Strategic Communication

The strategic use of any communication involves making choices.  Effective communication can happen by dumb luck.  A person happens to choose the best type of communication for the situation, happens upon exactly the information the audience needs to hear, and winds up with a successful outcome.  Effective communication can also happen by following the rules, doing precisely what the boss or the audience asks for.  The communicator might not have a clue why or how the job should be done this way, but the outcome is nevertheless successful.

If the outcome is successful, what is the downside of being lucky?  Or of mindlessly following the rules?

The problem is that every situation is new; every communicator is trying to accomplish a unique goal and every audience wants and needs something slightly different.  The words that produced a lucky result one time might fail miserably the next.  The rules devised by one boss for one specific audience might be wildly inappropriate for the next company or the next client.

What's a person to do?  The effective communicator, over the long haul, must be a strategic communicator.   This simply means that choices are made in the selection of an action, and those choices are made to most effectively acheive a given goal.  An effective communicator doesn't just do the first thing that pops into his or her head, act out of habit, or take the easiet possible route.  Which is not to say that the first thing that comes to mind can't ever turn out to be the best thing, but....  Dumb luck is not a good thing on which to build a career.  

A strategic communicator should be able to answer four questions about every communication:

1. What is my goal?   Actually, there might be both short term and long term goals to deal with, and there might be multiple goals relating to different members of the audience, different members of the work team, or different business functions.  There might even be conflicting goals among various stakeholders in the situation.  The question is simple enough, but be prepared to deal with some very complicated answers.

2. What communication method is most likely to succeed?  Another simple question with potentially complicated answers.  What defines success, for instance?  Speed? accuracy? comfort level of the audience? cost to the communicator?   Further, communication tools differ in what they do well.  Email is fast and cheap, for instance, but not very accurate when it comes to conveying emotions.  It might even be rejected as "too informal" for some situations or some audiences, and thus completely ineffective at making a good impression.  If that were a more important goal than simply conveying information, the communication could backfire badly.

3. What content should the communication include?  Content includes not only the objective facts included in the words or figures of the message, but also the relationship information that is communicated with such things as word style, emotional tone, or document design.  Will the message seem like it came from a businesslike person?  a friendly person? an uneducated person? a disorganized person? a detail-oriented person?   These are easily the most important choices that need to be made, and often the most difficult.

4. Did it work?  Since there can be a certain amount of guesswork in answering questions 2 and 3, the effective communicator is also careful to evaluate results, looking for clues about the accuracy of those guesses.  A strategic communicator will set up a feedback loop to determine the success of every effort.  This might be as complicated as a marketing research survey or collecting customer satisfaction cards.  It could be as simple as paying attention to the non-verbal responses when you mention something to a co-worker.