Recently I offered suggestions — aimed at Gen Xers and Baby Boomers — for improving communication with millennials. Here is the promised corollary version: Guidelines to help millennials communicate with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.
It’s Not About You
One of the most important things you can do when communicating — whatever the medium — is to consider the preferred communication style of your audience. Adjust your format, style and tone to best fit the situation. The preferences of your recipient trump yours.
Tips for Talking to Your Elders
Individual preferences differ greatly. But some broad assumptions can be made based on age and generational experiences. So, taking into consideration the communications norms of your senior clients and those in positions of power, here are tips to ensure you get heard clearly and well.
Don’t Be Tone Deaf
In general, strive to be a little less casual and a little more formal than you might ordinarily be. Be friendly, but not familiar. “Hello,” or “Good morning,” are better choices than “Hi.”
Use the Right Medium
Not everything is suitable for a text message, though texting is handy and quick. Which medium should you use?
In person. Face-to-face works best when there is likely to be a dialogue or multiple exchanges of information. It’s also the best choice (when feasible) for emotion-laden conversations. Remember, 55 percent of communication is visual; 38 percent is auditory; and only 7 percent of meaning is conveyed by words themselves (Source: Albert Mehrabian, UCLA). Knowing this, you can understand why email and text (and even phone calls) can’t always properly convey your thoughts.
Telephone. When talking in person isn’t an option, phoning is a good choice for extended conversations and situations where emotion may be at play.
Email. A powerful tool when used appropriately. More about email later.
Text. If your client or colleague has texted you, assume they are comfortable with texting. If not, it’s better to avoid it in most business settings. If you are texting, don’t use emoticons or abbreviations. Keep your text professional and precise. “I’m running five minutes late.” “I’ve sent you an email responding to your questions.” And not, “RU here?” or “IDEK!” Finally, even when texting, typos don’t work in your favor. Read your text before you send it.
More and more, email is the mode of formal communications, so keep your tone and format professional.
- Subject line. Use an informative subject line, and change it when the subject changes. In some instances, it’s helpful to indicate what the reader should do, and when.
“Anderson Project — Would you please read and respond by tomorrow at 9 am? Thanks!” or
“Anderson Project — For your information. No response necessary.”
- Use a greeting and closing to avoid seeming abrupt. “Hello Ms. Roberts,” or “Good morning,” are better choices than “Hi!” “Dear Ms. Roberts” is a bit stilted. Close by thanking the reader (when appropriate) and saying “Best regards” or “Warm regards” or something similar.
- State your purpose clearly and get to the point quickly (although some small talk is fine, for example, “I hope you had a great weekend.”) Emails should be precise and concise. If you need multiple paragraphs to get your point across, email isn’t the right medium.
- What next? Convey the action step you want the reader to take. If no action is necessary, say so. “I’m sending this to keep you in the loop. No action on your part is required.”
- Proofread! You must read your email carefully before sending it. Make sure your tone is appropriate and that there are no typos or grammatical errors. Autocorrect is not always your friend. When possible, print your email (or any other document, by the way) and read the hard copy.
Clarify and Confirm
Whether you are being given an assignment or giving one — and in most other cases — it is a good idea to confirm what you’ve heard or check what your recipient understood. Here are some examples:
“Just to clarify, my understanding is that you want a polished draft from me by Friday at 3. Bullet points are okay. This shouldn’t take me more than an hour, and if I have questions or I’m having a problem, I can circle back to you. Did I get this right?”
“So that I can be sure that I was clear in expressing myself, would you mind telling me what you understood me to ask you to do?” (For use in communicating with those you supervise or are giving an assignment to.)
“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today. My understanding is that we agreed to [set out the details of your understanding].”
Trust Your Gut
Finally, when in doubt, don’t. If you have to ask yourself (or someone else) whether you’ve been clear, don’t send your correspondence until you are sure. If you think you might be too informal, you probably are. Just as when packaging your physical self, it’s better to be a little overdressed than under-dressed — and better to be a bit more formal than absolutely necessary.
The best of all possible worlds is one in which you perfectly match your communication style and format to the situation at hand.