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You talking to me? Basic communication

 I read a lot of e-mail. I go to a lot of meetings. I read a lot of code and specs. I go to a lot of reviews. I read a lot of white papers. I go to a lot of presentations. Aside from getting the life sucked out of me, I’ve realized something: most communication is a terrible, tragic waste of time.

That’s surprising because the principal difference between junior and senior engineers is their impact and influence. Because everyone is smart around here, the primary driver of impact and influence is strong communication skills. You’d think people would get it right. Of course, I think that about most things.

I’ve railed against long meetings (in The day we met), poor specs (in Late specs: Fact of life or genetic defect?), poor spec reviews (in Review this—Inspections), and unfocused presentations (in Controlling your boss for fun and profit). Yet, communication is incredibly important for collaboration, growth, and teamwork. Surely between the days of ancient Egypt and now, people have learned how to effectively converse. But where is the evidence? Our e-mail and meetings are bloated and pointless, our code and specs are indecipherable and inadequate, and our white papers and presentations are self-serving and self-indulgent.

Eric AsideNaturally, I’m overstating the problem again; there are many examples of great communication both inside and outside of Microsoft. However, if raising the alarm means more concise e-mail, clearer specs and code, more engaging presentations and papers, and shorter meetings, I’m all for it.

Why? What’s so hard? Where is the source of the problem that takes what precious time we have and fritters it away so carelessly? After many years of contemplation, I believe at last I have found the answer: people aren’t thinking enough about me.

Think about me

Yes, people aren’t thinking enough about me, the receiver of their mammoth, malformed musings. What is everyone told the first time they write a paper or prepare a presentation? Consider your audience. It’s elementary, yet we still have severe signs of self-serving spew. That’s because while people do think about me, their audience, they don’t think about me enough.

Traditionally, considering your audience has meant understanding who they are and what they know so you can target your communication appropriately. However, apparently that’s vague and insufficient. Here’s a concise, complete list of what you should consider about me:

  • What do you want from me, specifically?
  • When do you want it from me? Do I have a prayer of meeting that?
  • Why should I care? Will I pay attention long enough to even listen?

Eric AsideFor this entire column on communication, I’m using “me” to stand for your audience, however large or small it might be.

Tell me what you want

Good communication starts with knowing what you want from me—not what you want in general—I couldn’t care less. What do you want from me?

Does that sound callous? Heck no, it’s as open, respectful, and honest as you are likely to get. We all have hopes, dreams, and ambitions. It would be fun to discuss yours and mine over beers sometime, but right now I’m at work and I’m busy, so try to stick to the point.

Do you just want to keep me informed? Save it. If your information doesn’t have a purpose, then I don’t need to hear it. You say it’s important that I know? Why? What actions do you want me to take later based on the information? How should I use it?

Seriously, what do you want from me? If you don’t know, then I certainly don’t. And if neither of us know, then we’re just wasting each other’s time.

Put what you want up front, in the first few lines, the first few slides. Be clear, not bashful. Use bold and my name to highlight what concerns me. I really want to care, but I can’t until I know what to care about.

You want it when?

Do not bother asking me for something I can’t provide. It’s insulting to me and useless to you. I charge big money for miracles, so seek them elsewhere. Don’t only think through what you want, think through when you want it and what impact that time frame has.

Sometimes your time frame is long. In that case, don’t ask too soon because you’ll only have to ask again later. For e-mail, I can simply delete pointless requests; but premature meetings, specs, code, and presentations can really cost me time, not to mention all your wasted effort.

Sometimes your time frame is short. Don’t pretend it isn’t. I don’t mind people asking me for favors, I just mind them taking me for granted. Know when the ask is big and appreciate it when people come through.

Sometimes your time frame is a mystery. If you don’t say when you want it right up front, you might as well have not asked in the first place.

Got a short little span of attention

Now that you know what you want from me and when, how about we stick to it? Let’s face it. People’s attention spans are short and I’m no exception. You need to grab my attention and keep it till I both understand what you want from me and I care enough to actually help you.

Here are techniques for grabbing and keeping my attention and for making me care:

  • Be concise. Provide essential context, but get to the point. Don’t let my mind wander. If it’s e-mail, put everything in the first three lines (the ones that appear in auto-preview). If it’s a meeting, make it short with a small agenda. If it’s code, keep the function on one screen. If it’s a presentation, use one slide per concept and only provide details I care about, not what you care about.

Eric AsideAn example of “put everything in the first three lines” of an e-mail: “Mr. Galt, though you make good points, your last few e-mails have been overly long. Please shorten your communication to a paragraph or less by next week.”

  • Be focused. Stick to the point. (Note the “die” in digress.) Stay on the agenda. Invite only those you need to a meeting, and include only those you need on an e-mail thread. That means don’t “Reply all” without editing down the list. Keep function code, white papers, specs, and presentations coherent. If you are taking me down a path or building up to a climax, it had better be worth it. Just know what you want from me and be singularly focused on it.
  • Be simple. If I have to squint or read it twice and your name doesn’t rhyme with “fates” or “calmer,” then your cause is lost. Three bullets per slide, five pages per paper, one idea per function, one decision per e-mail, and one feature per spec. Use pictures and stories; pretend I’m five years old. If you can’t explain it to a five-year-old, then it’s doomed to failure and isn’t worth my time.
  • Be organized. E-mail should read like a news article, with the overview and ask up front, followed by detail as needed. Longer documents should tell a story or follow some other familiar pattern. (Steal from good examples.) Meetings should have an agenda. Presentations should tell me what you’re going to tell me (outline), tell me (tight slides), then tell me what you told me (summary). Dull? Only if you make it that way. Add zingers and funny pictures, and be passionate and playful, but stick to the structure. There’s a reason why we have these story patterns—they work.
  • Be respectful. Don’t ask obvious questions that anyone with a web browser could answer. Anticipate objections and questions, and respond to them before they are raised. Don’t pretend you know something that you don’t, especially laws and patents. If you don’t know, say, “I don’t know.” Choose your words carefully when communicating directly to customers, competitors, executives, and people who may be feeling a bit emotional. When presenting, don’t go over your allotted time and do leave time for questions. Don’t read your slides, and don’t tell someone they asked a good question—I can read for myself, and my question was just as good.
  • Be smooth. Use proper grammar and spelling. Have someone review your e-mail, particularly if it’s sensitive or if you are, let’s say, emotional. Use clear variable names and common terminology. Practice your speeches—it’s a physical activity. Take steps to relax before you present. There’s no presentation hall without a bathroom—use it for quiet time and mother nature, then focus on what you want from me and make me believe. At the end of your speech, conclude clearly with, “Thank you, any questions?” and accept the applause you richly deserve.
  • Serve me. Communication isn’t about you. You already know what you know. Communication is about me, your audience. Tune your message to my concerns and the type of information I care about. If I ask for data, give me the facts and spare the stories about your grandma. If I have a “bad feeling” about your idea, then skip the data, show me a demo, and have your grandma reassure me. If my boss won’t like it or it doesn’t fit our process, then convince my boss or change my process and stop wasting my time. Remember, different people are convinced in different ways and care about different things. For more pointers, read my column, Controlling your boss for fun and profit.

Are we done?

Communication is a big subject, and I’m covering a lot of ground here. Take your time, practice your communication skills, and get good at them. Microsoft is full of smart people like you. To truly differentiate yourself, learn to communicate effectively.

Thank you, any questions?

Eric AsideAnd thanks to Jim Blinn, for his advice and closing line from “Things I Hope Not to See or Hear at SIGGRAPH.” (You can find an excerpt at

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