WIIFM and other critical business communication concepts

May 25, 2020

My primary takeaway from my Business Communication class in college was this: you should communicate with as few words as it takes to clearly convey your message. Collectively, our most precious and finite resource is time, so to be an effective communicator in business, you need to take steps to minimize the amount of time needed to get your message across.

Here are the primary concepts for accomplishing that:

WIIFM

Pronounced “whiff-em”, this acronym stands for “What’s In It For Me?” and it is the primary motivator behind every single thing we, as humans, do. Every action we take generates a reward; if there is no reward, we might do it once, but we will learn from our mistake and not repeat that.

When creating your business communication, whether that is an email, a powerpoint, or a verbal conversation, it is critical to communicate to your audience why they should care. Inherit to this concept is knowing who your audience is: you might be presenting to a large group of people, but who is your primary target? Do you need to convince the visionary C-level executive to go with your recommendation? Then use imagery and analogies to craft a future that is appealing to that person. Do you need to win over the marketing group so they will continue to collaborate with you on some urgent projects, even though their boss is in the room, too? Explain how critical they have been to recent project success and how much you personally appreciate their great work; offer to buy them coffee or some gesture of goodwill that might make the boss roll their eyes, but that would be meaningful to the team.

Bullet points & formatting

If the content you’re creating has more than one sentence of information, consider how you can leverage formatting to create clarity. This includes tools like font size, bold, italics, underline, line breaks, and bullet points. Assume that whoever is reading what you’ve written is only going to read 20% of it: the first few words of the headline or first sentence, the first few words of a paragraph, and the first word of each bullet point in a list. You’ll also get more eyes on the beginning of the message so for this reason, always prioritize the most important items at the top. This goes back to WIIFM: your reader is rapidly searching your message for the answer to “why do I care about this?” and if they aren’t able to find it quickly, they will not receive your message.

Using bullet points and other formatting tools help break up the words to draw attention to the most critical parts of your message to make it clear what your audience should pay the most attention to.

Edit for brevity

Review your email or slide once you’ve got the necessary content on there. Make a copy to reference later. Then edit what you’ve got to make it shorter and clearer. Can you delete unnecessary words or context? Do you need to pull a sentence to the top from 3/4 of the way down to call attention to it? Then repeat. Then do it again. Review the copy of the original that you made earlier to make sure you didn’t cut anything that actually is critical, then read through once more to make sure everything is clear. If it’s really important, get someone else or multiple someone elses to review it.

BUT DO NOT…

…skip important information, especially bad news. Risks and issues should always be communicated, early and often. I have seen this done under the guise of “efficient use of our time” or “it’s only a 30-minute meeting, we won’t have time to get into it” but don’t sit on a bad news bomb when someone in the room might know how to defuse it, or at the very least, mitigate it. Most of the time, people are only upset when they are surprised. Manage expectations if something is not going as planned.

What are other golden rules of business communication that have helped you?

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