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Communication Confusion: How to Avoid It

May 29, 2014

We all want the important matters in our lives — for instance the way we choose to invest our money — to be flexible. So, when my investment advisor told me there was “flexibility” in the new financial program she’d created, I was pleased. I thought that by “flexibility” she meant that whenever I wanted to invest in a specific equity, I could pick up the phone and she would make that investment on my behalf.

But it turned out that to her “flexibility” meant that I had the option of making some specific choices within the structure of the new program. It didn’t mean I had carte blanche to call her to change my investments, or that my investments could be “easily modified,” to quote the Oxford definition of the word “flexibility.”

Yes, I admit it, I looked up the word while she and I were on the phone discussing the matter. Not, I should point out, to be a know-it-all, but because I genuinely believed that the word “flexibility” held a precise meaning. Of course it does; yet my investment advisor and I still had different interpretations of the word. 

When people don’t share the same understanding of a word it can lead to confused communication, the kind of confusion that can be frustrating. There are other reasons for communication confusion, of course, and you may find the list Sylvia Hepler posted on the “managing” blog insightful, as did I. 

But when it comes to written communication, which is a more controlled form of communication than a conversation, there are some key steps you can take to help avoid confusion, steps I’ve outlined below. 

The Language Lab’s Top Tips For Avoiding Communication Confusion

1. Less Is More: Be concise in business writing. Get right to the point. Avoid long, rambling, convoluted sentences.

2. Simple Is Not Stupid: Use plain language in business communication. Bafflegab or jargon can be alienating. (Note: the word “bafflegab” would not make it onto any list of plain language vocabulary choices!) 

3. The Reader Is Right: The retail industry is correct when it says that the customer is always right. Consider your audience’s abilities and needs first. No one cares if you can write at a PhD level if they cannot understand what it is you are expressing.  

4. Clarity Counts: Written instructions must be logically sequenced and organized. This is particularly true in technical writing, for instance in the creation of manuals. (As anyone who has ever tried to assemble furniture from such a manual knows!)

Whether you own a business or work for one, you probably know from first hand experience how communication that is confusing causes lost time. But the consequences extend beyond a momentary loss of productivity. They can include income or business loss, and damaged reputations too. 

And on a very human level, confused communication can lead to hurt feelings. That’s why, in the end, I took the time to look up the word “flexibility” as I spoke to my investment advisor. I wanted to make sure that we could reach a real understanding as we continued to do business together. I wanted to make sure that we understood each other — and ultimately, that’s what good communication is all about.

Have a look at The Language Lab’s online courses to find out how you can improve the clarity of your business communications.


Effective Business Communication: It's Not About You

May 15, 2014

Why, you might wonder do effective communicators, like great leaders, need to operate more like psychiatrists than surgeons in the way they deal with people. Ronald Heifetz, Harvard professor of leadership, points out surgeons focus on solving patients’ problems. They tend to impose solutions that don’t necessarily take into account the patient’s view of their approach. Psychiatrists, on the other hand, allow patients to find solutions to their problems. This model of leadership developed by Heifetz fits well with how we need to communicate in business with clients.

Just as being a great leader ultimately isn’t as much about the person doing the leading as it is about the collective power of his or her followers, being an effective communicator is also about those on the receiving end. 


This issue frequently comes up while coaching clients on their business communication. I find that some tend to get so wrapped up in their presentations, they actually forget about what’s key to their communication design — their audience! I have other clients, who write daily communications, e.g. emails, reports, and so on, with such haste that they leave out important information. Their assumption: the recipient will know what they mean or want. Unfortunately, the confusion this creates often leads to follow up emails and phone calls that result in a communication breakdown, and a loss of valuable time. 


So, how do you act like a psychiatrist rather than a surgeon when it comes to your business communication? Here are my three key tips to make sure it’s not about you. It’s about them!


The Language Lab’s Top Three Tips for Making it All About Them, [Your Audience]


1/ Always ask: What does my audience need to know? How can I help them acquire that knowledge? Once you’ve figured out the answers to these questions, you can then begin to construct your plan basing it on the best way to meet to your audience’s particular needs. 


2/ Never assume: Remember that tongue-in-cheek saying, “Never assume; it makes an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’”? Assumptions will surely get you in hot water. One manager with whom I’ve worked frequently left out key details regarding projects on which she was working, in her emails to clients and colleagues. The result: more messages going back and forth. When pressed as to why she did this, she’d say that she “assumed” that her recipients already knew the details, because they had been discussed at an earlier meeting. The problem is, as I pointed out to her, not everyone retains the same information or will know to what you are referring. So, never assume.


