Josh Doody, author of Mastering Business Email, speaks with host Brijesh Ammanath about how software engineers can master business communication. They begin with an exploration of various communication modes, including Slack, virtual meetings, emails, and presentations. Josh shares several strategies to improve communication skills and cross-cultural communication, but if there’s one key take away from this episode, it might be: “use positive language for any medium of communication; be kind and use positive words.”
Transcript brought to you by IEEE Software magazine and IEEE Computer Society.
This transcript was automatically generated. To suggest improvements in the text, please contact [email protected] and include the episode number and URL.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:00:18 Welcome to Software Engineering Radio. I’m your host Brijesh Ammanath. And today my guest is Josh Doody. Josh is a former electrical engineer, turn project manager and consultant. He’s author of multiple books including Fearless Salary Negotiation and Mastering Business Email. Josh is a salary negotiation coach who works with high earners to negotiate job offers. Josh, welcome to Software Engineering Radio. Is there anything I missed in your bio that you’d like to add?
Josh Doody 00:00:45 Hi, thanks for having me. It’s really good to be here. No, I think that’s a really good summary. I think you got everything in there, that felt really good.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:00:51 Thanks. Josh is a repeat guest, having spoken to us about salary negotiation in episode 275. Today we’ll be talking about business communication. Josh, can you start by explaining what is business communication and how it is different from other forms of communication?
Josh Doody 00:01:07 Yeah, I mean in a lot of ways communication is communication. So I could talk about differences and I could talk about similarities. I think business communication though, when I think about communication, the first thing I think about is, the reason for the communication. What are we trying to communicate? And in business, usually trying to communicate something to help move some sort of a business objective forward, assuming that it’s not small talk or something like that. Instead it’s an email that says, hey, can you give me a status update or can you help me understand what the purpose of this project is? And so usually business communication is focused on how do we move a business objective forward and that’s the purpose of the communication as opposed to all those other thing I mentioned. So I think that business communication is focused on the business whereas other types of communication could be for any reason, which might not even have a meaning other than just communicating. So it’s focused, there’s a reason for it. There’s something that we’re trying to accomplish with business communication.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:02:01 Right. And in your experience, have you seen people use the personal communication style in a business setting and what have been the consequences?
Josh Doody 00:02:10 I have, I think sometimes it is pretty effective, especially when there’s a big difference between sort of like the person’s level in an organization with the other person they’re talking to. I think it can help to be more personal. So, if I happen to bump into the CEO of a big company in the hallway, I think it’s really helpful if the CEO is a personable person who’s able to talk casually and that could be beneficial to the working structure, the working environment. Whereas for people who are closer together, sometimes being a little bit too personal can obfuscate what the purpose of the communication is and can actually slow things down. So in other words, if a manager and their direct report are communicating in a way that’s too personal, direct report might not understand the urgency of a situation or might not understand the criticality of a thing that needs to be accomplished because it sounds like just a friendly request or communication.
Josh Doody 00:03:01 And so I think there are positive and negative things that can come from more personal versus more professional type communication styles. But when I think of the personal, I think it can be really helpful in settings where there’s a big gap in the org chart between two people and they’re not trying to accomplish something specifically business oriented. Whereas of course if the CEO is communicating with the company in an all hands meeting or something more professional is usually better, in my opinion, directed at the objective so that there’s no confusions so that everybody’s on the same page.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:03:30 Right. So like most things in life, context matters and it depends on where and whom you’re talking to and what you are trying to achieve out of that conversation.
Josh Doody 00:03:40 Yes, that’s a great summary. You summarized it better than what I said.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:03:44 Oh not really. We’ll move into the next section where we’ll dig deeper into the various communication styles and modes of communication. And let’s start off with meetings. What are the various types of meetings and how does one gauge what’s expected from a meeting when you get the invite?
Josh Doody 00:04:03 Yeah, there are probably sort of an infinite number of types of meetings. But in general even zooming out if I am scheduling a meeting with someone, first of all, before I do that, I want to make sure that I can articulate what the purpose of the meeting is regardless of what the format or medium is. And I think that’s pretty important. I know I’m kind of easy to find on the internet and so people reach out to me pretty frequently asking for meetings and it really helps me to know when they say–hey, do you have some time to chat? If they can say why, so that I understand the purpose. So the first thing is with any meeting, regardless of the medium or the location, I think it’s important to just have a specific reason for that meeting in mind.
Josh Doody 00:04:41 Time is really valuable, especially in engineering where flow is a really important thing. You want to have your schedule disrupted as little as possible if you’re trying to get into flow. And so I think that if I’m requesting a meeting or someone else is requesting a meeting, that it’s important that the purpose of the meeting be sort of stated upfront. As far as the types of meetings, if my mind first goes to individual, like one-on-one meetings and group meetings, prepping for those as much different. I think the more people that you have in a meeting, then the more important it is to make sure that each one of those people has some purpose for being there. Similar to articulating the purpose for a meeting upfront when you’re asking for it, it’s also important to say, well I’ve invited, 17 people to a meeting, do they need to be there? And they’re wondering the same thing.
Josh Doody 00:05:23 So that’s the second thing is, is everybody on this attendee list really needed to be in the meeting and understanding that the fact that they’re attending the meeting means they’re not doing something else. So there’s an opportunity cost to them being in the meeting. And I think it’s important at any level of the organization, to think about this. So what I mean by that is, sometimes newer employees will not really think through that at all and they’ll say, oh, I have a question. I’ll just schedule a meeting with these 10 people, not realizing that they’re literally claiming thousands of dollars of time of value to have a meeting without thinking through like is it necessary that all these people be there? And the flip side, a lot of senior people in organizations sort of just dismiss the effort that it takes for someone to stop what they’re doing and attend a meeting for them.
Josh Doody 00:06:08 And so they’ll just kind of broadcast a big meeting invite to a bunch of people without thinking is it worth it disrupting all of these people’s work so that they can come to this meeting? So again, this all comes back to what is the purpose of the meeting. For the different formats, once you’ve decided who actually needs to be in this meeting, whose time is it worth spending in this meeting? Then you’ve got your sort of classic phone meetings, right? You’ve got a teleconference basically where a lot of people call into a phone call, you’ve got your Zoom meetings now is, I think becoming dominant where it’s face-to-face and then you’ve got sort of your in-person kind of meeting in a conference room or something like that. And I think again, each one of those has a purpose.
Josh Doody 00:06:47 I think it’s, this is maybe a side quest, but I think it’s a little bit unfortunate that Zoom has become so popular and that people just want to kind of default to like a video meeting. And the reason for that is that through my career, whenever I’m in a meeting, sometimes I’m able to multitask and I know that can be kind of frowned upon, but Zoom essentially requires, especially if your camera is on, it requires you to be kind of artificially focused on a specific thing, which means that your mind cannot be doing anything else even if you are not even required at that moment in the meeting. So if it’s an hour-long meeting and I’m on camera the whole time and I’ve got five minutes of responsibility, people might be frustrated when they see me looking down at my desk or check on my email or something like that.
Josh Doody 00:07:23 And so Zoom is an interesting hybrid where I think it can kind of close the gap geographically, but also it can make it really difficult for people to actually do other things and they’re sort of stuck. Whereas if I’m on the phone you can’t see my face, I’ll frequently be multitasking. I’m not right now by the way, but I’ll be multitasking because it’s audio only and you can’t see me. So those are the three meeting types and again, I think it’s important to think about what’s the necessity for the particular medium that we’re using here. And I’ll give you an example, I was talking to a CEO of let’s call it a software education company maybe six weeks ago. And we were chatting in Slack and both of us agreed simultaneously– hey we should just talk on the phone.
