How To Master Business Communication: Learn the Unwritten Rules

Groups Always Enforce Unwritten Rules

Funny thing about human beings:  We like to organize ourselves into groups, and we like to tell each other how to act.

This means that every group of people — from a single household to a country of billions — has unwritten rules for how each member should behave. (Think of the statement, “In our family, we don’t [lie, steal, hit people, etc.])”

These “rules” are so obvious to insiders that they’re rarely discussed among adults; yet they serve many important functions for the group. In addition to keeping order, they:

  • Help people tell the difference between a “member of the club” and “someone who doesn’t know our ways”;
  • Can be used to exclude people (“women don’t run companies” was an unspoken rule that I grew up with); and
  • Determine, in part, who deserves promotion, opportunity, and respect.

Are There Unwritten Rules for Business Communication in the U.S.?

In their book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, Sales and Marketing: The Essential Cultural Guide —from Presentations and Promotions to Communicating and Closing, Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway explain that, in U.S. business meetings, you should,

  • Be prepared to answer a flurry of questions within the prescribed time.
  • Get to the point fast and have a good close.
  • Avoid [sensitive topics such as] religion, politics, sex, dieting, smoking, and age.

They also say that,

“If [your prospects] are not interested in any portion of your presentation, they will let you know immediately.”

Compare that with this comment, from the same book:

…getting truthful answers can be difficult in India. Traditional politeness keeps Indians from stating outright objections. You may be working on a business deal and assuming your Indian clients are in complete agreement, only to find out at the close that they have been repeating a polite yes rather than upset the process by coming out with a blunt “No!”

The authors go on to advise that, in India,

…the words “I’ll try”… can be safely interpreted as meaning no[emphasis mine]

In other words,

  • In the U.S., “I’ll try” means “I will do my best to deliver what you want.”
  • But in India (if Morrison and Conaway are correct), “I’ll try” means something closer to “What you want is not acceptable to me.”

Unwritten rules are so powerful, they can give opposite meanings to the same phrase!

And the rules of business communication don’t just help us get our point across; they also tell other people how seriously to take us:

  • When we follow the rules effectively, we’re said to have executive presence, or to be “management material.”
  • When we don’t, that’s taken as a demonstration that we’re “not ready for prime time.”

So what are these all-important business communication rules?

How to Present Yourself During Business Communication

I’ve assembled five rules for business communication in the United States, along with links and hints that will help you follow them:

1. Show confidence, even if you’re not feeling it. Do this through your posture, by making eye contact, and by appearing to be relaxed and centered. (Breathing really helps with this!)

2. Be straightforward and credible. Get right to the point, and state your point briefly. If you don’t know something, say so (or offer to find out). DO NOT LIE or make up facts. Your credibility is precious; don’t squander it.

3. Be guided by your audience’s reaction. After every thought, pause to assess whether your listeners need to hear more. (You’re speaking for their benefit, not yours.) Listen for the meaning behind other people’s words, and for the things that aren’t said.

4. Confirm what you think you know. It’s easy to believe that something has been decided, or that someone has committed to taking action, when that isn’t quite true. So be sure to always verify what you think was agreed to by stating it and asking others to agree. (“So we’ve decided to publish this report. Is everyone on board with that?”)

5. Prioritize action over emotion. Feelings play a major role in business (as in all human affairs) but, with rare exceptions, they shouldn’t be the focal point. Your best bet is to acknowledge the feelings and move on, with comments like, “We’re all frustrated, but let’s talk about what we’re going to do to fix things.”

And there you have it: My handy-dandy guide to the unstated but essential rules of business communication.

Of course, since “the rules” aren’t actually written down, this is just one speaker coach and speechwriter’s opinion; your mileage (and insights) may vary.

What do you think are the most important unwritten rules for business communication?

And when do you choose to follow — or ignore — them?

Image by Eric Bailey / Startup Stock Photos
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