Business Communication 101: What It Is and How to Use It
One of the easiest ways to improve profits and morale is to adopt an effective form of business communication. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Business communication is evolving as a result of today’s technology. While it isn’t as stilted as it used to be, maintaining a professional tone is still essential for creating the right image for your business. It is also about creating open and productive communication within the company.
The right kind of communication can make employees more productive, simplify processes, and improve the overall morale within a business. This article provides a crash course in creating effective verbal and nonverbal communication in your business to connect with your customers and to facilitate more productive internal discussions.
A Quick Definition
Most people aren’t going to ask “what is business communication,” because most of us think we know the answer. Unfortunately it isn’t as clear cut as we think it is. Before going any further, let’s make sure we know what is considered business communication.
The term business communication refers to any transference of information to promote the goals and objectives of a company, agency, or organization. This includes both internal and external communications.
This definition seems pretty straight forward, but it’s a lot more stilted than the way you would probably define it. Here’s a less formal definition.
Business communication is anything you do to relay information for a company or business.
The first definition is probably how you would relay business information in a professional environment. The second definition is more informal, and really less informative. In other words, the first definition is a more accurate depiction of business communication. We want to inform our readers of something important to our business – communication.
The Critical Nature of Business Communication
Although it may be hard to imagine, how you relay information – even internally – is critical for the growth and success of your organization. The essentials of business communication are simple, but are often overlooked.
The following are ways that your communication can negatively affect your business.
- Communicating without conveying any real information will make people less likely to pay attention to the message.
- Failing to keep employees informed almost always leads to high employee turnover. People simply don’t want to keep working for a company where there is too much uncertainty or too little informational sharing.
- Failing to coordinate a message can result in confusion and a loss of confidence, both from your clients and your employees.
- Using the wrong method of communication may keep people in the dark.
- Allowing people to “go with the flow” often results in missed deadlines and inconsistent products.
- Failing to offer processes and procedures for communication can result in too much or too little communication, information silos, departmental disagreements, and employee apathy.
Research indicates that 80% of employees look to effective internal communication to improve their performance. However, that communication needs to be effective. With so much relying on effective business communication for success it is vital that your business uses the best practices for your company.
Forms of Business Communication
Knowing how essential it is, let’s look at the different forms of business communication.
There are three primary forms of internal communications:
- Upward internal
- Downward internal
- Lateral internal
Upward Internal Communication
Upward internal communication refers to information relayed from a subordinate to a superior. This can include a wide range of input, including the following:
- Details on discussions or projects
- Reports and reviews
Communication is typically relayed in meetings and regular updates. Typically, teams and businesses have processes for this kind of communication. Market reports, charts and graphs about competitors, and white papers are common types of upward internal communication. It also includes emails, daily discussions, and other less regulated types of communication. That doesn’t mean this kind of communication isn’t important, it is just a lot harder to regulate since it is largely spontaneous.
Downward Internal Communication
This is communication that moves from a superior to someone in a lower position (not necessarily their own subordinates). It’s commonly referred to as managerial communications. Apart from the spontaneous discussions, most downward communication is in memos, letters, and directives issued in meetings. Most of these are also regulated, but it is more common that templates and guidelines are less clear than the methods used for upward communication.
Lateral Internal Communication
This is simply communication between coworkers. The communication can be between a group of managers or a meeting of subordinates working on a project. As long as the people communicating are of roughly equal positions, it is considered lateral. This is probably the most common and least regulated of the internal communication forms. Typically, lateral communication is almost completely informal, and occurs increasingly over instant messenger.
Lateral communication is absolutely essential, so it really shouldn’t be heavily regulated. You don’t want to discourage discourse. However, you do want to make sure it is effective and productive. The biggest problem with lateral communication is that it is often mixed with personal discussions. Coworkers talk in the break room or cafeteria about their plans for the weekend after discussing an upcoming deadline. The personal connection is important. It helps to build a better team environment. The best way to regulate this kind of chatter is to make sure that any decisions made informally are communicated to the rest of the team, when necessary.
Any information relayed to people outside of the company or organization is external communication. Whether you are communicating with customers, partners, suppliers, or contractors, it is considered external communication. Easily the most regulated type of communication, most businesses already take this very seriously. There are templates, forms, websites, and processes established to ensure external communication is consistent and effective. Customer service and sales/marketing are entire departments that revolve around this kind of communication.
