ArticlesSeptember 23, 2015

Communicating with stakeholders should be like eating seedless grapes

I didn’t realize until I sampled one I accidentally bought seeded grapes at the grocery store. I warned my 7-year-old that his grapes had seeds, and he shot me a look like I had poisoned his food. It seemed extreme until I realized he had grown up in a world of convenience far more than any generation before him. He watched me sip my cup of coffee made in my Keurig® while making his lunch. Pulling out of the driveway, he watched me look at the backup camera on the dashboard of my new car. Of course, grapes with seeds seemed like treason.

Occasionally, something comes along that once you have it, you cannot imagine life any other way, like seedless grapes, DVRs, or the internet. Convenience isn’t so much innovation as it solves a simple problem in a way that helps you expend less effort. The reality is that we are spoiled because we live in a world designed for our convenience.
What that means for busy collaborative managers is that stakeholders (e.g., clients, partners, teams, shareholders, etc.) expect you to communicate with them in a way that conveniences them – not you. Since the expectation is that everything will be convenient, you don’t necessarily get extra credit for doing things right. Instead, doing it wrong can slowly scrape away at your credibility.

Below are three considerations to remember when communicating with stakeholders.

A clear, bold call to action in every message

We know crafting great emails to multiple recipients takes longer than individuals. This is partly because we try to throw everything into a single email. Professionals get so many emails every day they are guilty of scanning most and reading a few. When they review a message to multiple recipients with a few paragraphs –what you expect of them gets lost. If you send out a message and want people to do something in response (e.g., attend, read, contact, etc.), you need to spell it out clearly and include deadlines if applicable. There is nothing wrong with formatting the call to action differently so that the critical phrase is bold or a different color.

Minimize the steps required of them whenever possible

Even simple things – like agreeing on a meeting time – can be inconvenient when not thought out. When five people are trying to decide on a day/time to meet by email – everyone’s time adds up. If you can see everyone’s schedules, then pick a time. You can use a free tool like Doodle and reduce the time burden to 3 minutes per person. Everything you ask of them should involve the most minor steps possible; otherwise, they are less likely to comply.

Speak their language instead of yours

Who are you communicating with what information do they value receiving, and what do they skip (or prefer as attachments). If you are communicating with leadership or sponsors, I guarantee they only want the summary and key facts, and if they want more, they will ask for it. Don’t send them the behind-the-scenes, venting version of what is happening because they don’t plan on reading it, and sending it means it will take them longer to figure out what they need to know. Each group of stakeholders has different information needs, and it is worth taking a few minutes to discuss with everyone at the start of a project to figure out what that is so you can write convenient and informative messages. If you need help better targeting your messages to individuals, a new tool called Crystal adjusts the language in your email to the recipient based on past email patterns. The idea is both convenient and maybe bordering on creepy. (Note: I have not used this tool)

At the end of the day, convenience helps us work smarter. My single cup of coffee prevents me from drinking the pot, my car’s backup camera makes driving safer, and clear communication from my collaborative groups helps me fulfill my obligations without wasting my time.