Josh Doody 00:07:59 This is too nuanced a conversation to have in asynchronous text. And so we jumped on a phone call but first I was like, do you want a Zoom or do you want a phone call? He is like, oh I want a phone call because I pace. And I was like, yes, me too. Meaning, if you looked at me from the outside while I’m on the phone with this person, you might think that I’m totally distracted because I’m wandering around my house and I’m like picking stuff up in my office and playing with fidget spinners and stuff. But the reality is that’s how I’m focusing on that person and what they’re saying to me so I can really internalize the words that they’re saying. And so the freedom of an audio only phone call is pretty beneficial there because I can really focus on the context and content of our conversation rather than focusing on am I making good eye contact with the camera? Does it look like I’m really dialed in and focus? How’s my lighting and all that stuff. So that’s a really long answer to your question. But I think that the three mediums I think of are audio only, in-person conference room and then the sort of hybrid Zoom meeting where you’re on camera most of the time.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:08:51 Youíve touched on some very interesting points and we the primarily the virtual meetings as well as Slack. But before that I do want to ask some generic questions around meetings. So one of the most challenging situations that one finds in a meeting is where you have to deal with disagreements. What’s a good way to deal with disagreements in a meeting?
Josh Doody 00:09:12 Oh, that’s a really good question. I mean I can talk a lot about it. I mean I really believe I probably could write a book on that and there probably are books written on it. But I’ll give you my kind of general principles for disagreements. First of all, I generally assume that when there’s a disagreement that both of the disagreeing parties have honest reasons for disagreeing. So in other words, I’m assuming that people are not trying to sabotage each other. This is a healthy working environment. And so what that means is there’s a disagreement. What it means is that the people just have a different vision for how the thing should be accomplished or what the purpose of the activity might be or even just the data that they’re looking at. And so that’s my baseline is, we have an honest disagreement here.
Josh Doody 00:09:49 We both just have a different perspective on this thing. And because of that I think the way to approach that is, is with a sort of positive approach. And so this is something that I’ve thought a lot about and that I teach people in the courses that I make and that is using positive language and sort of a positive perspective on the communication that you’re having. So if there’s a disagreement, the first thing I do is try to find a common ground, right? And also I look for an opportunity to say, listen, I disagree with you on this but I think that you’ve done a great job with whatever. And so that could be, yes, I disagree with you on the data that we’re looking at and I think that you’ve done a great job with gathering the data and interpreting it.
Josh Doody 00:10:23 And I think that we just fundamentally disagree on what the interpretation of the data is. But that doesn’t mean that either of us is necessarily wrong. It could just mean that there are different implications for what we’re looking at. So I’m looking for the positive spin on the disagreements. So, and the reason to do that is very tactical. It’s because when we can agree on something, even if it’s that we both are doing this in good faith, then we can collaborate better to come to a solution to the disagreement. Because by definition the disagreement is sort of an impasse. It means that either somebody’s going to have to pull rank or we’re going to have to convince one or the other person that their perspective is the right perspective or find a common solution that is a different, a third perspective that may not be either of their perspectives.
Josh Doody 00:11:04 But to do that you have to be able to collaborate. And so the alternative would be coming at the disagreement saying I think you’re doing this in bad faith or just having a bad attitude about it. And that’s essentially going to block progress. What that means is if you take that perspective on a disagreement, you’re going to continue to have a disagreement which is not really conducive to moving forward in a business sense. So the first thing is to find a positive commonality, to understand the person’s perspective the best you can, to recognize that they’ve probably put some work into their opinion and then to start pursuing a common ground to resolve the disagreement. In general resolving disagreements, I mean there are literal books written on this and it’s a very difficult topic. But I think that the most important thing for business context type disagreements is to zoom out and to look at what is our top line goal KPIs whatever you want to call them, but we should be discussing something that somehow contributes to what the company or the team or the business unit is trying to accomplish.
Josh Doody 00:12:01 So first let’s agree on what the thing is that we’re trying to accomplish and then let’s see if we can figure out a way out of disagreement to get to a thing that helps us to accomplish that goal. And so I think that is a good way to avoid sort of personal level disagreements, to avoid vilifying the counterparty that you’re disagreeing with and instead to focus on what’s the common thing that we’re trying to accomplish here and how do we get to that thing? And I think that will help kind of guide our way out of disagreements in a way that’s collaborative so that we can say, okay, well we do agree that we’re trying to accomplish this business objective, right? Yes, okay great. So let’s figure out how we get on the same page to accomplish that as opposed to I’m going to convince you that you’re wrong or you’re going to convince me that I’m wrong or I’m just going to berate you because I think you’re an idiot. And that kind of stuff that’s not productive, it doesn’t help you accomplish those goals. Instead you become people on the same team with the same objective to help accomplish that KPI. And then you can move forward and say, well let’s find a way out of this disagreement into a common solution that helps us to accomplish the goal that we set out to accomplish when we started this conversation.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:13:03 Some very important points over there and I like the point where you said that at the end of the day it’s about a business goal that both people in the conversation want to achieve. So it’s important not to make it a personal conversation, rather continue to focus on the business objective and then zoom out to see what the different viewpoint is. The other challenging situation that I’ve found quite a lot of times in meetings is dominant personalities taking over the meeting and having an opinion on everything, which means that it’s difficult to finish a meeting in time or reach conclusions. How do you manage or handle dominant personalities in a meeting?
Josh Doody 00:13:42 This can be really challenging. It’s a very specific skillset. And so I have kind of two categories of ways to handle this sort of thing in my mind. One of them is sort of on the personal level and that is ultimately the person who is sort of the dominant personality needs to be aware of that. And that usually probably would come from a manager or somebody who’s their peer to say– hey, you seem to be kind of running over this meeting and I appreciate your input. However, what that means is that there are people who are definitely not speaking up who have good things to say. And so that’s kind of the first thing is sort of the root cause of that. It’s usually the way that you described it, I would say there’s probably a person who has sort of an outsized perspective on how much influence they should have in the meeting and they might be inadvertently sort of stifling other points of view.
Josh Doody 00:14:29 And then I would also say, so that’s the personality type thing, right? And then the flip side would be encouraging the people who are sort of less verbal, who are less aggressive to say– hey your input is valued and we would like to hear what you have to say. Which is again, another kind of a personal thing. So you want to kind of try and bring the volume of the contributions down from the more dominant personalities and sort of increase the volume of contributions from the less dominant personalities. And you can do that through encouraging them to move both ways. So, when I was a manager there were people who I knew probably had good ideas, but we’re not speaking up. And so I would ask them specifically like–hey before we wrap this topic, do you have any input here?
Josh Doody 00:15:07 Because I know that you’ve probably think pretty deeply about this and this is frankly that’s how I am most of the time even in my friend group and, and personally in my life, but also in business settings. A lot of times there will be a really intense conversation going on and I have a lot of thoughts on it, but I’m the kind of person who I would just sort of sit back and, and observe what’s happening, see what the other people’s thoughts are and start to kind of process their thoughts while I’m trying to figure out what I think about this difficult topic. I’m assuming that we’re talking about difficult topics because otherwise kind of what, what, what’s the point? But on those difficult topics, I’ll frequently be quiet, but I have very strong opinions and what I’m doing is letting the other people sort of hash out how they feel about it, get to a place.
Josh Doody 00:15:42 And then a lot of times my friends will turn and look at me and say, well, you think about this and then I’ll have a very specific 15 second thought, that’s a good summary of how I feel. And they’ll go, huh. And it’s a nice contribution but I have to be given that window a lot of times because I’m not going to assert myself into a conversation where dominant people are dominating. But in a business setting through training and just through interpersonal communication, you can kind of encourage those people who are more dominant to say — hey just make sure that you leave some room in the room for these other perspectives to come into play. And then for the less dominant people to sayó hey it’s okay for you to speak up. I know that you have good ideas, we want to hear what you say.
Josh Doody 00:16:15 Also, the last thing I’ll say is sort of from that kind of personal perspective is if you are leading a meeting like that, I think it’s okay to allow silence. It can be very uncomfortable when you’re leading a meeting to ask a question and then you don’t get an immediate response. And so my kind of rule of thumb here when you want thoughtful responses from people is to give them about twice as long to speak up as you think feels comfortable as the person leading the meeting. So if you ask a, a question and there are seven people in the room, you ask a question, you don’t get a response and you start to feel uncomfortable from that moment on, restart the clock on however long it took you to feel uncomfortable and allow that much time again so that those people who are more quiet and might be kind of turning the wheel slowly or less inclined to speak up might have an opportunity to speak up because eventually they will speak up.
