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What I’ve Learned about Communication

I’ve learned as much about communication as I’ve learned about code since working at Alley (we’re hiring), a fully distributed digital agency. Since we all work remotely, communication happens using Slack and Zoom on the computer. While these tips outlined in this article certainly stem from things I’ve learned while working remotely, these are in no way limited to just a remote workplace.

1. Be Extremely Specific. Ambiguity is the enemy.

This particularly applies to when you are asking questions. If you need information, make sure you provide all of the information you’ve got. If you are vague, you may get the wrong answer. This wastes time, and you just have to ask again.

This specificity also applies when choosing WHO to ask. Seriously, ASK A SPECIFIC PERSON! If they aren’t the right person, they will point you to the right person. But don’t just talk to the general crowd and hope that the right person will see your question!!

2. Ask Twice

Assume that for any question you have, you may have to ask it twice. Obviously this is not ideal (See #1), but also do it if necessary. If you don’t get an answer, ask again, because if it was worth asking one time, it’s worth asking twice. I’ve found that the chances of getting an answer the second time you ask are much higher. People feel bad that they didn’t respond the first time, and usually the second time you’ll get a quick answer.

3. Think about your message from the receiver’s point of view

Imagine yourself as them, and change how you say what you need to say, so that it’s easy for them to digest and respond.

For example, when I’m speaking to other software developers, I include a lot of technical information, because that can help achieve a shared understanding of the situation. However, if I’m talking to a client who isn’t technical, I’m not going to talk about those technical details. If they ask, I’m prepared to go into technical detail, but usually people just want to know “how does this apply to me” or “what does this mean for the timeline” or “what do we have to do next”…. that kind of stuff.

4. Talk about what’s important to them

You may be coming to the meeting with a concern about the server load or about the time it’s going to take to refactor the code. THEY are probably coming to the meeting worried about something else entirely. What is on their mind? How can you best address those issues? Most likely, the refactoring has to be done but do you have to talk about it? Or can you just say “This part of the software is complex, so we’ll need double the time for this ticket, and it will get done by next Friday.” Now they have an expectation for the timeline and you have the time you need to do the refactor!

Linnea (me) Taking a Photo

5. A Picture (Screenshot!) Really is Worth a 1000 Words

Don’t let your Slack chat window fill up with WALLS of text! Add some photos! Seriously, a screenshot showing what you are talking about is well worth the extra few minutes.

People don’t read (everything). Sometimes, people just skim. Pictures stand out.

Also, it can take a lot of words to explain something. A picture is easier.

6. Use Timezones to your advantage

You can expedite work by handing it off to the software developer that works in a different timezone.

Being on the Pacific Coast, I’m 3 hours behind my NY colleagues. I generally work later in the day than them, and they work earlier in the day than me. If there’s a particularly important ticket, I can hand it off to them and they can get started on it before I come into work.

If you have people that are more than a 3 hour difference in timezones, this even makes more sense. They can work on it all night while you sleep!

7. Ask WHAT questions

People generally will answer questions that begin with “What” with a lot of detail, which makes it easier to continue the conversation. “WHAT did you do over the weekend?” or “WHAT happened when you clicked on the link?” or “WHAT thoughts do you have about this?” These are inviting, open ended questions. Let them tell you what’s on their mind.

8. Always ask a question

This rule is most important when someone is reporting a bug. Asking a question shows interest and will get you more information. Even if you don’t need to know the answer, ask it anyway. “When did this start happening?” ….. for example!

Even if you think you already know the answer, ask the question. You may find out something surprising.

This also applies to meetings. ASK A QUESTION! It shows that you were listening.

9. Say hi

While async communication is important for remote work, being engaged with those who are present is super important.

Say hi. On a video meeting, saying hi also allows others to confirm that their sound is working correctly. There’s nothing like waiting until people start talking about the important details before realizing that your mic or headset isn’t working….

Say hi. In a large zoom meeting, it will bring your video to the top. You will be noticed.

Say hi. Smile.

10. It’s OK to repeat words

Repeat words because it’s better than not talking at all. It can also be the safe way to communicate. You don’t want to change words and cause a misunderstanding.

Also, just repeating back what they said and confirming that you understood it, is surprisingly effective. It shows that you were listening and comprehended their message. Don’t worry about being clever. Don’t think of yourself as tongue tied. Think of yourself as a good listener.

If you have time to plan what you’re going to say, like for a presentation or video recording, then yes, varying your words is great advice. But, when just talking in a conversation, if you end up repeating words or whole phrases, don’t worry about it. Keep your message simple and, even more importantly, stick to your word.

Books I like about communication

  • Steal the Show: From Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal-Closing Pitches, How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for All the Performances in Your Life (I’m reading this book right now!)
  • Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

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