Insider's guide to clear communication

In this age of multi-channel communication, we need to be diligent about our communications because the consequences – be it at home, in the workplace or in the M&A environment – can be far-reaching.

By Robbie Taylor, M&A expert and former CFO*

My old waterpolo coach used to say there are two golden rules in waterpolo: Rule#1: always know where the ball is; and Rule#2: only ever pass to someone obeying Rule#1. Communication has so many similarities to passing the ball. Try to imagine the person with the ball as being the person wanting to communicate and the person receiving the ball as being the object of that communication. If you want to pass the ball you want to ensure that it gets through, that it is not intercepted, that it is passed in a way that the receiver can do something useful with it, that they are expecting it, and that they are competent to deal with it once received. This means that the pass has to be a good one, that you have to choose the right person to pass to, that the ball must be the right height above the water - too high and it will sail over heads - and that it must be passed at the right speed - pass it too hard and it will be dropped.

Far too often we communicate in a way that would be deemed a "bad pass". We use language that is ambiguous, we send group emails (which is like throwing the ball to everyone, it just lands in the middle and everyone stares at it), we communicate in abbreviated form, we try to use sesquipedalians (big words), and we use emails when a conversation is required - all of this when we should, in actual fact, be paying more attention to how we communicate given the far-reaching consequences thereof. In this article I will share some of my experiences and some practices that I have found useful.

Presentations

This tends to be one-way communication and your language and presentation material needs to be as simple as possible while still conveying the message. If you have complex information, consider sending it through beforehand so that the audience can work through it, and then use the actual presentation to clarify their thinking. When buying a business, it is important to understand the full extent of how the business operates and what its prospects and risks are. The investor presentations require time to digest, especially if the presenters do not help by using complex terms and long words!

Example: We were on a roadshow giving presentations to small groups of investors about our company and the schedule was both tight and onerous. We had a really good team, three of us from within the company and two of the sponsoring bank's employees, and we had a slick presentation that flowed well. During one of the presentations, one of our team used the word "contemporaneously", which was a big word for many of us and resulted in a few raised eyebrows. After the presentation, while we were pulling his leg, we came up with the idea of a "keyword". Just before we went in we would be given the "keyword" and would have to weave it into our presentations. This went well until the keyword was "hippopotamus" and when it was used in the presentation someone got the giggles, which soon gave way to full-scale laughter from all of us. We explained the joke to our potential investors and thankfully they all had a good sense of humour. They invested with us and for some time afterwards their emails would make obscure references to large amphibious African mammals! (Disclaimer: only do this at home!)

Meetings

Meetings are a pet-hate for many people and their bad reputation for being a waste of time is well founded. However, they are inevitable and, when well-structured, very effective. There are several key criteria for good meetings:

  • Discipline - all participants need to be disciplined enough to contribute only when necessary. Repetition of other points, going off topic, getting emotive, and offering illogical or ill-researched opinions are all unhelpful and should be discouraged.
  • Have an agenda and stick to it - meetings should only be convened when there is something to communicate or debate, and that item should be on the agenda, along with anything that is applicable. Have a place at the end for unforeseen items that should have been on the agenda.
  • Distribute pre-reading material well in advance so that all parties are in possession of sufficient information to make a good decision.
  • When trying to reach a decision allow a certain period of time for debate and then call a vote to move on.
  • Get the minutes drawn up and distributed as soon as possible or nothing will be done until the next meeting.

Example: We had an MBA graduate who must have finished top of the class for business jargon. He had the ability to speak for minutes on end without actually saying anything. Here is another example of how not to do it: "That is a fantastic idea, I love the joined-up blue-sky thinking that has gone into this, it gives me that 24-carat feeling. I think we need to take it over the finish line now. Those of you who have the bandwidth should take the strategic staircase to get a helicopter view and allow the relevant information to cascade to the rest of us. The resultant idea-shower will allow us to pick the low-hanging fruit so that we can look under the bonnet and kick the tyres. We shouldn't let the grass grow under our feet on this one, so let's get our ducks in a row, then put a record on and see who dances. I'm keen to run it up the flagpole and when we get a response we can square the circle before we go live. Well done team, great work and thanks for reaching out together on this one!"

Personal communications

There are so many aspects to communication: body language, facial expressions, tone and volume of the voice, hand and eye movements, and many more. All of these are lost in non-face-to-face communication such as email and short messages. Even on the telephone a substantial part of the communication is absent. This creates tremendous scope for miscommunication, even more so when the parties are not well known to each other, where tensions exist (very common in M&A), or when there are cultural or language differences.

My experience is that text messages are good and useful but that email is more comprehensive and a better way to communicate. That said, a telephone call is more personal, while the best way to communicate remains face to face. Active listening is the use of small gestures such as a nod of the head etc., and/or monosyllabic responses such as "yes" or "I agree", to show that you are listening and in agreement.

Communication is not good enough - it's like throwing the ball and hoping your teammate catches it. Good communication is what is required. Ensure that the message you are trying to convey is well received and well understood. Ensure your intentions, the reasons for your actions, your integrity, your good faith, and your empathy all form part of the content and delivery of your communications.