I had a hard time writing this week's article. I was distracted by the events in the Ukraine. It's challenging to reflect on work challenges, when people elsewhere have more direct and serious issues in their lives.

This is an article about communicating concisely. Many people would interpret being concise as using few words.

"How did you deal with that underperformer?"

"They got better."

That's not being concise, that's being brief (and flippant).

What we want is to aim at communicating as many valuable points as possible, and only your valuable points.

Being concise has two major requirements.

  1. Understand what you're trying to communicate - This is harder than you would think.
  2. Only communicate with intention - Everything communicated should have a point.

What you're trying to communicate

Work backwards. What does your audience want to know? What do you want them to know?

If you're interviewing, you want to listen to the questions asked, and decide what the interviewer is looking to hear.

If you're writing a document, you need to decide what the purpose of the document is. Are you trying to get funding? Propose a decision? Communicate a new plan?

  1. Pull apart what the goal is. Clearly articulate (to yourself) the short list of what you want to achieve.
  2. Begin with the end in mind. Nail those points clearly without ambiguity.
  3. Fill in the details as necessary to support those points.

Interviewing example

Imagine you get the interview question, "Tell me about a time you disagreed with a co-worker."

Don't just start answering! They don't want to know about a time you disagreed with a co-worker. Seriously. So many people get lost in answering interview questions that they forget to figure out the point of the question.

If you listen to that question closely, you could probably figure out what the interviewer is actually listening for.

  1. How do you speak about those you disagree with? Are you able to empathize with your co-workers, even if you disagree?
  2. Can you clearly explain your opinion, and the other person's opinion? Do you understand both sides of an argument? You can't be a valuable participant in a complex debate if you don't understand both sides.
  3. How do you close out work disagreements? Do you try to win, or do you try to add value? Do you build up relationships or break them down?

In this situation, you'd want to communicate at least three clear things.

  1. I speak well about my teammates, they like me, and I respect them.
  2. I understand my point, and their points. Both points are totally valid. I just have reasons to believe that mine are right.
  3. When work disagreements end, both sides are content to proceed, even if my opinion didn't get chosen. I fully buy into any decisions so that we can deliver results.

Now that I know what I want to communicate, I can compose an answer which clearly communicates those points.

1. "I had a disagreement with my primary product partner, while I owned the technology. They had excellent product skills, and often had great technical insights."
2. "They wanted to do X, and I wanted to do Y. Here's why they believed X was a good idea. Here's why I felt that Y was a good idea."
3. "We had to make a decision. While I felt that Y would turn out better, it was important to move forward, so I suggested we could proceed with X, and measure the results. They agreed, and we began the rollout."

You can think of what details you could fill in which would add additional value to the story.

1. "As the discussion got heated, I wanted to ensure we maintained a good relationship, so I offered that we continue the discussion over lunch together. Sometimes I find that getting out of a conference room helps calm a situation."

Demonstrating a mechanism you have to build respectful relationships.

2. "To help choose which option would work out best, I asked our research partner to test both options with customers to determine if either was more favorable to customers."

Demonstrating that you were fairly evaluating both options. You cared about getting to the right answer, not selecting your answer.

3. "After X ended up failing, we pivoted to Y. While it was my original proposal, there was no way to know that I was right at the beginning. We had valid reasons to believe that X could work. I think making the group decision was the right one."

Reinforcing that you're fully bought into the group decision, and that your decision being right or not is not as important as getting to the right answer in the long run.

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