6 mins

Communicating with your colleagues doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some ways, and a few cheat sheets, to get you started on your journey.

Communicating clearly is something often undervalued by engineers. However, the ability to frame, persuade, summarize, and align with your coworkers through written communication can make it a lot easier to get your work done. 

Good communication is an important skill for everyone

Reduced to its most basic tenets, effective communication is about presenting information such that your audience can act on the information appropriately. Without clear communication, meetings derail, threads spin out of control, readers jump to conclusions, or important updates can be ignored. 

As your career progresses, these skills can become more important, often even overshadowing the skill of producing code quickly. While it’s very easy to think you don’t need to worry about it, even the most junior engineers can tailor their communication skills to get the results they need more quickly. 

Communicating clearly is much more about the structure of your material; perfect grammar or syntax isn’t required. Instead of getting bogged down in the weeds of word choice, focus instead on your format. Do not bury the lede; keep your key point(s) easily read at the beginning so that readers do not have to go through every last word of your update. Highlight required action items with appropriate owners and summarize the appropriate information rather than making the recipient dig through a giant thread.

The basics of good communication

Good communication is underpinned by one core aspect: knowing your audience. It is an important skill to tailor your content to your recipients both in terms of jargon and the level of detail. 

Below are some tips you should abide by:

  • Only use the acronyms that the lowest common denominator will recognize. 
  • Don’t make your recipients wade through unnecessary details. A VP does not generally need to know that you’re blocked on 15 bugs before a dogfood release. Instead, say that you have some bugs, but are on track for a release in 2 weeks.
  • Curate your tone. Be kind; there is no need to intimidate junior folks unnecessarily when it’s possible to either soften a message or split the communication into more appropriate audiences.
  • Especially over chat, have all your necessary content in a single message. Sending short messages in bursts can make a conversation disjointed, and makes it especially hard for others to weigh in clearly. It is also a kindness to the recipient to let them focus on the whole content at once, rather than having them pause their current task to view a thread that hasn’t been bulked out with all its information yet. 

How to record a good demo

Demos are important tools to prove something is possible or to build excitement about ongoing work. However, they’re often rushed and are underwhelming to watch for anyone without a lot of prior context. 

A little bit of framing and polish goes a long way in making your demo stand out. Critically, narrating your demo can often be the difference between a lukewarm response from a viewer and a raving review.  

The best demos are anchored in the problem space you’re solving. Start with your problem space; what are the canonical use cases? Can you leverage one as the framing for your demo? Do not contrive a toy problem that has no bearing on a real-world use case; a simplified story is fine, but it still needs to be grounded in something compelling.

Before recording, it’s important to pinpoint what you’re trying to achieve, whether that’s teasing an idea to get it funded, demonstrating your latest work to gather excitement, or walking through an issue in the hopes of gaining executive support. Each flavor of demo has its own tone, audience, appropriate level of whimsy, and calls to action at the end. 

Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to sprinkle over-the-top memes throughout a serious demo, but it might be a great idea in a celebratory announcement.

See this step-by-step guide for more details on preparing and recording demos.

Status updates

When you’re leading a project, stakeholders need to be periodically kept aware of what's going on. Have a planned cadence for updating these stakeholders and write something easily consumable for what they need to know. 

Updates should never be walls of text. Humans have limited attention spans; leverage bullet points and always put the most important points at the top.

It is critical you understand your audience and tailor your updates appropriately. Executives do not need to know what each team member accomplished each week. However, your design team may need to know that the team is about to tackle X subfeature. Once you understand the goal of your updates, you can evaluate how much information to include.

See these guidelines for more details on how to give status updates. 

Effective project communication and risk management 

The vast majority of projects have a stated goal to accomplish X by a given date; good project leads communicate updates with a note on whether the project is on track. A useful shorthand that is easily readable is the  🟢→ 🟡→ 🔴scale. 🟢 means “on track to finished by date (or even earlier)”; 🟡 means “at risk to be finished by date”; 🔴 means “not going to be finished by date.” 

Good leaders proactively see risk, call it out, attempt to mitigate it, and either succeed or fail in that endeavor. Failure is not a surprise; everyone sees it coming and has appropriate contingency plans. Barring the truly unforeseeable circumstances (e.g., surprise pivot from leadership, etc.), your project should not go directly from 🟢 to 🔴. If it does, own it and reflect later on whether there was something you could have detected earlier.

See these guidelines for more information on how to raise issues in your org. 

A note on standups 

Generally, standups are not the time to dig into gory details, especially if they are only applicable to a limited portion of the attendee group. Consider raising the issue and then following up with the relevant parties offline or in a dedicated meeting.

Tagging people into a thread

I have yet to find a more grating feeling at work than being dropped into an extremely long email chain or Slack thread with no context. Trying to hunt through a slew of messages to find where the necessary context starts without losing a whole hour to detailed reading can be excruciating. That’s even assuming the formatting of the message makes that possible in the first place.

Remember, the people getting tagged in to make decisions or become aware of action items are generally the people who are juggling the most things. Your product manager does not have time to go hunting through your 50-deep long message thread for the pros and cons of a decision. Your tech lead does not automatically know what they need to do with a quick “FYI”. 

So, how do you become the tagging-extraordinaire? Explicitly, do not expect people to read a thread that is over five messages long. Recap what’s going on for the new people. Give them a jumping-off point so they either don’t have to read the whole thread or know exactly what they’re looking for when they do. The quicker you can make it for someone to understand the problem you’re bringing them into, the quicker you will receive feedback.

See these guidelines for more information on how to tag people into a thread. 

Final thoughts 

Communicating effectively is an art, not a science, and is much more easily learned through candid feedback from trusted colleagues. I was fortunate enough to have been explicitly taught how to communicate by mentors. The process was embarrassing at times, but eventually, I got the hang of what clear communication at work looked like. 

Crafting clear updates, delivering compelling demos, and orchestrating project progress all demand a tailored approach. And once you master the skill of doing so, you’ll be able to step up your leadership abilities.