Nonverbal Communication in Business
Body language and tone are the two primary forms of nonverbal communication. Some experts have hypothesized that these two forms of communication make up between 80 and 90% of how we get a particular meaning across. Yes – tone is considered nonverbal. While it does occur when you speak, it can be completely contrary to what you are saying.
Think about sarcasm – that is saying one thing and meaning something entirely different. Or the tone used by someone who is truly excited by a solution or new idea. People often complain that their tone didn’t come across in emails and text messages. That’s because tone is nonverbal. If you just have the verbal aspect – the words – you can lose a lot of the meaning. Relaying the right nonverbal cues is one of the most often dismissed of the business communication essentials.
Ways to Communicate
Technology has changed the way we communicate. Three decades ago, businesses communicated in person, over the phone, by physical mail, or by fax. In 2020, organizations now have so many ways to communicate that it can be overwhelming to try to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Most Common Methods of Communication
The following are the primary means of business communication:
- Conference calls
- Documents (including official documents, reports, and notifications)
- Forums (often used to facilitate internal discussions)
- Social media
- Surveys and reviews
- Web-based (including websites, chats, emails, and instant messaging)
Some of these means are specialized. Usually marketing departments maintain a social media presence. However, most of these forms of communication are used by most (or all) employees.
Determining Which Methods to Use
At a minimum, every organization needs at least a means of completing phone calls, conducting in-person meetings, establishing an online presence, having several social media accounts, and being able to create effective presentations. As of 2020, it can be argued that in-person meetings are no longer necessary. In its place, companies need to be able to conduct conference calls.
There are several factors that determine which forms of communication you need:
- The size of the organization
- The industry
- The nature of the work (are the teams spread across a small area or across the globe)
- Employee preferences
Everyone has their own preferred method of communication. As long as a business has the essential means of communicating, anything extra is based on personal preference. For example, larger businesses often benefit from having forums, especially if their teams are located in different time zones. However, if none of the teams use the forums, it is a wasted effort to establish them. Perhaps regular conference calls would be more beneficial. Ultimately, trial and error is the best way to determine what is right for your company (beyond the essentials).
Common Business Communication Mistakes and Their Solutions
Because there are so many ways to communicate, there is a lot of room for making mistakes. The following are the most common (and avoidable) mistakes businesses tend to make.
Too Many Emails
Problem: About 25% of an employee’s time is in managing their email inbox. Many of these emails are not relevant to them and don’t convey much information.
Solution: Have a process to determine what communications are required. For extracurricular activities or programs, allow employees to opt out of receiving emails. Sending emails about team specific activities, birthday wishes, and generic notices are usually just noise to most of your employees.
You can also provide employees with instructions to filter emails so that noncrucial emails go into designated folders instead of the inbox. When employees have time to review these emails they will, but those emails won’t become inbox clutter.
Problem: Research indicates that leadership communications can affect how apathetic employees are. Without regular communications, employees can feel they are working in a vacuum.
Solution: Establish regular communications about the current goals and projects within the company. Make sure that there is always something for every department to keep the emails relevant and informative.
Problem: Just as detrimental, if teams get too many unimportant communications, they are less likely to get essential information. Without regular cross-communication, this can create communication silos.
Solution: Eliminating unnecessary emails and other forms of communications will help ensure people pay attention to relevant information.
You also need to make sure that teams and departments are communicating when needed. Establish standup meetings to make sure teammates are talking and teams are communicating important information to the right people.
Reduced Employee Motivation and Productivity
Problem: Lack of meaningful downward internal communication decreases productivity. Employees feel unimportant, uninspired, and unmotivated when they aren’t sure of what the goal or purpose is of a project, goal, or mission.
Solution: If appropriate downward communication is provided, you can save employees from having to hunt for that information. On average employees spend over two hours a day looking for information, which means you lose over 10 hours of work a week per employee.
Establish repositories for information that are easy to navigate to provide important information. This will reduce emails to employees while giving them one place to find answers and resources. Exercise employee advocacy and facilitate discussions. This not only empowers employees, it provides motivation. When employees are motivated and engaged, innovation can happen. this can assist in taking the company in a better direction.
