An Interview with Phil Simon, Author of Message Not Received

Phil Simon Message Not Received

Do you know if you’re being a truly effective communicator at work? It’s a problem that still persists, despite the proliferation of apps and services dedicated to eliminating the issue. Aside from using jargon and bloating text with confusing acronyms, many corporate folks depend almost exclusively on a single communications vehicle: e-mail. In the process, they actively resist new, powerful, and truly collaborative tools specifically designed to make people work and communicate better.

Phil Simon, author of the brand new book Message Not Received, is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology authority. He’s the award-winning author of seven management books (most recently Message Not Received) who consults organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology; his contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, NBC and many others.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Phil, you will learn how exactly your communication is linked to your productivity, how to get around archaic systems that inevitably block natural communication, and how you can improve your communication skills in the workplace.

1. A lot of people out there are looking for productivity “hacks”– yet effective communication rarely makes the “Top 10 Ways to Rock Your Productivity” lists. Why should people take improving their communication skills more seriously?

Productivity and communication are anything but separate. In fact, they’re cousins. If you don’t communicate well, isn’t that inherently unproductive?

You might know what you mean even if you use a cryptic communications style. After all, you’re only communicating with yourself. At some point, though, that argument fails to hold water. Even the most reclusive of us work and interact with other people from time to time. It’s not enough for us to know what we mean. Others have to understand us as well.

2. In the introduction to Message Not Received, you talk about your personal communications journey. What was the most difficult piece of feedback you received at the start of your career and how did you react to it?

That’s a great question. I am introspective throughout the book because I was anything but a great communicator early in my career. The lesson for readers is that these problems can be fixed. If I can vastly improve my communications chops, anyone can. Anyone.

I worked at CapitalOne for about a year and a half starting in 1997 as a generalist in HR. I remember very clearly my first performance review. It was downright awful and I wasn’t expecting anything so jarring. In fairness, I was in a high-visibility role with little experience in HR. It wasn’t a great fit. Excuses aside, I quickly came crashing down to earth. I had to ask confront some profound truths about my professional behavior. It wasn’t easy.

I tried not to be defensive. I changed my behavior in the corporate world over a number of years and found a line of work better suited to my skills and interests. I couldn’t completely turn off the “techie” side of my personality; I had to find a line of work that made more sense.

I think a lot of people can relate to feeling overwhelmed by the mountains of information that we have access to on a daily basis. It seems like there’s always another article or book to read that promises to make us more effective in our careers and in life. How do we make sure we get the information we need without getting overwhelmed in the process?

It’s a difficult balance. As human beings, we want to feel important and even essential at work. Self-education is a very good thing but, as we’re learning, there’s a limit.

Realize that less is sometimes more. Even on an esoteric topic, there’s a tremendous amount to know —and many if not most people know what you do. (See the curse of knowledge.) Plenty of smart people forget that rule, and their messages are not received because of it. There’s nothing wrong with simple language. Somewhere along the line, many people bought into the myth that there’s something wrong with that.

3. You cite several studies and anecdotes in your book that show how reliance on email and unnecessarily complicated communication lead to lower individual and team productivity. Despite the evidence, companies continue to fall into these traps. What keeps organizations from adopting better communication? What can a manager do to start changing that?

Organizations are comprised of people, and many people hate change. I understand it. It’s easier to rattle off a message than to champion a better way of doing things. It’s risky to go to bat for change in many organizations.

With respect to your second question, culture is huge. The technology to communication has been around for a long time. Collectively, it’s only become more affordable over the past decade. People decide either through their actions or inaction how to communicate.

4. I think your list harmful business jargon would surprise a lot of people. How would you advise us to start the “de-programming” process and make ourselves aware of when we aren’t communicating as clearly as we think we are?

I’m certainly not the arbiter of jargon. Other early reviewers of the book took issue with a few of the items on that list. Maybe two people know exactly what they’re talking about new form factors that should result in value-adds going forward. I sure don’t, and I suspect that I’m not alone. Throughout the book, I provide quantitative and qualitative data on the effects of jargon.

Many employees are afraid to ask questions like, What do you mean? What does that acronym stand for? Can you say that more simply?

Basic questions like that may turn the tide. Sure, you run the risk of appearing uninformed, but think about the consequences about proceeding on a project or product when you don’t truly understand what your company or VP is trying to accomplish. Isn’t insisting upon clarity (even at the risk of appearing uninformed) the lesser of two evils?

5. You list a small number of email alternatives in your book, but the sheer number of tools available is overwhelming. How should teams and individuals evaluate which collaboration tool will best fit their needs?

Yes, it’s a big list and it’s not remotely comprehensive! I try to write books in a vendor-agnostic fashion. I attempt to capture the most valuable tools of the moment, although those change faster than ever these days.

In a word, experiment. Never has it been easier to date without getting married. The arrivals of cloud computing, SaaS, and open-source software mean that you can kick the tires on an application without making a long-term commitment. This is markedly different than 15 years ago. Back then, deployments took a long time. Costs were higher by orders of magnitude.

6. Outside of the collaboration and organizational tools that you mention in your book, what’s the one app that you can’t live without?

Yours is pretty good– Todoist is like a remote control for my life. Pocket is über-useful. Beyond that, for travel TripIt is really valuable. I chuckle when I see people who keep their itineraries in twelve different e-mails. One-stop shopping is a very good thing.

Do you have any additional questions for Phil? Please share them here in the comments!

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