3/ Always consider: What are the key elements of effective communication when you’re writing or presenting? Here are my key three: 1.) Use persuasive language in a tone appropriate to your audience, 2.) Provide information and concepts your audience most wants, 3.) Grab their attention with a good hook, anecdote, or appeal — something that makes them want to hear or read more about what you have to offer.


If you’re a regular Language Lab blog follower, I am sure you already know that considering your audience is a topic I frequently touch on. I do this because a) what is communication if not an attempt to reach other people, and b) from a pragmatic, bottom line point of view, the consequence of not thinking about your audience is that time is wasted and money (and confidence in the communicator) may be lost. 


To take a leaf from the book of leadership training, in It’s Not About You, by Bob Burg and John David Mann, regarding lessons shared, a leader is only the steward of others’ dreams. A good leader, the book suggests, shares success with his or her followers. In other words: It’s not all about you!


To learn more about how to communicate effectively with your target audience, you can contact me at


Some Things Never Change

April 30, 2014

The world of business has changed dramatically over the past 25+ years that I’ve been involved in business development. It's changed even more since I started my training and development company, 9 years ago. Not only is there a boundless supply of information available to the consumer; the options for services, products, ideas, etc. are endless. And we can thank the Internet for making much of it possible. 

Social media too has changed the landscape of business and the world of work. It has transformed the ways we connect with each other. But, there is one thing that has never changed -- people do business with people they like and trust. And they like to buy, rather than to be sold. 

In my sales training programs, I always emphasize the importance of fully understanding a client’s needs before you make any recommendations. It’s only when you provide a solution for their problems will potential clients/customers make a purchasing decision.

A purchaser needs to trust and know that you will deliver what he/she needs before deciding to buy. Remember: Trust is key. It’s integral to building long term relationships. 

Purchasers want to work with people who help them reach their goals. They want recommendations; they want solution; not just options. They want trusted advisors. And it is your job as entrepreneur to determine how to build trust and rapport with each and every client/customer. So here are my recommendations for building trust.

Five Ways To Earn A Purchaser’s Trust:

Competence/Expertise (Product, Market, Competitor and Customer Knowledge)

  • Know your industry, your company, its policies, and procedures well. This advice might sound obvious. But I’ve seen situations become problematic because the information provided was inaccurate or insufficient.
  • Have a well-rehearsed unique selling proposition. Be clear on how your company, your product, your service is different from your competitors’. What are the advantages and disadvantages? And connect to the true value your client will experience from doing business with you.
  • Know how to address and deal with service issues. 

Openness/Honesty (Candor)

  • Successful entrepreneurs make sure that all information they present is credible. And if they don’t know something or have the answer to a purchaser’s question, they say so. They make sure to find out what that information is before getting back to the person.
  • Being transparent with my clients has resulted in an impeccable reputation.


  • Be reliable. Fulfill on your promises and only commit to what you know you can deliver. Under promise and over deliver! Thrill your customers.
  • Have integrity. Say what you can do and do what you say you’ll do!
  • Be dependable always! Be predictable. I still do cold calls and follow up calls. When potential customers/clients ask me to call back at a particular time, I do. And my consistency pays off. So often I hear how much they appreciate my dependability, my reliability, my predictability.


  • The way you handle sensitive or personal information sends a strong message about you and your organization’s trustworthiness and reputation.  Purchasers gage how much they can trust you by the way you protect other clients’/customers’ confidentiality.
  • Be thoughtful how you share experiences with other clients/customers. Avoid breaching their trust, and their confidentiality.


  • Purchasers want to deal with people they know and like, and with whom they feel a strong bond.
  • Be compatible. Be likeable. It’s critical to successful relationship building and it helps build trust.
  • And remember, first impressions count. Be authentic. Sincerity counts. The image you portray is important. Make sure it doesn’t come undone!

Although the world of business continues to change and little stays the same, connecting and building trust with potential and existing clients still is key to achieving the success you want. And meeting face-to-face, I believe will endure.

The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Cindy Stradling CSP: author, facilitator, professionally certified sales agent and coach brings 25+ years of practical hands on business experience to her work with corporations such as Canon Canada, Scotia McLeod, BMO, CIBC, Marsh & Mercer, etc. Cindy owns and operates Athena Training and Consulting providing training solutions to entrepreneurs, as well as to corporate clients.

Business Communication – When English Isn’t Your First Language

April 15, 2014

I’m often struck by how easy it is for two people to miscommunicate. One person sends an email that he or she thinks is a positive, thoughtful message; the person receiving it interprets the message otherwise and takes offense. Communication breakdowns such as this occur every day between people whose first language is English. So imagine the challenge for a person whose first language is not English. Trying to make yourself understood would be further compounded by a lack of a firm grasp of the English language.