Lack of Communication for Remote Workers
Problem: Remote workers have traditionally been uninformed because teams and companies fail to invite them to meetings or send updates.
Solution: During 2020, this has become less of a problem, but making sure to loop all team members into the communication is essential for the best results.
Communication always needs to include remote workers. They should be a part of email distributions, all relevant meetings, and discussions.
There are several tips below that will help keep your remote workers in the loop.
Lack of Interdepartmental Discussions
Problem: Failing to facilitate communication between departments can stymie progress. There may not be much to discuss, but each department plays a vital role, so companies need business communication strategies to facilitate knowledge sharing.
Solution: Create communication strategies to ensure departments are communicating with each other as needed. Customer service should be connected to all of the departments to provide the best service. Interconnectivity is key, and should be in other departments too, outside of customer service.
Make sure that your R&D department, manufacturing, and marketing are all on the same page. This ensures marketing is properly selling what your customers have to offer. There are a few tips below to help you improve here since it is a pretty universal problem.
Lack of Customer Service Processes
Problem: Failing to have a process for customer service is one of the worst things a business can do. There should be processes for communication both internally and externally to ensure customers have a good experience.
Solution: Develop a process for working with customers. This process needs to include employee input because they will have a very different perspective on how to handle customers (and they’ll probably be right).
Encourage feedback from customer service so that you can react to technological changes, common customer complaints/concerns, and suggestions. All of these mistakes are easy to avoid, though the solutions can be significantly different.
Establishing Communication Policies and Guidelines
Policies and procedures can be annoying and time consuming, but they are instrumental in establishing business communication solutions. More than a third of employees feel that vital information is lost in too many unnecessary communications. Nearly a third feel that they are left out, giving them less understanding of what is expected from their efforts. Having policies and guidelines for communications will help significantly reduce those numbers.
Establish Communications Goals
One of the primary problems with team, department, or business communications is that the communications seem unfocused. Every communication should have a goal, and every organization should make sure that no communication goes to their staff without an obvious focus. By creating a goal for the different types of communication, you can ensure people get the most out of each effort.
Conduct Regular Communication Audits
Once you have goals, you can start determining how well your company’s communications do toward meeting those goals. The following are some of the signs that your communication is not as effective as it should be.
- Complaints from remote workers (lack information on something critical)
- Rapid growth resulting in broken or sporadic communications
- High employee turnover
- Negative reviews of the organization on job boards
- Frequently missed deadlines, lower quality products/services, and low worker output
Create an Organizational Chart and the Relationship between Departments
Most companies have organizational charts, but they don’t often consider how departments are connected. Every department should have at least a minimal relationship because they are all essential. How closely they should work together is related to how essential the information from one department is to the other’s success. This is easy for small companies, but will likely take a lot more time for large companies. Make sure to set aside time to fully explore the departmental relationships so you can create effective communication processes.
Create Templates for Regular Communications
Reports, presentations, memos, and other forms of documents may have significantly different information, but the structure for each of these types of documents should be the same. This helps people anticipate what they will learn by reading the document.
Determine What Kinds of Communication You Want to Use
There is a lot of communication technology. To keep your organization’s communications secure, you need to have approved and established communication tools. There is no right answer for this because every organization is different.
Make sure employees are aware or know which methods are approved. The goal is to avoid compromising company’s information. For example, if you don’t want employees accessing personal information using business equipment, you will likely need to establish a way for people to check their email remotely. This should be something that people know from their first day working for your organization.
Document All of Your Processes
Too many companies rely on tribal knowledge to follow a process. Documenting policies, procedures, and guidelines is just as essential for business communication as it is with any other aspect of your business.
Establishing the Right Nonverbal Cues
This type of communication isn’t something you can regulate, document, or manage. Nonverbal cues are often subconscious. Using them well requires being more self-aware.
This is a field that is constantly changing, and psychologists don’t agree on how best to approach this all of the time. However, there are some things that will help you be more aware of what you are saying through your body language and tone.
Nonverbal Cues Awareness
- Record yourself talking, if possible with people present. Go back and review your tone to see what your tone is saying that you may not mean with your words. Do this periodically to cull miscommunication through tone. You can also record a video of your interactions to help reduce the use of too many gestures or to ensure you don’t look too stiff when speaking. The goal is to be animated without being cartoonish.
