Do you have to personally escort colleagues to your project meetings to make sure they show up? Does every “urgent” e-mail require a phone or face-to-face follow-up to get a timely response? Do you have to hound your marketing partners to prioritise your products when they’re launching new campaigns? When we’re all constantly bombarded with e-mails and Outlook invitations, it can be tough to get your colleague’s attention when you need it. It’s important to cut to the chase and make crystal clear what you need your colleagues to do, when, and, perhaps most important, why.
When you frame your message effectively, your audience will immediately understand the issue at hand and why it deserves their attention.
Whether you’re making a presentation, sending an e-mail, or talking in private with your boss, here’s how to craft your message to get the results you want:
1. Start with what you want. Busy colleagues don’t want to wait while you build to the punch line. Provide the most important information up front and ask for what you need.
Example: “John, I need your advice about the product launch. I’ve gotten some new marketing data that may influence which message we lead with. I’ve come up with two alternatives, and I’d like your help deciding which to go with.”
2. Set the scene. Don’t dive too deep into details, but provide enough context so your audience can follow along.
Example: “To refresh your memory, the event we have planned is a question-and-answer panel on how to connect with today’s modern moms. So far we’ve got five participants signed up to speak, including the CEOs from two of our top customers. Our goal is to reach as many marketers in the New York area as we can. We’ve sent out 2,500 invites and the initial response has been positive.”
3. Explain the complication. This is the specific reason for the meeting or your e-mail. What prompted you to deliver the message?
Example: “As of today, the vendor is two weeks late with the prototypes. If there are further delays, we risk missing the deadline we set with the marketing team. We are somewhat stuck because the vendor knows we can’t start over at this point with someone new. We need to figure out how to motivate the vendor and adjust our schedule so we can meet marketing’s deadline.”
4. Connect to the big picture. Why should your audience care? Point out what is relevant to them and how it links to their broader goals.
Example: “While eliminating the call checklist may seem like a small issue, it has important implications. It will encourage reps to engage with customers in a more informal way, which has been shown to increase customer satisfaction. This is a critical step toward meeting our unit’s goal of 65% customer retention.”
5. Make it memorable. People hear news and information all day. Give them something to latch on to such as a metaphor, a key statistic, or a sound bite.
Example: “Our customers feel this is an urgent issue and have told us so repeatedly. The longer we wait to respond, the more it will seem that the house is on fire and we’re busy rearranging the furniture instead of calling 911.”
6. Refocus your audience’s attention. It’s easy for audiences to get distracted by secondary issues, so you must help them concentrate on the central objective. This is especially useful when you need to keep a large group on track or motivate people toward a common goal.
Example: “Susan, I see that you’re concerned about getting the templates to design by our agreed-upon deadline. We need to make sure that happens. But let’s agree on the right approach first—to be sure we’re handing off a good product—and then we can work backwards to make sure we meet our deadlines.”
7. End with a call to action. Once you’ve set the context, reiterate what it is you need from your audience
Example: “Today I need to get your feedback on the presentation. I’d like to know specifically how we should tweak our high-level message to ensure it resonates with the leadership team.”
When you’re communicating with busy colleagues, you’re competing for their limited attention. To get your point across, follow the advice above. Otherwise, you may have lost their attention before you’ve even had a chance to make your case.
This article is excerpted from the HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across and was originally written by Amy Gallo who is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work, and full credit goes to the Harvard Business Review, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.