Business communication: How to say what, when and where

performing team
Rachael Brown, HRM Online


written on November 5, 2015

Communication is reflexive – we speak everyday to family members, down through to the barista making our morning coffee. So while chatting might seem like second nature, effectively communicating in a business setting is another thing entirely.

A 2015 study from ZipRecruiter analysed 250,000 job ads from a variety of industries to find what employers look for in candidates. Motivation and ambition (12%), teamwork (19%), time management (21%) and education/degree (21%) all had honorable mentions, but the skill requested most by employers was communication – 51% of job ads asked for this skill by name.

Miscommunication in social settings can lead to arguments or hurt feelings, but at work the consequences of poor communication can be very serious. As Alice’s Mad Hatter eloquently put it, saying what you mean and meaning what you say are not the same: “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same as ‘I eat what I see’.”

There is no ‘one size fits all’ method of effective communication – we all have to wear many hats. However, here are some quick tips for the most common scenarios.


Whether it’s a report, proposal or an email, clarity is the most important characteristic of good business writing. Many think that long strings of important-sounding words make for big impact, but as Faulkner famously said about Hemingway, “Does he think big emotions come from big words?”.  

Simplicity doesn’t mean simplicity of thought – it means better expression through plain language. George Orwell says it best in his essay Politics and the English Language:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in fine print.
  • Never use a long word where a short word will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word or jargon if you can think of a plain speaking equivalent.

In reality, it’s hard to stick to this, but you can’t fail using common sense. A few rounds of read-throughs will help to eliminate at least some unnecessary language and bring your real message to the forefront.


Business presentations get a bad reputation, but a little preparation can make them less painful or even *gasp* interesting. Build a story around the information – rather than just throwing facts and figures on a slide – and give it context to make it relevant. Keep in mind who you are presenting for as well, and tailor the presentation so it speaks to them.

While you are presenting, speak to your audience and not the slides to keep the focus on them and your message. Project your voice and speak with confidence – chances are you are presenting on a topic because you are an expert on it. Additionally, it helps to have handouts for the audience to take with them, especially if there are any statistics, images or thoughts you want them to hold onto. Have a little time afterwards? Come prepared with a few questions get people to engage with the information.


Some situations call for a personal touch, and speaking with someone when there’s just two of you requires finesse. The purpose of these meetings is paramount – what do you want to get out of this conversation? Are they going through a performance slump? Are they being briefed-in for a special project? Going in with a clear goal and anticipating reactions ahead of time will help you be clear and concise when you sit down to talk.

As the conversation gets rolling, what they say should be as important as what you say. Speaking is one side of effective communication – listening is the other. It goes beyond hearing the words to include body language, tone, facial expressions and mood. Listening is the best way to know what employees are thinking and what problems could arise in the future. Once you’ve said your piece, let them speak, digest the information and then come back with open-ended questions to clear any corners.


If real estate is ‘location, location, location’, then team communication is ‘allocation, allocation, allocation’. One study found that the average loss of productivity per worker per year as a result of communication barriers is US$26,041. Another found that after surveying 100,000 companies internationally, employee misunderstandings accounted for US$37 billion in losses. Clearly, it pays to talk. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Encourage sharing, input and open dialogue between team members by allocating tasks to draw out contributions. Communicating in a business setting isn’t always inherent, either, so let team members know what good feedback looks like and what you want them to contribute.
  • Have managers lead by example – if you want employees to communicate with leadership and each other, make sure those at the top do it first.
  • Take advantage of any and all tools and resources available to you and your team. If your team is on the go, mobile technology can help individuals share informations or give status updates in real time.

Communication is the primary conductor of thought from your brain to your audience. If you only get one thing out of this piece, it should be to make every word count.

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2 thoughts on “Business communication: How to say what, when and where

  1. Just to add to what’s been said in this post, communication and language go hand in hand. Sometimes managers do not have an appropriate language to communicate effectively in their jobs. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychologists etc. have a language that they have been trained in to communicate. In many areas of their jobs, managers lack an appropriate language. For example, accountability can only be effectively managed with the langauge of “accept’ ‘decline’ ‘request’ ‘counter offer’ ‘deadlines’ etc.

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