Josh Doody 00:16:59 But a lot of times they’re kind of waiting to see if the, the space is clear for them to speak up. And hopefully again, through encouraging those people who are more dominant, those people might not speak up, right? The people who always have something to say might say maybe I could just be quiet in this, in this instance. So that’s the personal side of it. The other side is sort of a structural side, right? So the way that you organize the meeting I think can help to encourage this sort of thing. And so having a very clear agenda with very clear objectives with time boxing can help a lot. It’ll help, for example, if you segment five minutes per topic and that you’re coming to five minutes and a good person leading meeting will say, we’re trying to stay on agenda here, we’ve got two minutes left on this, I just wanted to call that out.
Josh Doody 00:17:40 And that way the people who haven’t spoken up yet are encouraged to speak up because they’re, the clock is running out, they’ve only got two minutes. And it also kind of reminds the people who have a lot to say and are very verbose that maybe they should kind of take it easy for the last minute or two of this segment and let other people speak up. But it also helps to keep the topics and the agenda moving so that you don’t end up with one person talking for 18 minutes on a topic that was supposed to take two minutes, but nobody put anything into an agenda. So there’s no way to really enforce that. So there’s the personal side, encouraging the dominant people to be less dominant, encouraging the quieter people to speak up more, allowing space for them to speak up, especially just allowing silence to happen so that those quieter people will feel a little bit more courage and speak up.
Josh Doody 00:18:19 And then there’s the structural thing of actually structuring the meeting with a good agenda and leading the meeting. Well there is, there should be a person who is responsible for leading the meeting and that person is in charge of the agenda and they can help to keep the conversation moving and even help to redirect. And like I said, ask specific people to speak up and say– hey Frank, I know that you have some good ideas around this. We haven’t heard what you have to say. We’ve got two minutes left on this topic. What do you think? And maybe Frank will say something really profound that he wouldn’t have said otherwise if other people were dominating the conversation. So those are my thoughts on kind of how to keep that going and to make sure that you hear input from everybody in, in a meeting
Brijesh Ammanath 00:18:52 Very useful. And I’m definitely going to use your rule of thumb, which is wait for twice the time it caught you to feel uncomfortable before breaking the silence and calling out somebody or you putting your own thoughts in. I think that’s a very good rule of thumb.
Josh Doody 00:19:06 Yeah, thanks. I’ve led a lot of meetings. I think you mentioned early on that I was a, I don’t know if you mentioned or not, but I was a project manager for a long time working on small to medium business and enterprise software implementations. And so a lot of times I would have a lot of stakeholders in meetings and I’ve led a lot of other meetings of course and I think it’s really important to leave that space and as the person attending the meeting you’re thinking, hmm, how do I feel about that? And you’re trying to formulate thoughts and all this good stuff, but as the person leading the meeting you’re like, oh man, silence is bad. People are going to tune out, they’re going to stop listening. But really the clock in your head is probably ticking a lot faster than anyone else because you’re responsible for the meeting being productive. And so that’s why I kind of created that rule of thumb for myself is if you double that time from when you feel uncomfortable, that’s probably about the right amount of time to allow silence to indicate that, okay, people actually don’t have anything to say here as opposed to they’re formulating thoughts or trying to gather the courage to speak up. So I like it as a rule of thumb and it works great for me.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:20:01 Great. We’ll move on to dig a bit deeper into virtual communications. Considering it’s so prevalent now with remote working and you’ve already touched on Zoom and the way people use it. So maybe we’ll start off knowing your thoughts on what are some good rules of thumb or what’s a good etiquette to follow when you are on video conference or a virtual meeting?
Josh Doody 00:20:24 Yeah, first of all, it’s really interesting because we’ve done, especially with, once the pandemic happened and everybody moved to Zoom, we’ve kind of all collectively moved to these video meetings and I’ve been doing them for probably 10 years in different capacities with Google Hangouts and Zoom and other media. However, I think this is still kind of emergent, so I’m not sure there’s a great answer here yet. I think we’re trying to figure it out. I think a couple of things. One is I do think that if it’s important that if you’re going to have your camera on that it, I don’t think you necessarily have to be looking into the camera at all times, but I think that it’s important to not be doing stuff that’s distracting. Any kind of movement, right? Like our brains are trained to identify movement in our vicinity so that we can respond to it.
Josh Doody 00:21:03 That’s just how we interact with our world. And so the really interesting thing about Zoom is, you have 10 tiles on your screen and everybody’s doing their own thing with different lighting and stuff and you can see people moving and it’s just very distracting. And so, one thing is just if you’re going to be on camera, try to be present there and if you’re not, just mute your camera if you can, right? Just turn it off, it’s much better if you’re not going to be speaking and you’re going to be fidgeting or moving around or messing with stuff in the background, that can be really distracting to people. And so I would say, just turn your camera off. I think also like it helps to have good lighting if you can. And that can literally just be a desk lamp that you turn on in front of you so that your face is lit so that people can see you.
Josh Doody 00:21:42 A lot of our communication is kind of visual body language type communication. Unfortunately you don’t get a real version of that on Zoom because it’s this artificial, like I’m just looking at your face. Whereas I would, for example, if you and I were talking face-to-face, probably like 30% of the time we would actually look at each other in the eye and the rest of the time, we would be looking off or looking at somebody’s shoulder or looking down at my hand or something like that. Like we just look around when we talk. But if you do that on Zoom, it feels really weird. So I do think that you should facilitate people seeing what they can see with good lighting. And like I said, if you’re on camera, be on camera for a purpose and if you’re going to be fidgeting, turn your camera off.
Josh Doody 00:22:22 And I also think that it really helps to not be making a lot of noise on Zoom calls. This is true for all conference calls, but people can tend to sort of default to, I’ll have my camera on, I’ll just leave myself unmuted and then there you can hear them rustling papers on their desk. So anything that’s confusing or that’s distracting, I think try to eliminate it. I think this is particularly true for Zoom because there’s already so much distraction. So if I’m on a Zoom call, like I said with 10 tiles on the screen, there’s already a lot coming at me and if even one person is fidgeting around with something that I can hear audibly, that’s another distraction for me. So the general rule of thumb for Zoom meetings for video meetings I would say is just try to minimize distractions and make sure that people on the call, including the host or whoever is talking can focus.
Josh Doody 00:23:07 So that’s my kind of overall rule of thumb for Zoom is just minimize distractions. Also, I would say my second one is, make sure that again, that everybody who’s on this Zoom meeting needs to be there because Zoom meetings in particular when your camera’s on are maybe the least flexible way to communicate. Meaning that if I’m on a Zoom meeting with my camera on for all the reasons that I just mentioned, that’s all I’m doing. I’m sitting in front of my camera, even if I’m not talking, even if I’m not contributing, that’s what I’m doing. So you want to make sure that if you’ve asked somebody to do that, to essentially focus on one thing and not allow themselves to do anything else, that there’s a reason for them to do that. And so, if you’re going to call a Zoom meeting, if you’re going to have multiple people in there, just make sure all the people, the people should be there.
Josh Doody 00:23:45 And this is I think, more critical than any other medium because even in a conference room, I’m not looking at, I can’t see everybody’s face simultaneously. I have to turn my head to do that and so they can be distracted taking notes or whatever, but on Zoom I can literally see everybody’s face looking back at me or not looking back at me and it can be very distracting. So make sure that the people who are there should be there because that’s a particularly restrictive form of communication, having to sit in front of a camera with a microphone and appear to be attentive so you’re not distracting other people.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:24:15 You talked about taking notes, I just want to ask a question around that. Is it a good practice to take notes and what do you do of the notes post the meeting? Should you send it out to everybody with actions or, and who should be the person responsible for doing that?