I’m often hired by large organizations to work with executives who are highly skilled at what they do. The problem is that they’re frequently held back in their career by their inability to articulate ideas in writing — without sounding unintentionally humorous. Just the other day, I received an email message from a concerned executive who wrote, “It is required for me that I write and speak good English, but I am currently feeling a bit of awkwardness on my abilities.”

I’m not surprised she’s feeling “a bit of awkwardness.” It’s obvious from her writing that she’s having difficulty with prepositions, one of the more basic concepts of English language usage. But, she is not alone. I frequently find that people in her position mix up words such as “for” and “of,” or “on” and “about.” Using the correct parts of speech can be particularly challenging for people who do a lot of technical writing, or report and proposal-based work. A good part of their difficulty is due to their tendency to translate literally from their mother tongue directly into English. This practice makes for the awkwardness that results. But whatever the reason for a person’s challenges communicating in English, it’s important to have a plan to improve one’s language skills, if you want to be taken seriously and be understood.

The Language Lab Strategies for business communication when English is your second language

1. Get grammar: Ignore the ungrammatical nature of the title (“get grammar”), but follow the advice. You need to understand the basics of English language sentence structure. There are some good online resources, for instance the University of Ottawa’s Writing Centre.

2. Expand vocabulary: The simplest way to increase your vocabulary is to create a list of unfamiliar words, as you come across them. You’ll find your grasp of grammar steadily increases by using a dictionary and a thesaurus.

3. Embrace English: By this I mean; constantly speak and read in English, and listen to spoken English, as much as possible. (Just make sure you are reading and listening to grammatically correct English!)

4. Technique reminders: Once you understand your most common mistakes, create techniques to help you respond to situations that make you stumble. If you’re having trouble with possessives and you want to say, for example, “the coat of my dog”; turn it around and say, “my dog’s coat.” So every time you find yourself creating that construction (“the something of my something”) change it to the possessive.

5. Editing advice: My primary editing advice is simple:  edit, edit edit, and edit some more! Every important communication you write should be read and rewritten carefully. If at all possible, have someone whose first language is English read it.

Of course, all of the above advice sounds like a lot of work. And yes, it is! But the payoff, in terms of improving communication skills and being more effective in the work place, is worth it.

And if you’re looking for a fun way to improve your English language skills, try spending more time around the water cooler, listening to your colleagues and exchanging small talk. The brain has a way of translating what you hear into what you write. You may also want to have a look at 15 Ways to Improve Oral Communication in Business English for the same reason. Of course, you could consider taking a Language Lab course too. No need to feel awkward, just email me at info@thelanguagelab.

One Size Does Not Fit All: Communication in the Multigenerational Workplace

March 27, 2014

You’ve probably heard it before. Millennials (Generation “Y”) are self-centered. They lack the ambition of, say, the Baby Boomers, who’ve ruined everything for subsequent generations. As for Generation X? They’re self-pitying cynics.

There are so many stereotypes about the different generations that you really have to take them all with a grain of salt. But some are founded on credible traits. And understanding those traits can facilitate workplace communication.

The other day I attended a presentation on the multigenerational workplace, delivered by Violeta Jerinic. Some of what she said made me stop and think about how tricky communication can be when you have three or possibly four generations working in the same organization.

My profession involves a lot of thinking and talking about workplace communication. So I’m keenly aware of how easy it is for poor communication to cause offence in the workplace. But the multigenerational workplace has its own particular pitfalls. It’s important to get beyond the stereotypes, as well as to recognize some of the generally held concepts about communication styles within each group. Knowing this makes it possible to work more effectively with people who are not of your own generation.  

For example, when doing a presentation for Generation Y people, who have grown up in a digital reality, I would emphasize the following:

1. Communicate in short sound bites.

2. Communicate via technology, rather than on paper.

3. Emphasize visuals over text.

If you are an older person, working with younger colleagues, who may possibly find certain aspects of this arrangement frustrating, consider the following:

1. Learn from tech-savvy younger colleagues. They understand and are skilled in the latest technologies and social networking tools. Ask for help. People of any age like to share what they know.

2. Lead by example. You may find some younger colleagues who seem to lack thoughtful verbal communication. Be a mentor and recognize instances where younger colleagues can benefit from your patience and experience.

The fact is, when it comes to workplace communication, one size truly does not fit all. As a mature communicator, accept this reality and adapt your style to the circumstances. That’s not to say it’s always easy! Next time you want to get a Generation Y’s attention, don’t leave a message on voicemail that may be ignored; walk over and talk to that person. Demonstrate the value of face-to-face communication. Or go ahead and give in -- send that text. Chances are you’ll hear back -- right away.

Do you want to learn more about multigenerational workplace communication? Have a look at this article from Forbes: How To Communicate In The New Multigenerational Office.

You can also contact me to learn more about how Language Lab courses will help you improve your communication style. 

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