- Maintain eye contact when addressing crowds, including during meetings. Try to include everyone in the meeting. If you are speaking publicly, make sure to shift your focus periodically. This gives off an air of confidence (even if you don’t feel it).
- Move during presentations and long discussions. If you stand still, it looks unnatural and can make people uncomfortable. You will probably need to practice this regularly until it is habitual.
- Pay attention to your filler words. If you always start to speak with something like “um” or “uh”, or clearing your throat, that indicates you are either nervous or are being condescending.
Over longer conversations, make sure you aren’t using the same word or phrase in a way that acts like a filler word. Words and phrases like “actually,” “virtually,” and “I don’t know” are often unnecessarily qualifiers that don’t add to what you are saying.
Technically, this is a verbal cue, but when it becomes a habit it is unintentional verbal communication.
Business Communication Tips
Previous sections provided more sweeping suggestions about what you should do to improve your (and your company’s) professional communication, but there are many small things you can do. The following are tips that can help you take baby steps to improve your processes.
- Meetings can be set up as a conference call when necessary. Even if all of the participants are likely to be in the office, someone who works remotely may be added to the meeting at the last minute.
- Establish email distribution lists and work spaces for teams and departments. All deadlines, documents, changes, and project information should be emailed or posted to ensure everyone has the necessary information. Team calendars are a good way to keep deadlines.
- Always consider time zones when establishing conferences and deadlines. Remote workers may not be in your time zone, so you need to pay particular attention to time.
Improving Interdepartmental Communication
- Host activities that help the departments work together. There are many kinds of activities that can help people work together. Parties and picnics are a great way to have people get together and just mingle.
Since some people are disinclined to “work” outside of business hours, you can let them participate in community events (such as environmental cleanups and park improvements) on the clock. This also builds your company’s reputation in the community.
- Establish forums and chat areas where departments can talk. Chat groups can help keep communication open, though you will want to provide some guidelines to keep the chats professional and on topic.
- Provide a site that will explain the jargon of the different departments. This will ensure they are able to more easily understand each other.
Don’t go overboard though. Legal and technology departments don’t need to explain everything – that would take up pages that most departments won’t read. Just make sure terms and ideas that other departments need to understand are provided.
Managing Technical Communication
- Always proofread and run spell check on all emails – even lateral internal emails. The more you ignore this detail, the more likely you are to make embarrassing mistakes when it matters.
- Silence your phone when you go into meetings. It’s not only disrespectful to the people in the meeting, it will reduce how effective the meeting will be. This can cause distractions in a meeting and make meetings longer unnecessarily.
- Keep texts short. If you find yourself typing out a very long email or text, it might be best to pick up the phone and call the recipient or set up a meeting to discuss the subject. A long email is as detrimental as an inbox with 100+ unread emails every morning.
- Is the meeting necessary? Determining if the meeting is needed. The format of the meeting is also important. Don’t hold a meeting if sending a couple of emails will suffice. Don’t wait until there is a problem to finally call a meeting either.
Standup meetings are a perfect example of a great virtual meeting that is highly effective. It keeps people aware of what the other teams or departments are doing without consuming too much time.
- If you are running the conference call meeting, arrive a few minutes early to begin the conference call.
- Always start on time. There are few things more frustrating than listening to people talk about personal stuff for the first 5 minutes of a meeting. If anyone is late, they can catch up from the meeting minutes.
Starting on time is respectful to the people who arrive on time.
- Keep people on topic. One of the reasons people hate meetings is that they consume a lot of time. Letting people discuss other projects or get off topic minimizes how effective the meeting will be.
The best way to address people talking about other projects or specific details that only a few people need to know is to kindly but firmly ask them to discuss it after the meeting. Let them know it is important, but that now is not the time.
Business communication is essential for the success of a business, but there are many ways to do it right. What works for your business may not work for others. This article can work as a guide to help you target improvements or to rethink your current business communication strategies. Yes, it can take time to get it right. But it will be much easier to start fixing it now than in a year or two when bad habits, disinterest, and negative impressions have made it difficult to change your business communications.