Josh Doody 00:24:31 Yeah, this is a good question. I don’t know that there’s a good answer and it’s probably going to be sort of based on the, the company culture that you’re working with, if possible. So I think, gosh, this is hard and here’s why. For me, taking notes is a distraction. I don’t do it unless I absolutely have to do it. The only time that I take notes in a meeting is basically if I’m going to somehow need that material to prep for something else. And so for me taking notes is a distraction because I will focus on taking good notes and not on the content. And so I can kind of just turn my brain off and turn the words that are being said around me into notes on paper, but I won’t actually be processing any of the words that I hear. So my preference in a meeting is to have a designated note taker who takes minutes or notes and then sends them out to everybody and says, here’s the notes from the meeting.
Josh Doody 00:25:15 Obviously you do want to take notes if there’s something very specific to you. For example, if you have an action item or if there’s some nuance that you need to write down that is relevant to your particular function or responsibility that a general note taker might not get or a thought that you have for example, that isn’t public, right? Like it’s in your brain, you think, oh yeah, this is a good idea, I’ll jot this down. I think that’s good. But I think in general, if possible, having a specific person responsible for taking the notes and sending them out are good. And what I mean by that is, what were the topics that were discussed? What were the specific action items that were called out? That stuff I think is much better left to a single person and you could rotate that around.
Josh Doody 00:25:51 Or sometimes you’ll have a designated person or a scribe, a lot of physicians have a lot of friends who are physicians, they actually have a function in hospitals and in other places called a scribe. And this person shadows the doctor and takes notes on behalf of the doctor so the doctor can interact with the patient one-on-one, give them their full attention, and not have to worry about whether or not they’re remembering everything or getting all the notes right and so they can be totally present with the patient. So I think that’s a good model for meetings if possible, where there’s a person who takes notes, that person is responsible for getting the high level topics that were covered in the meeting, disseminating action items after the meeting so that everyone else can actually engage in the meeting itself so that everyone else can just focus on the topic.
Josh Doody 00:26:28 I will say, I think for some people taking notes is the opposite of me. I turn my brain off and just try to write words down as they come out. I think other people actually do process the information by taking notes and I think that some people will perceive that to be sort of a distraction. So if I’m in a meeting, not me personally, but hypothetical me is in a meeting and I see somebody else taking notes, I’m thinking they’re not really paying attention but that person might actually be maximally paying attention by taking notes. So I think allow leeway for personal preference here. I would say at a business function sort of level, that having the ability to, to just have a note taker, somebody who takes minutes and action items is a really good idea. It frees everybody else up to actually just have a discussion and a conversation. But I will say that’s my personal opinion, that’s how I do things when I run meetings. Other people might have different opinions and I wouldn’t say that I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s probably going to be personal preference and maybe business culture.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:27:18 Yeah, I agree. I must confess that I fall into the latter part where I feel I concentrate more and I’m able to grasp more if I’m taking notes because it stops my mind from wandering and the temptation to multi task gets reduced because you are focusing on understanding what’s being said and noting it down, at least the important points that you need to follow up on.
Josh Doody 00:27:41 Yeah, which I think is very valid, right? Like I know a lot of people that function exactly like you just described, that are just like you. Where for me taking notes is a distraction because I’m, for whatever reason, my brain just tries to focus on make sure these notes are good, I want to make sure I capture everything and I’m not really actually thinking about the words that are said. Whereas you are able to focus in more because you’re taking notes, you are processing the words and you’re not allowing other ideas or thoughts or, activities to come to mind or you’re not distracted by a deliverable that you have tomorrow because you’re taking the notes. So I think there, there should be a lot of leeway here in your business culture for people with different preferences on this. Sometimes I think there are things that you kind of have to do as a matter of rule and I think there are things where it’s personal preference that matters and I think this is one of those things where whatever makes the individual most productive, that’s how they should probably behave in a meeting with respect to note taking and making sure they don’t miss anything.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:28:33 We’ll move on to the next topic, which is around the next mode of communication, which is around internet messaging. So tools like Teams or Slack, which has become increasingly popular. How effective do you find using IM for communicating and what scenarios would you use IM for your communication?
Josh Doody 00:28:52 I think it’s extremely effective in the right contexts. I think it’s very effective for the more nuanced something is, I think maybe the less effective asynchronous communication is. And the reason for that is just that it’s so long, especially one of the benefits of asynchronous is time zones. One of the downsides is having a nuanced discussion across time zones can literally take days. And so sometimes you just have to say, you know what, we don’t have three days to go back and forth over multiple time zones and kind of figure this out. We should just have a call for 10-minutes and figure it out. So I think that it is for less nuanced communication that can be facilitated over multiple time zones. I think it can be very effective. I’m in, I mean I don’t even know how many Slack channels I’m in, but a lot of them, Slack is my kind of asynchronous communication mode of choice.
Josh Doody 00:29:42 But I also use it when I’m coaching people, we use Google Docs and a lot of the reason for that is where a lot of the things that I deliver for my clients are, for example, emails or scripts and things like that. And asynchronously communicating through those things is actually extremely effective because we can make comments and notes in the document itself. And so that’s not IMing per se, but we do use comments which looks like IM, if you zoom out enough, but it can be really effective because we’re in line in the context itself. And so the nuance actually kind of lends itself to that medium. Whereas if you’re having like a business high level business discussion Slack or Teams or any of these tools, if it’s tactical stuff, when are we doing this thing, what is your opinion on this?
Josh Doody 00:30:23 That’s great. But if it’s– hey, what are our business objectives for Q3 next year, it could take a long time to have that conversation and really come to an outcome in Slack. So I love asynchronous communication for sharing information with people that isn’t critical information. I don’t think it should be used for critical information. There are better ways to do that, especially if you’re across time zones that can be missed. They may have ìDo Not Disturbî on. There’s a lot of ways that stuff can be missed if it’s critical and that’s just not the medium for it, but for sort of low impact, easy to discuss non-nuanced things, then I think asynchronous communication is great because I can get to it when I get to it, right? And so if you say–hey let’s have a Zoom call.
Josh Doody 00:31:03 Like I said earlier, now you and I, the only thing I’m doing is having that Zoom call. That’s all I can do. I can’t do other stuff, I can’t finish this task I was doing, I have to be on the Zoom call. Whereas if it’s an asynchronous thing you say–hey what do you think A, B or C? Then I can just get to that whenever if it’s not critical and it’s fine now I have five minutes in between meetings, I’ll just answer that question real quick. And so it allows for a lot more flexibility. So I’ve always been a big fan of asynchronous communication whatever the medium for stuff like that because it doesn’t distract. You can use it to fill in gaps in time that you have and just answer questions that way, as opposed to kind of forcing things in where they don’t belong or using the wrong medium for a meeting. So to answer your question, I’m a big fan of Slack. I wouldn’t use it for critical stuff. I wouldn’t use it for extremely nuanced conversations but for asynchronous stuff that’s pretty easy to discuss. I think it’s great because it allows everybody to sort of take that task when they can take it and leave it until the time is good for them to get to it.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:31:58 How do you ensure the effectiveness of Slack or Teams to ensure that team members understand it’s a synchronous so they don’t need to jump and drop everything and respond immediately to your query on Slack?
Josh Doody 00:32:12 I think that’s a really tough one. So I’ll do, I think this comes down to sort of like personal tactics, right? One thing is just as a matter of sort of company or team culture, just making sure that people understand that. So the things that I just said for example would be good things to do in like an all hands meeting and just say– hey listen, just so, Team is not for business-critical stuff. So if you send somebody a message on Teams, assume that it could take them a little while to respond. And so that can help to sort of level set up the culture and figure out to make sure people are just aware of the fact that I’m not necessarily sitting there waiting on a notification in Teams or Slack. Also personally I do a thing, I do this all the time where I’ll have a question for somebody.
Josh Doody 00:32:52 It might even be kind of a nuance question but it’s not urgent. And so, I know the best way is to get it in front of them so that they can think about it. And I’ll start with in all caps this is not urgent and then I’ll ask them the question. So sometimes when you’re thinking, hmm, I’m going to ping this person in Slack, how do I make sure that they don’t drop what they’re doing you? A good way to do that is just to start with not urgent in caps. Like let them know you do not need to respond to this right now I do the same thing in email by the way. So I’ll send an email pretty frequently and I’ll start it with, hey, just so this is not urgent, answer this whenever you can.
