CPA INSIDER

6 ways to be a better communicator

Keep your audience’s goals, not yours, first in mind.
By Hannah Pitstick

Being more thoughtful about the ways you communicate in the workplace can save you and your colleagues time, strengthen bonds with clients, and increase your esteem in the eyes of managers and colleagues.

One key to better communication is to consider what your audience wants and needs from your message, said Jay Sullivan, author of Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond and managing partner of business communication skills consulting company Exec|Comm in New York City.

"If you think about why what you're sharing is helpful to the other person, you're going to position your information differently," he said. "And you're going to do a better job connecting because you're going to be more insightful about how they need to use this information."

To help smooth communication in the workplace and improve your relationships with colleagues and managers, follow these tips:

Focus on the other person. Regardless of what you need to communicate, it's important to focus on what the other person wants and needs to know.

"When you're talking to somebody, you can talk about yourself, your content, or your audience — those are your only three options," Sullivan said.

But your listeners often aren't interested in you, per se, he said, "and they're really not interested in your content — they're interested in how your content affects them, which is different from the content itself."

With that in mind, Sullivan said, your goal should be to ask yourself the reason why the other person is communicating with you or listening to you and adjust your message accordingly.

For instance, he said, if you go in to talk to your boss and start with the words, "What I want to talk to you about is," you're really talking about yourself and what you want. Instead, he recommended opening with words like, "What I thought would be helpful to you," and thinking about how the information you're sharing can be helpful to your manager.

Start out more formal. In your first few emails to a client or contact, be slightly more formal in your language, said Eric L. Hansen, CPA, CGMA, chair of the AICPA and COO at BKD in the Springfield, Mo., area.

"I would err on the side of being more professional than the other end of the spectrum," he said. He noted that emails often are forwarded, sometimes to recipients you don't know, and so it's safer to sound precise and professional than too casual.

Add a personal touch to emails. It's fine to start your emails with a soft opening, said Kelly Mann, CPA, a former senior manager at Seim Johnson LLP who has now launched a CPA firm, Kelly Mann, CPA, LLC in Omaha, Neb. For instance, you can use a seasonally appropriate greeting such as "Happy holidays" or, if you haven't been in touch with the person you're emailing in a while, "I hope the past few months have been good for you."

"You always want to try and put a personal touch in there," Mann said. "You don't always want [your communications] to be 100% work; you want to make sure you can continue that relationship."

Keep it simple. When it comes to delivering a message, especially via email, the key is to keep it short, simple, and to the point.

"Your job isn't to impress me with your language; it's to make it easy for me to digest the ideas so that I can stay focused on your content," Sullivan said. "If you're ever worried about giving too much information, the way to avoid that is to give people the absolute bottom line, and then ask, 'What additional information would be helpful to you?'"

Minimize qualifying language. Sullivan suggested cutting wishy-washy language, such as "kind of," "sort of," "basically," and "essentially," from your communications.

"Don't say, 'I sort of looked at this,'" he said. "You didn't 'sort of look at it'; you looked at it; you did the research. When you minimize the qualifying language, you sound more confident with yourself, and if you're a junior employee, that's what you have to pump up, that sense of confidence."

Be yourself. At the end of the day, Mann's biggest tip is to sound like yourself.

"If you're not being yourself, it's going to be very clear that you're not being authentic," said Mann, a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. "People want other people to be authentic; that's how you develop trust."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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