Striking the right tone in a fast-paced, digital world can be challenging. How can you ensure you are using the right language in the workplace without sacrificing your authenticity?
Communication is an integral part of being a professional - and it’s a key skill that you can begin developing early in your career. “It’s so important to be able to articulate what you mean and get your message across clearly,” says Lucy Randall, Senior Early Careers Manager at ICAEW. “Chartered accountants do a lot of storytelling in their role, so it’s essential to understand who needs to know what, and communicate with a wide variety of people.”
Here, Lucy and career coach Liz Sebag-Montefiore share their advice on communicating professionally with colleagues and clients.
1 Think about context
“Effective communication requires adapting language to the audience and context,” says Liz. “It’s important to analyse each situation and alter your communication style appropriately.” Many of us do this instinctively – your communication style in a Slack message will be very different to that in a report for senior colleagues or a client. If in doubt, be formal. “Maintaining a level of formality means we are more likely to hold ourselves accountable and present the best version of ourselves,” says Liz.
2 Be clear and concise
Whether speaking or writing, make sure your purpose is clear – the other person should be able to grasp your meaning quickly and understand exactly what it is you’re telling or asking them. Always be specific in an email subject line – ‘Scheduling my next six-monthly review’ is far more useful than a vague ‘Meeting availability’. “Try to get your message across in as few words as you can,” advises Liz. “If you ramble, people will either tune out or lose sight of exactly what you want.”
3 Check for errors
Spelling and grammatical errors can appear unprofessional. Take time to read over any written communication before you send it, and remember that a spell-checker can only take you so far – it is unlikely to pick up mistakes like ‘conservation’ instead of ‘conversation’, for example. Make sure you always spell people’s names correctly and address them appropriately.
4 Be careful with humour
It’s sensible to avoid sarcasm – which may not land as you intended, especially in written communication – and swearing. “Don’t use humour or bad language if you don’t know the person you are addressing well enough to judge what their reception of those words will be,” says Liz. “If you wouldn’t say it to a parent, then don’t say it to a colleague. Warmth and friendliness are all very well, but this is work, so communicate in a professional and respectful way.”
5 Use jargon appropriately
Every industry has its own terminology, and you’ll no doubt be familiar with plenty of accountancy jargon by now, whether it’s CGT, GAAP or P&L. But only use technical language when you can be confident your audience is familiar with it. “Using language that your audience doesn’t understand will not convey your message,” says Liz. “It’s not that you should avoid technical or specialised topics, or sacrifice accuracy or detail, but you should be able to adapt your language to the level of knowledge and interest of your audience.”
6 Be positive
Always remain polite and professional. If you’re feeling angry or frustrated, take a pause before you respond. “The language we use at work should convey positivity. Rather than complaining about problems, mistakes, and barriers in the workplace, we should focus on solutions and vocalise professionalism,” says Liz. “Even when you disagree with someone, it’s important to understand and respect their point of view. Simple phrases such as ‘I understand where you’re coming from’ show that you’re listening to the other person and respect their opinions.”
7 Be inclusive
The language you use should be accessible and relatable to whoever is reading it. That covers different levels of reading abilities as well as the personal characteristics of your audience. “It’s important we use language that shows respect for, and sensitivity towards, everyone,” Liz says. “We need to be aware of how our communication reveals biases toward various cultural identities based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation and ability.” Consider how your language may be interpreted by different audiences. When everyone feels included, you’re more likely to land your message.
8 Be authentic
While it’s important to be professional in your communication, it’s also vital to be yourself. “I spend a lot of time with young people discussing the difference between being professional and being personal whilst also being able to bring your authentic self to work. It can sometimes feel like a bit of a tightrope to walk,” says Lucy. Being professional doesn’t mean you have to be formal all the time or appear emotionless. “You will always be building relationships professionally, and part of that is humanising those connections,” Lucy adds.
9 Think beyond words
Communication is about more than the words you choose – your tone, body language and facial expressions all speak volumes. Above all, the key to being a great communicator is to recognise that it goes two ways, says Liz. Active listening not only demonstrates respect for others, but will help you gauge the right level and language for what you want to say. “We need to connect on the right emotional level, and so communication using clarity, empathy, respect and relatable language will show credibility and the ability to reach a mutually beneficial position for all parties.”
Practise these tips in person by reading our guide to professional networking.