Josh Doody 00:33:24 And then you of course you have to give them the freedom to do that. You can’t just ping them an hour later and say–hey, did you see the thing? Because then you’re kind of contradicting yourself. So I think there are two layers to this. One of them is sort of corporately just kind of explaining what the different media are for they’re using to communicate and, when is the time to use this medium, when is the time not to or to use a different medium. And then personally you can kind of emphasize to people this is not urgent. I like to do that. I’m a big fan of that because then when I do have something that’s urgent, they will know it. I’ll say, hey, if you could answer this as quickly as possible, that’s great and people will answer me quickly because I never say that unless it really is urgent and otherwise, I’m usually telling them, this is not urgent, don’t drop anything, just get back to me when you can.
Josh Doody 00:34:05 And so I think that’s just a good kind of policy in general is to sort of let people know what’s the level of urgency and of course to silo the level of urgency of your communication into the appropriate communication channel so that you’re not asking for super urgent things on an asynchronous thing like Slack and instead you’re moving to whatever would be the best way to communicate that. It could be a phone call, or it could be an email or whatever it is, but just making sure that you’re using the right medium first. And then second, communicating the level of urgency so that they know whether they need to really pay attention right now and drop what they’re doing. Or they can finish this task and check it after lunch.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:34:38 Right. It almost seems like there’s a hierarchy of communication modes based on urgency. You start off with picking up the phone if it’s super urgent and move down to maybe email or Slack and then move down to meetings. What would your view be about that hierarchy? How would you stack the various modes of communication?
Josh Doody 00:35:00 I think your hierarchy is pretty good. I think it will really be dependent on a lot of things. So there’s something you didn’t mention, which is like physically walking into someone’s office can be a pretty good way to handle something urgent. Of course that doesn’t work in a world where a lot of people work remotely, right? But I would add that to the list too. That might be the highest urgency thing is that I’m in my office, I’m stuck on something. It’s critically important that we resolve it and I walk to your office, which is like I mentioned Zoom, you’re focused on face-to-face. If I walk into your office now I’m in your physical space and you have to acknowledge me and kind of talk to me. So that would be, I think would be something that would be reserved, especially unannounced.
Josh Doody 00:35:39 I mean obviously you might schedule an in-person meeting, it’s totally different, but showing up unannounced in somebody’s physical space can be a way to communicate significant urgency. And so that would be on the list too. And I think those things will kind of move around depending on are you co-located or not? Are you working across multiple time zones? But I think your hierarchy is pretty good. I mean, in general maybe what I would do is say instead of like pick up the phone or in person, there’s like instantaneous synchronous communication, whatever that looks like in your organization would be like the highest level of urgency. So that could be walking into an office, it could be picking up a phone and then you kind of slide down, email is asynchronous and in some places kind of carries more weight than for example IM.
Josh Doody 00:36:20 And in some places it might carry less weight. And so I think that will just depend on the organization itself. But internally, most organizations have a sense of like what that hierarchy looks like in terms of what is the urgency associated with each medium of communication. And I think the important thing is to be intentional about the way that you do it. But I would start with most urgent would be synchronous, unprompted, synchronous communication would be the highest level of urgency. And then all the way down to sort of casual, asynchronous communication for things that that don’t matter very much. And understanding how your organization categorizes those things is probably the way that I would take the next step there and figure out like how should we be doing this?
Brijesh Ammanath 00:36:59 Right? We’ll move on to emails and what are some of the best practices while using emails as a mode of communication.
Josh Doody 00:37:07 Yeah, I like email. It’s so interesting, right? Like I think that, I mean I don’t even know how long email has been around, I think the seventies or the eighties or something like that. So it’s been around for literal decades and my guess is that if you talk to somebody in like 1975, I think there was email back then and you told them you asked them like, hey, how prominent is email going to be as a communication method 50 years from now? They would, I don’t know, I don’t know what they would say. My guess is they would think, but there’s probably something better, right? . And yet I think that email is still kind of the dominant form of communication in a lot of context, which is really fascinating to me. So that’s kind of a side topic, but I think that best practices for email, especially in a business context are you start with the subject.
Josh Doody 00:37:52 So that’s where I start, that’s where mastering business email starts actually is the subject. And so the, the whole purpose of the subject of an email, it has one purpose and that is to get the person to identify that it’s something they care about and open the email that’s all the subject is doing. Obviously, there are good ways to do that and bad ways. You could email somebody with a subject, your house is on fire, exclamation point, exclamation point and they’re going to open it a hundred percent of the time if it’s from someone they know. If they believe you as a person would say that. But if the inside is like, hey what are you doing for dinner tonight? That’s a misalignment if you’re subject to the email. So you want to choose a good subject. The first purpose of the subject is to get the email to be opened at all.
Josh Doody 00:38:26 The second one I think is to be discoverable later. So I think this is something that’s sort of lost in business communications especially over email, is that one reason I think it’s so dominant today is that, I can go into just the Gmail web app and I can search my emails going back for decades if I want to, right? Like they’re all there. And so I think it’s most important to have a good subject because, if I need to reference this conversation three years from now, future me will be very happy if I used a good subject line that is descriptive so I can see exactly what this email is about so I can find it trivially. So the first purpose of the subject is to get the email opened. The second one is to be discoverable later on.
Josh Doody 00:39:05 Inside the email for best practices, I think it’s best to assume that people reading emails are reading them very quickly or skimming them if at all. And so that I think lends itself to doing two things. One is to make sure that you have a clear purpose for the email. So again, this goes back to, we talked about this at the very beginning of our conversation. You should have a reason for a meeting, you should have a reason for a business communication. There needs to be a reason behind it and it’s important for the person who’s doing the communicating to actually understand that reason and to kind of adhere to it. It’s just good business practice to say what is the purpose of this email that I’m sending in? If you can’t answer that question, then you probably should stop and think about whether you’ve need to send the email or if your thoughts are well-formed enough to, to send it so you have a specific purpose and that purpose should be easily and quickly discoverable in the email.
Josh Doody 00:39:49 And so I think there are two ways to do that. One of them is through the formatting. A lot of what I talk about in mastering business email is formatting emails to be skimmable. Again, assuming that people get hundreds of emails a day, which they do, especially in business I think I used to send when I was a project manager somewhere between 102 hundred emails a day. That’s not to mention how many I got inbound but outbound, that’s how many emails I’m sending. Some of them are very short, some of them are longer. But that’s kind of the job of a lot of people is emailing for different purposes. So it’s important that when they’re looking through that email first they see a subject and they say, yep, I know what this is, this is for me, I’m going to open it.
Josh Doody 00:40:24 Then when they open the email, they very quickly are able to discover what it is that they’re supposed to take away from the email. Two ways to do that one is formatting. So using good bullet points, using bold text to emphasize certain things, making sure to explicitly call out action items so that all of these things are kind of designed around the idea of making it just extremely explicit. What is going on in the email and what it’s for. The worst kind of email to get is like a single giant paragraph that’s like 15 lines long that isn’t clear who it’s for or what it’s saying or what the action items are. What’s going to happen is you’re just going to end up with a bunch of people not reading that email. And if there is a critical action item buried in there, it’s not going to get done.
Josh Doody 00:41:01 And that’s on the person who sent the email. So I think formatting it so that it’s easy to skim it. Also a nice rule of thumb that I have is for whatever reason, the way that I write emails is sometimes I tend to put the actual most important thing at the very end as I’m summarizing the email. And so one little tip that I like to suggest is after you finished writing an email, you formatted it really well. You’ve called out the action items, scan the email, look down at the bottom and see if maybe the last paragraph shouldn’t be the first paragraph. because a lot of times it’ll be like, and these are the reasons that I think that we need to shift to this new platform, right? And really that should be the opening to the email–hey everyone, here are some reasons that I think we should shift to this new platform.
