential reactions or follow-up questions and address them early on.
Knowing the goal and its impacts and referring to them, signals you have a commercial approach. Doing this often raises the clients' confidence.
Knowing your audience also means understanding with whom you are communicating. Is it a detailed-oriented CFO, a big-picture CEO, the board, a corporate counsel, or a general counsel?
Each of these requires different levels of detail. Generally, the higher up in the food chain, the less detail is preferred in the communications.
However, individual preferences vary, and it makes sense to ask. Nothing is worse than crafting a five-page memo only to be told that the person just reads one-page emails consisting of bullet points. Often, as in-house counsel, I wanted a short email or note, and not a lengthy (and costly) memorandum setting forth facts and the question presented - which I already knew.
If possible, find out those communication preferences and ask for feedback. Whenever my clients or my reporting chain changed, I reached out about their preferred communication style and, later, requested input. It is better to find out earlier rather than when the bill arrives or at performance review time.
You should make sure that the bottom line is easily accessible in both oral and written communications. It is best if you lead with the bottom line and then provide more detail. You don't want to bury the headline in your communications. People do not want to look for the answers - they want them upfront.
When in doubt, shorter is better, and take out every extra word before you hit send. And you should do the same editing process for oral communications.
Remember, Mark Twain said, "he did not have time to write a short letter, so he wrote a long one instead." Editing is your friend. Clear and concise communications are the most impactful.
In oral communications, take the lead from the person receiving the information about the level of detail needed. I have seen many businesspeople disengage when the accountant or attorney (whether inside or outside) is in the weeds.
If they disconnect, you risk that they will not have the information they need to make an informed decision. If you are an attorney in discussions with business people, don't cite cases or go through the nuisances of legislative history.
Missing deadlines signals that you believe that you are more important than the client and will adversely impact any efforts to build a trusting relationship. If you promise that you will have a document or an answer to someone at a set time, then do it, or if you can't reach out, apologize and say when it will be there (and make sure it will be).
This is true whether you are at a firm or in-house. And I can tell you as an in-house counsel, my business partners expected (aka insisted on) timely responses.
Make sure that you build in times for the recipient to follow up with questions or comments. As a client, I cannot tell you how many times I received documents late and scrambled to find time to review them.
And I am not alone. Every new corporate counsel I hired was shocked by the high number of missed deadlines and told me they never did this to a client when at a law firm (and I had my doubts about this, of course).
Being an exceptional communicator can set you apart from others. At its essence, it requires understanding your audience, being clear and concise, and exceeding your recipient's expectations.
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