Ask 6 Questions to Keep Your Communication on Point

The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most critical success factors for remote workers. No matter where the work is performed, most of us have colleagues, teammates, bosses or clients with whom we need to share updates, feedback and information from time to time.

Helpful communication requires a little bit of thoughtful preparation. Too much, too often, inconvenient timing and extraneous content can create a lot of stress for the recipient. Think about the person whose workflow is constantly interrupted by pings and notifications throughout the day or who receives dozens of unnecessary messages with information that is unconnected to their work. You don’t want to become another source of frustration for those whom you depend upon for information.

To Communicate Effectively Remember the 5 Ws (and How)

To streamline your communication technique, keep the 5 Ws (and How) in mind. This is a basic journalism approach for gathering information and writing the most comprehensive account of a news story. The 5 Ws are who, what, when, where and why. How is another important question that is sometimes referred to as “the sixth W” or “5Ws and an H.”

You can adapt this method to help you to think through the information that you need to share, as well as the context, priority and individuals involved so that you can tailor your communication style for the best outcomes.

Ask yourself:

WHO needs to be included in this message?

Have you ever been copied on a frequently updated conversation thread that doesn’t apply to your work? Most people find this annoying, yet we all know people who like to include everyone in their updates. Don’t confuse those who need to know with those whom you feel might like to know the status updates of your project.

WHAT information are you sharing?

Has there been activity or movement on the project that the team needs to be aware of? Are there questions that need to be addressed? Sending routine updates if you have no real information to share simply produces more message clutter for everyone. It also can take attention away from genuine reports that may come later. (If you’re constantly sending memos that have no real content value, your teammates may simply start skipping over your messages — aka, the “cry wolf”syndrome.)

WHY are you sending the message?

Why are you reaching out to this person or group? Are you sharing a quick update? Do you need information to proceed on a project? Do you just want to “gather thoughts” from the group? Remember that, with most written communication vehicles, less is more. Opening a lengthy message that looks like a novella is sure to instantly skyrocket the stress level of the receiver, and will likely be ignored if the recipient is busy (but not before annoying your colleague).

Try to keep your messages brief — limit the content for each message to two to four points for email and message boards, or one to two points when using text and instant messaging applications. Use formatting when possible. Condense your main points into easily digestible bullets and then schedule a phone call or meeting if you need to go into further detail or hash out ideas.

Tip: Don’t ask your team to brainstorm ideas in writing. Brainstorming is a real-time, spontaneous activity — one that generates more participation and ideas when it takes place during a live conference call.

WHEN should you reach out?

When do you need a response? What is urgent to you in the moment may not seem as important to your recipient. Set expectations with your teammates on when to communicate. Be respectful of their schedules.

If your team is spread across time zones, think about where the recipient is in his or her workday before sending the message. Are you pinging someone at 5 a.m. with questions and requests? Do you constantly interrupt certain individuals at dinner time with questions and expect an immediate response? Do you work with part-timers or freelancers who have other obligations during the day or on certain days of the week?

Set expectations with your teammates on when it’s OK to communicate. Make sure that everyone knows when others are available and when they’re not. Make use of the do-not-disturb, out-of-office and away-from-desk status settings within messaging applications. Be sure to set an expected return time so that the team will know if you’re going to be away for a couple of hours or for the rest of the day.

Tip: When reaching out to a teammate for feedback, set a clear expectation for when you need a response. If it’s not urgent, say so. Even better, schedule your messages to arrive in the recipient’s inbox at a time when it is convenient for them to respond.

WHERE are the recipients located at the moment?

Are the individuals working in an office or at sites that are spread across time zones? Are recipients working from home? A hotel room? Attending an event? At a client’s site? Consider whether the information you want to share is helpful to your colleague where he or she is right now at this moment. Can it wait until the timing is more convenient, or when they’re in a more suitable place to receive and respond? Make sure the message and medium used are suitable for the person receiving the message and that your expectations for a response are realistic.

HOW will you deliver the message?

To choose the right medium, consider the purpose of your message and the content that you’ll be sharing. Online messaging tools work best for quick, brief, real-time communication. Don’t message your teammates with requests that require a lengthy or complicated reply in writing (consider whether a quick call would be more appropriate).

Something else to keep in mind: Written communication often takes on a tone that may reflect a mood that is unintentional on the writer’s part. Keep in mind that sensitive messages are easily misinterpreted in written form, so consider a phone call, in-person meeting or webcam conversation when you need to share more difficult or critical feedback.

Tip: Cultivate your skills with a variety of communication tools. While you may prefer text messaging for all of your conversations, your colleague may find that approach irritating. Try to accommodate the recipient’s preferences whenever possible; their appreciation will help your communications to flow more smoothly.