Josh Doody 00:41:38 Reason one, reason two, reason three, whereas I buried that at the bottom. So make sure you don’t bury the lead at the bottom of the email and make sure that it’s very easy to read and understand. And then calling out action items very clearly I think is important. It’s one thing to inform people, it’s another thing that if they have something they need to do, you need to make it very clear so that they can see it skimming the email for literally three seconds and see, oh I have an action here and they can take that action and understand what to do next. So those are kind of my overarching thoughts on business email and I’m happy to dig in. Say anything there if anything kind of resonated with you or we can move on.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:42:12 Absolutely. I think quite a few golden nuggets over there. So just to summarize, first is, make sure the subject calls out the purpose so that the person receiving it opens the email. That’s super important. The second one is to make sure it’s discoverable so that you can, if you want to search for the email afterwards you can easily find it. I think the third point that you make, which is assume people’s skim over emails is very important. Person writing the email might have spent a lot of time composing it, but not everybody reads that entire email. It’s a long form articles and not in style. People don’t take the time to read a very long email, even though it might be covering a lot of points. And I like your rule of thumb, which is whatever you’re trying to convey, the key action or the key message, bring it to the top rather than leave it at the end because the reader or the recipient might not reach the end of the email before he or she jumps into something else.
Josh Doody 00:43:08 Yeah, I think that’s a great summary. I think if people follow those guidelines for writing email, they’ll find that it’s a lot more effective. I mean, that’s what I’m always thinking about is how to make stuff maximally effective. And I think the guidelines that you just summarized there very well. If everyone does that, then business email suddenly becomes a lot more effective. It takes a lot less time from people. Writing a good email takes a while. There’s a, I think it might be apocryphal (?), but I think it was attributed to Mark Twain who says, I was going to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have time, so I wrote you a long one instead. It’s really hard to write succinct skimmable emails where the action item is obvious. It takes a lot of effort and it is a learned skill, but I think it is worth learning, understanding that if you do that well, then the person who receives it in the 20 seconds that they’re going to give to you can totally understand exactly what they need to do, what their action items are, what they need to understand, and they can move on.
Josh Doody 00:43:59 So that’s part of the, the gift of writing a good email to someone else is that they don’t have to spend a lot of time digesting it. And like I said, later on, you might be searching for that. So it’s really important to remember email is kind of infinitely discoverable over the long run. And so a lot of the emails I send from my clients are meant to be written as a communicating something, but also to make sure that later when this is looked at by someone else, that it’s very clear what’s going on here and it’s not ambiguous. And so I think it’s important whereas Slack messages and things like that, they’re more or less ephemeral. They’re just kind of going to go away. Zoom meetings, usually you’re not recording them, it’s going to go away, but email is usually it’s more of a kind of a permanent document, which is sort of weird, but it’s the way it is. So make sure that when you go back to look at that in two years and try and figure out why did we decide to change platforms? There’s an email that says, here are the reasons we should change platforms and A, B, C, and then there’s somebody responding saying, I think region B really resonates with me, we should do it. And you can find that really easily in email, which is sort of a, just a discoverable historical document that’s going to be out there forever.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:44:58 You also brought up another interesting point, which is when you were in your previous role as a project manager, you used to send out a lot of emails in the hundreds, and that is the question I wanted to ask about managing email overload. So in addition to those emails that you receive from people, a lot of emails that I receive are automated emails saying that the build is successful or it’s failed, or CIC comments, request to review PR and so on. How do you manage email overload?
Josh Doody 00:45:29 This is a really interesting topic to me because I do not think that there is like a best practice here. I think it’s, it’s personal preference. So there are a few ways to do this. The way that I do it actually is I use the Gmail app on my phone, and as soon as I see something come in, I just archive it right away unless there’s like a specific action item for it or I snooze it, right? And so I’m an inbox zero kind of person. A lot of people just cannot do that, and I understand that. So my second suggestion will be more for them, but I think just my rule of thumb is I just deal with it right away. I get it, I read it. If I’m going to have to take action on it later, I will snooze it or do whatever I need to do.
Josh Doody 00:46:05 If I don’t need to take action on it, it’s just an FYI, I’ll just archive it right away. I also think that it depends on your email client, but nowadays most email clients have labels or folders and stuff like that. So I think one thing I would do, especially with those automated pull requests, emails and stuff, unless you actually need to review all of those emails and understand them, or like you said, like deployment status emails and stuff, I would just set up a label in Gmail or a folder I think is what they use in Outlook, and just have it immediately shunted over to that place, just get it out of my inbox. I don’t even need to see it. And so that’s a lot of it is understanding do I even need to see that email? And the same goes for a lot of our email, even in business context, a lot of our inboxes, like newsletters and stuff like that for products that we signed up for or whatever it is that we’re kind of signed up for.
Josh Doody 00:46:52 And I find that like I just need to go through every now and then and just unsubscribe from a bunch of newsletters because I don’t need that in my inbox. And even just being distracted by this thing coming in my inbox and it’s like, I haven’t even opened an email from this company in six months, why am I still getting emails from them? So I think that’s the, so the high level is try to make sure that the stuff that actually appears in your inbox is stuff that you need to know is there. So all the automated stuff that comes from deployment and CI and like GitHub emails, unless you really need to see them, just send them off somewhere else, put them into a folder, put a label on them so they don’t show up in your inbox. Unsubscribe from stuff that you don’t need to be subscribed to.
Josh Doody 00:47:28 Especially if you realize you haven’t even opened that email in months and months, you probably should just unsubscribe from it. You can always go back and get it later. If you ever think, I wonder what happened to that company and the SaaS product I was kind of looking at, you can just go find out. So yeah, top of funnel I would say is important there. Keep the stuff that actually comes into your inbox to a minimum. Use the labels and filters liberally if you’re comfortable doing that. And then also just archive stuff or get it out of your inbox as quickly as possible if it’s not something that you need to act on. And that should hopefully kind of bring it down to now you’re looking at emails that you actually need to know about that you need to take some kind of an action on.
Josh Doody 00:48:02 My rule of thumb for those emails is if I can do it really quickly, assuming that I’m not in flow, if I’m not writing code or writing an article or doing something that requires my focus, in which case I probably shouldn’t be looking at my inbox. But if I am looking at my inbox, if I could just knock it out in like 20 seconds and if it’s go check this box or send this other email to somebody, I’ll just knock it out right away. That’s a personal preference. Again, get it out of your focus so it can no longer distract you and try and take care of that little stuff first. And that will leave the bigger items that need to be to be wrestled with. And that’s where you have to start kind of like prioritizing your time and maybe using some other medium a checklist or to-dos or just managing your own workload to figure out like, how do I accomplish the things that are coming into my inbox? So again, I’ll emphasize I do not think there’s a best practice here. I have made some suggestions there, but I think different people kind of navigate email very differently and there’s not a best way to do it. There’s a best for you way to do it. And those are the things that I do to try to kind of keep my, my inbox managed.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:49:02 Moving on to a tool which is universally used and hated by almost everybody who uses it is PowerPoint presentations. What are the common mistakes made when somebody presents or creates a presentation?
Josh Doody 00:49:18 I mean, the most common mistake that I see is just way too much information on the slides themselves. Sometimes you have to put a lot of information there, especially if you’re showing charts for quarterly earnings or something, right? So CFOs maybe, maybe don’t listen to me right now, but for most people, if you’re doing a presentation, you’re probably presenting to an audience who needs to know kind of generally what you’re talking about. You might be teaching them something or you might just be conveying some basic information. The PowerPoint presentation itself is not the information. It is a tool to help you to communicate that information. And so the rule of thumb is one slide per minute. I think I’m fine with that. I could go over under on that, but keep the actual stuff on the slide to a minimum so three or four words or one or two bullet points or one image, and try to keep the number of slides to a minimum.
Josh Doody 00:50:10 Because again, if you are using the PowerPoint as the thing that actually communicates the information, you’re probably using that medium ineffectively I would say. There are better ways to communicate a lot of information. An email is one of them, a white paper is one of them, but I think that the words that you’re saying are what you’re communicating. And so the PowerPoint is just a way to facilitate that and maybe add some context in some cases. So you’re describing something and now there’s a chart on the screen that shows the thing that you’re describing that can be very helpful. But if you have 15 bullet points or you’re using 16-point font on a slide, it’s probably got too much information on it. And the problem with that is I think people just tune out. Like if I see a slide that has a ton of information on it, I’m not looking at it.
