10 Essential Principles of Communication


October 04, 2021 - Sophie Thompson

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw.

The fact that communication is essential to all organisations and individuals requires no discussion. Good communication enriches our lives in countless ways. It creates and builds relationships and frames our responses and actions.

However, there can be a huge gap between the intention behind words, and the response they receive. There are also occasions when things are best left unsaid, or when poorly worded communications or bad timing lead to confusion, concern and misconceptions.

"The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation." - C. Northcote Parkinson.

There's a popular anecdote about a spoken command passed along the frontline in WW1. "Send reinforcements. We are going to advance." became "Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance."

It's an excellent illustration of the complexities of communication.

The ways individuals can "open their mouth and put their foot in it" are way too numerous. Making presentations and interviews are a minefield, or family gatherings the source of heated arguments!

Another example is a company marketing a product by explaining its appearance and function. Then, sales are low as consumers were only interested in its price and benefits.

You don't buy a bed. You buy a good night's sleep.

Organisations also need good internal communications to be unified and effective. Bill Gates referred to internal communications as a company's "nervous system".

Good communications demand not just words, but a diverse range of skills to make those words effective. So what are the 10 essential principles for effective communication?

1. Trustworthiness

"To effectively communicate, we must realise that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others." - Tony Robbins.

The central pillars of relationships in business are competence and warmth. If these are evident, we trust the information we are given.

To establish trust, you first need to do something that runs through all aspects of good communication. Decide who you are talking to, what they want to hear, and then what you want to say.

This also involves developing the goals of your communication. Is your intention to warn, educate, inform, influence, motivate, persuade or a mixture of these, for example? What outcome are you hoping for?

Consider your audience carefully to ensure your communications show competence and warmth, which then earns trust.

2. Active Listening

"The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said." - Peter Drucker.

To create trustworthy communications you need good listening skills. How do you know what messages to use, and what information is most needed, unless you understand your audience's questions, interests and concerns?

Active listening is not simply staying silent while others speak. It is giving full attention to what is being said. It also involves reading body language, assessing behaviours and using open-ended questions and prompts to gather comprehensive insights.

Good listening also requires being available and approachable when others have something to say!

3. Effective Speaking Skills

You can hold immense knowledge and understanding, and struggle to convey that in the spoken word. Oral communication should therefore be a process of lifelong learning, especially as you need to alter what you say according to differing intents, audiences and issues.

No matter what your role, there will be times when you need to speak with confidence, clarity and intent. Use the first principles outlined above, as a platform.

4. Good Writing Skills

Writing skills also involve considering your audience, intent and the best way to achieve the outcome you want. Plan everything you write, before you start. Whether it's an email to a colleague, a marketing brief or a report to your Board.

Colloquialisms and idioms can help you to connect with an audience in verbal communications but are rarely appropriate in written communications. However, that doesn't mean everything you write needs to be formal, highly structured and comprehensive.

Good writing skills – like good verbal communication – comes from being succinct and using language that your audience can connect to. Both require that you assess your audience's level of understanding – and the necessity of technical terms – if the subject matter is complex or requires context.

As an illustration, your organisation will have a corporate style for reports, there is an established format for media relations materials, and an email to a colleague can be more fluid and informal.

Evaluate audience and intent, the words most likely to achieve your outcome, and the format that matches the situation.

5. Good Reading Skills

Having the ability to assimilate information from data and physical text is invaluable. Quick, efficient and 'open minded' reading is on a parr with active listening.

It grows your ability to understand not just facts, but also the intent of information you receive, and any 'between the lines' issues or concerns.

6. No Assumptions

Considering the nature and needs of your audience is not the same as making assumptions about them in a way that distorts or skews your communications inappropriately.

You must communicate without patronising or overwhelming people, so knowing your audience should be a reality, not a presumption.

7. Non-Judgemental

Good communication requires the ability to evaluate and 'judge' audiences, so being non-judgemental can be problematic.

What this principle of communication refers to is orchestrating your communications to be empathetic, clear and engaging, without appearing to devalue or deride people.

It's vital when communicating in sensitive situations, and links with the 'no blame, no shame' culture that's now heavily recommended. Constructive suggestions for improvement, motivational messages and empathetic support will always achieve a better result than seeming to judge someone's actions or motives.

8. Value Difference

"The greatest communication skill is paying value to others." - Denis Waitley

All organisations should offer an inclusive culture, that nurtures employees. In essence, this principle is about appreciating that even in large groups you're addressing individuals. With diverse levels of understanding and ability, and differing natures and attitudes.

For example, good communication must enable different people to take in information at their own pace. It could require written materials to back up verbal presentations.

Also, there are times when you must vary your communications in terms of the language used, technical sophistication or intent, to cater to differing needs.

Valuing difference also compels you to be aware of special sensitivities, such as racial, religious, gender or socio-economic factors.

9. Authenticity

"Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people." - William Butler Yeats.

Your communications must be framed by realism and transparency, to achieve your desired outcome.

People are constantly bombarded with marketing-speak and platitudes. They are likely to have a considerable amount of scepticism and resistance.

According to one global study one in three employees don't trust information from their organisation.

The more accountable, open and genuine your communications are, the more you break down barriers to engagement and learning.

10. Developing Interest and Curiosity

"The essence of communication is intention." - Werner Erhard.

Clear and well-conceived communications should have interest and curiosity as universal goals, as they support all intentions and audiences.

To achieve the right level of interest and curiosity, build in opportunities for your audience to ask questions or request additional information. This builds fertile two-way communications, that can foster improvements, innovations and upwards learning in organisations.

Application of effective communications

There are, of course, many ways to communicate now, thanks to the digital age. Use the above principles of communication, but also the most appropriate delivery mechanism.

For instance, would your outcome be better from social media, an intranet forum or a formal in-person presentation?

Whatever the platform is chosen: "All communication must lead to change." - Aristotle.

Otherwise, it's just words.