Josh Doody 00:50:53 I’m not going to sit there and read the 12 bullet points on the slide, I just won’t do it. And so you have one bullet point or two bullet points. You have five words, 10 words, have one picture, and try to use a lower number of slides. Try to communicate in fewer slides. Now, if there are exceptions to this, I have a friend Keith, who is very, very good at public speaking, and he’ll do a PowerPoint presentation with like 150 slides where it’s literally just bang, bang, bang. But it’s because his presentation style lends itself to it. Most people can’t pull that off. I think he might be the only person I know that can pull it off. So for most people, I would say fewer slides, fewer words on each slide, just less stuff. And make sure that you understand that what you’re communicating is not a PowerPoint presentation.
Josh Doody 00:51:33 If I build a PowerPoint presentation and I could just send you the presentation and you don’t need me to present it, then I think something went wrong somewhere. I should have written an article or a blog post or sent you a book or written a white paper. And so the, the purpose of the PowerPoint is it’s supposed to facilitate like a live presentation. So I think keeping those things in mind will really help make PowerPoint presentations better and have people actually pay attention to what you’re doing and also just make people better public speakers. PowerPoint is a tool to help speak publicly, and I think it should be used that way and not as an actual medium to communicate information, which is not really what it’s designed for.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:52:11 Right. Interesting thoughts and very useful tips. Moving on from the modes of communication, I’d like to talk about cross-cultural communication, especially now in the current setup where we have Teams which are distributed across geographies. What are the key considerations when you are communicating with individuals from different cultures, different geographies in a business setting?
Josh Doody 00:52:34 I think one thing is just to be very careful, sort of how you’re communicating, I think. So I’ll use like, the US as an example, right? Even if I’m communicating with people that are in different parts of the US like there are things that I would say that I would consider to be a joke or an idiom that won’t register with other people. They just won’t even understand it. And so I think it’s important in cases where the differences in kind of cultural understanding of the specific words that we use are high, then just being more explicit and more direct is better. This can be taken overboard. And so engineers sometimes can kind of err on the side of being too direct, and so there is some nuance there. But I think in general, just ask yourself is the way that I’m phrasing this going to be understood by the person who is reading what I’m writing?
Josh Doody 00:53:19 And so I think with written communication in particular across cultures, that that’s the best way to do it is to keep it simple, keep it direct, use words that are understood by everyone. I think you can be a little bit more nuanced on, for example, a phone call. Because a lot of times the tone of your voice and other cues that you give will help to communicate that you’re actually telling a joke or you’re being sarcastic, or here’s what you actually mean. But if you’re writing something down and you’re communicating with somebody from a different culture, I think it’s important to just be direct. The caveat I would put on that is I’ve had a number of conversations with friends who run firms where they have engineers and salespeople. Those are kind of cultures too, right? Engineering culture is different than sales culture is different than finance culture.
Josh Doody 00:53:59 And so I think understanding when we’re talking about cross-cultural communication, sometimes we’re not talking about geographic distance. We’re talking about sort of work function difference, different cultures of work function. And I think the same things apply there where it’s like an inside joke for a sales guy might be completely missed by somebody in engineering and vice versa. And so I think in those cases, again, it’s, it’s important to just be direct and communicate directly what you mean. And the less personal, the communication. So for example asynchronous communication on teams, then the more direct it should be. And I think there could be a little bit more nuance and more personal communication where you’re synchronously communicating in person. I’m sitting down across a table from you and we’re talking, you can learn so much more about what I mean by watching my body language and seeing my face and hearing the tone of my voice and the cadence of with which I’m speaking.
Josh Doody 00:54:48 Whereas in Slack, all of that stuff is not available. All you can see is the literal words that I write. And so I think it’s more important to be direct there. The caveat I would add also is try to be positive. So direct can also come across as very harsh, especially in writing. And so what I mean is direct might be, you missed your target, please do better next time. That’s direct. However, it’s not very kind and in writing in particular, it can come across as very harsh. If I say that to you in person, I can say, hey, you missed your target, let’s do better next time. And then we can talk about that, right? And that’s a very, it sounds like I’m not coming down on you, I’m just acknowledging something that was amiss and we’re going to talk about how to fix it.
Josh Doody 00:55:26 Whereas if I write that asynchronously, you missed your target, please do better next time, man, that seems really harsh. And so I think using positive language, which is something I talk a lot about is super important. Where you find a way to say things in a positive way. So rather than you miss your target, you might say, let’s see if we can find ways to improve the way that we’re performing this business function so that we can make the target next time. It’s a little bit more wordy, it’s a little bit indirect, but it will come across as less mean and asynchronous kind of written communication. And so using positive words can kind of help bridge that gap. So cross-cultural communication is a big challenge. I mean, it’s becoming more and more of a challenge, like I said geographically, but also in terms of business functions. Business functions are overlapping more and more these days. A lot of people are communicating with people they wouldn’t have communicated with before. And so I think default to being direct and trying to use positive language when you can. Those are my kind of two rules of thumbs.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:56:22 Right? And how can one navigate potential language barriers? So if you have people who are based in a non-English speaking, native English speaking country, the grammar might not be right. And that might imply that the message does not get conveyed correctly. How do you navigate such situations?
Josh Doody 00:56:44 Yeah, I think a lot of that is if the parties are being direct, then the grammar is sort of less meaningful, I think. And I think also, I mean, I had a number of jobs where I worked with people globally, frequently, people from India, but also people from countries in the UK and Germany for example, and, and other countries like that where, we’re not communicating in everyone’s first language, whatever that is. And so I think just understanding that it’s really hard to learn languages, any language has a lot of nuance to it. And I think just kind of giving some grace for that is the way to go. I mean, there’s, there’s not like a really tactical way to do it, but if I’m communicating with somebody who I know is they’re communicating with me in English because I can’t speak their language, first of all, and so they’re communicating with me in my language, which is a benefit to me, that they have learned my language and they use something that, that appears to be grammar that isn’t quite right unless it’s a huge deal, right?
Josh Doody 00:57:38 Unless they’re writing like for example, if they’re client facing, that might be something we should work on because the client might perceive a different level of engagement or knowledge or quality or whatever those things are because the grammar doesn’t align with a job function. But internal communications, I think it’s you just kind of have to say, that person is doing me a favor by speaking a language that I understand so that I don’t have to learn their language, maybe I don’t need to nitpick their grammar. And so internally, I think you just kind of have to accept it. It’s just part of the fact that we’re doing business globally. And then, like I said, if the person is going to be communicating with a client, I think maybe correct grammar is more important there. And that’s where we talk about like, how can we help this person become better with grammar or possibly have them communicate through an intermediary or somebody who can summarize or something like that so that the client perceives a high level of understanding of what’s going on.
Josh Doody 00:58:28 So I think most people now understand that just because someone doesn’t use the correct grammar doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about. But you always want to be kind of as polished as you can be when communicating with clients. I will say we’re talking about grammar here, but there are a lot of people who are communicating with clients who speak perfect English and are doing it poorly. And so I think in general, that’s something that I should be on a company’s radar, especially when they have customer facing roles that they’re doing consulting or have a customer service or something. It’s important to help them to understand how to communicate with clients, not only with the correct grammar, but with the right words and the right cadence and the right tone and the right level of helpfulness so that those customers feel like they’re getting a lot of value for whatever they’re doing there. So grammar is one thing, but there’s a lot of other things about communication where people don’t do it quite right. And it can be a quality signal, whether it’s actually a real signal or not.
Brijesh Ammanath 00:59:17 And what strategies can help build trust and rapport colleagues from different cultural backgrounds.
Josh Doody 00:59:25 I think that’s another thing that’s extremely challenging. One is just to understand that you are from different backgrounds, which means you’re going to be different people. And then I think, like I said, this is where the, the positive language thing that I mentioned earlier kind of comes into is like, if you’re more kind to people, they will be more kind to you in general and it will facilitate more relaxed conversations. And so if somebody communicates with you and they use grammar that isn’t quite right and you call them on it every time, even though it doesn’t really matter, that person is probably going to have a hard time connecting with you on a personal level or being friendly with you because they’re afraid that when they try to do that, you’re just going to nitpick them. So I think that it’s important to just try to be, to show grace there and then to connect with them by just being a human, a human being.
Josh Doody 01:00:08 And this is where even the occasional sort of synchronous phone call or zoom meeting can be really beneficial is building that culture so that you are comfortable talking to someone. It’s amazing how even you and I, our first conversation as we kind of prepared for this podcast and did some technical stuff was a face-to-face communication. And I felt like I went from somebody who had communicated with you quite a bit over email to talking face-to-face. And now we’re not face-to-face, but we’re having a great conversation and I feel like I know you really well from that one pretty short person to person face-to-face conversation that we had. And so I think that that’s something that companies should be looking for is, are there opportunities where we can do a synchronous meeting even once or twice a year, that’s 10 minutes even, so that these people who work together frequently can actually see each other and know each other better.
Josh Doody 01:00:54 And I think that will make a lot of those communications easier because it makes the person more human as opposed to just a person on the other side of a handle on Slack is a lot different than the person that I spoke with face-to-face on Zoom yesterday. So I think showing grace, understanding that different cultures are just different and we’re not like other people and other people are not necessarily like us. And again, this is, I’m talking geographic, but also business functions where people are just different. Acknowledging that and leaning into it, embracing it, and then also trying to find ways to sort of demystify who that person is can I think be a huge help there. And that’s, that’s a place where I am a fan of phone call every now and then, or a face-to-face Zoom meeting.
Brijesh Ammanath 01:01:30 Right. And very interesting example, yeah. That rings true with me. The last one, the question that I wanted to move on was not a mode of communication, but something which aids communication and wanted to know your thoughts and some strategies around active listening. How does one improve active listening? What does it mean? Maybe you start off over there and move on to some tips and tools for our listeners to improve their listening skills.
Josh Doody 01:01:57 First, let me say, I think active listening might have like a technical definition, which I’m not aware of. I’m aware of the idea. So I just want to be clear that if somebody’s listening and they’re like actually kind of educated on active listening as a technique, I’m probably not going to get it right. But I’ll tell you what I think of when I think of active listening, and that is one, just being engaged. So what I mean by that though is maybe different than what you might perceive. So I’ve said a lot of things in this conversation that are kind of breadcrumbs for this particular trail, and that is being engaged doesn’t necessarily mean making perfect eye contact the entire time that you’re listening. What it means is that you are doing whatever you need to do to take in what the person is saying and process it by hearing the words that they’re saying and what they’re trying to communicate.
Josh Doody 01:02:38 And so we’ve talked about on Zoom and how I think that can actually hinder my ability to listen actively because I’m not, my part of my brain is focused on making good eye contact with a camera and wondering if my lighting is okay. Whereas I mentioned I’m kind of a pacer. And so if I’m having a phone call with somebody and we’re talking about something nuanced, I will frequently not be at my desk. I’ll put in my AirPods and I’ll just wander around my house or my office and try to listen carefully to what they’re saying. And that helps me to actively listen because it, for whatever reason, kind of moving around helps me to process it. Some people like to take notes on the opposite of that, right. We talked about note taking. So I think for you, what you said earlier, I think that taking notes for you might be part of active listening, whereas for me, it would not be active listening.
Josh Doody 01:03:21 I would not be hearing what the person says. So I think in general, if you’re going to actively listen, it’s going to be you’re doing whatever you need to do to hear and understand and process what the person that is speaking to you is saying. And importantly, I think not just thinking about what your response is to what they’re saying. So this is a habit that I have and that other people have pretty frequently when you’re having conversations is instead of listening to the words that you’re saying, I’m thinking about what my response is going to be when I have an opportunity to talk and I’m counting down the seconds until I have a window to say what my opinion is on this thing, which means I’m probably not really getting what you’re saying a lot of the time. I’ve already formulated an opinion, I’m going to go ahead and say it as soon as I get the opportunity.
Josh Doody 01:03:58 And now I’m just waiting on the window to open so I can say my genius thought that I have. That’s not active listening because I’m not really processing what you’re saying. I may not even be open to changing what I would have planned to say depending on what you say. So I think that first and foremost, it’s important to make sure that you’re actually listening to the words that they say and processing what their intent is, what they’re trying to accomplish, trying to sympathize with what they’re saying and their perspective so that you can see whether you agree or disagree in the beginning to formulating thoughts on the other side. I think tools for that are going to vary by person for, like I said earlier, taking notes might be a good tool to help somebody active listen. It might help them to focus, it might help them to make sure they don’t miss anything and it might help them to formulate their own thoughts, whereas for me, taking notes is a distraction.
Josh Doody 01:04:40 So for me, active listening is pacing around my house, listening on the phone, and processing that way and trying to respond to them. I also think a really good thing to do in context, especially where you have like a verbal meeting, if there are things being discussed, is to listen carefully and then afterwards to summarize those things back. So a lot of my emails that I sent as a project manager and that I send out to my clients are, hey, here’s what we talked about, bullet point, bullet point, bullet point. So that’s not necessarily actively listening, but I have to listen actively to get those things and to be able to summarize the meeting that carefully. And so I think sending a quick summary can help with that because it’s another opportunity to process what you talked about, to make sure that you were listening well enough to get those summaries, the notes and to send them back.
Josh Doody 01:05:20 I also think for some people, recording conversations might be helpful. Occasionally recording a Zoom call can be really good if you’re afraid that you’re going to miss some nuance or something like that. So I think active listening ultimately comes down to paying attention, making sure that you’re processing what the other person is saying and that you’re not already out ahead of them thinking about what your response is going to be to what you think they’re going to say. That can be a great way to miss a lot of nuance and to miss what they actually are trying to communicate and maybe even just get it wrong. And so I think being present focused on what they’re saying and doing whatever you have to do to make sure that you internalize their words and process them well, to understand their intent and then to engage with them is how I would approach active listening in general.
Brijesh Ammanath 01:05:57 Excellent. We covered a lot of ground here. Was there anything we missed that you would like to mention, Josh?
Josh Doody 01:06:03 I don’t think so, I mentioned positive language very briefly, and that’s something that I, I would encourage. I think it’s kind of a life hack for people and so I would encourage you and the reason this comes to mind for me is that it’s good for any medium of communication. So think about the thing that you’re saying and then ask yourself if there’s a way to say it using positive words instead of negative ones. So if you say, I’m sorry you didn’t get the assignment, that’s sort of negative, but what you might say instead is, we’re going to go a different direction on this assignment with someone else, and I want to work with you to find a way to prepare you for the next assignment that comes along. Right? They’re subtly different, but I think that if you, if you think about how to use positive words, it kind of solves a lot of the problems that we’ve talked about with cross-cultural communication, with being heard, with getting your message across, with getting a response from people, which is a lot when we talked about email, I mean, a lot of the purpose of it is to get it read and to get them to do the thing.
Josh Doody 01:06:56 And you’ll get a lot more people to listen to what you have to say if you’re using positive language, especially as you’re being more direct, right? With asynchronous communication, we talked about being more direct. More direct doesn’t necessarily mean terse or negative, it means explicit and you can be explicit with somebody and make sure they understand what you’re communicating while also being kind and using positive words. And so in general, I think just the filter for that is, what’s the thing I’m about to say? Are there negative words in it? Like, can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, and can I replace those words with words that are positive and how do I rephrase it so that it’s a positive message that I’m sending, which will keep people engaged longer, it’ll help them to internalize it, it’ll make them less defensive, and I think it’ll get better results in the long run.
Brijesh Ammanath 01:07:37 I must say this has been a masterclass on business communication for me. Josh, thank you for coming on the show. It’s been a real pleasure. This is Brijesh Ammanath for Software Engineering Radio. Thank you for listening.
[End of Audio]