What employee communicators can learn from coders
— October 1st, 2020
Earlier this year to satisfy a curiosity, I took an online introductory course on coding.
Initially overwhelmed by all the new concepts I thought my biggest challenge would be to write clear instructions and with enough detail for the computer to execute the task I had in mind.
It was then with great humility that I came across a quote attributed to Martin Folwer, one of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development authors, that said, “Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand."
Like me, you may wonder why it matters that other humans can easily understand the code you’ve written for a computer. But, when lines of code are well organized, carefully planned, and easy to follow it is easier to maintain and modify while avoiding costly errors over time.
And that got me thinking. If great programmers write code that is easy for other humans to understand, then surely communicators should be able to learn a few things from coders?
The quest for clarity in internal communication
One of the big reasons for poor communication is a lack of clarity. A misstep that can result in confusion, conflict, disengagement, and, in its worst form, can levy a heavy cost against resources and trust levels in your organization.
On the flip side, the benefits of clear and effective communication are equally substantial.
With the world of work thrown into turmoil as people and companies navigate the complexities and disruptions of a global pandemic, it has brought the importance of clear and effective internal communication into sharp focus.
What lessons then can we take from the quest to write good clean code?
#1 Cover the basics first
Before you launch into writing code, you need to understand the problem you are looking to solve. You will need to think through the steps the computer should follow and identify what kind of information it will need to complete these tasks without mistakes.
As humans, we build a lot of assumptions into our communication. We assume that others understand what we mean when we use shorthand phrases and clichés. When we explain things to others, we often skip steps because we assume the steps are obvious to them. But these kinds of assumptions can lead to misunderstanding and sometimes even cause harm.
Thinking like a programmer forces you to be clear on the communication outcome, on the information people need, and how you can present this clearly and understandably.
#2 The naming of things and consistency
Programmers use variables to store information that might change and could be used later in the program. When using a variable in code, the programmer has to name it. The simpler and more descriptive that name is, the easier it will be for others to understand the intent and meaning. When the programmer is also consistent in how they use these words in similar functions, it adds to the overall readability of the code.
This is not unlike the call to avoid using jargon, clichés, and phrases that lose meaning outside of a specific context in your communication. By using simple and descriptive language that conveys meaning, and doing so with great consistency, you improve the overall clarity of your communication.
#3 The single responsibility principle
Single responsibility is a computer-programming principle that calls for a block of code to do one thing well. So instead of writing the swiss-army knife equivalent of code, the programmer would focus on writing a block of code to deal with one specific problem.
This approach avoids unnecessary complexity and susceptibility to errors. It is also a useful concept to apply in communication.
By giving focus and priority in unpacking a specific idea and avoiding the temptation to clump it together with a bunch of other ideas, you avoid confusion and keep communication simple, clear, and focused on key points.
#4 Clarity in presentation
To improve the readability of code, programmers also make use of whitespace, line breaks, and indentation to give structure and visually separate blocks of code.
This may sound like an elementary point, but whether you are producing written, visual, video or spoken communication – structure and space between ideas can make communication more understandable and accessible.
#5 Test, test, test
Before computer programs are released into the wild, they are tested extensively to ensure all the bugs are removed and deliver a great user experience. Testing and reviewing code is an ongoing process that improves the quality and stability of the program.
So often, we don’t spend enough time testing communication before releasing it into an organization. Making sure the message is correctly understood and using feedback to reduce ambiguity, remove complexity, and add explanations can greatly enhance the outcome of your communication efforts.
Writing good code, I’ve been told, is hard work. Likewise, developing clear and effective internal communication takes deliberate effort and focus, but the rewards are worth it. Not only will you see better communication outcomes, but it will also show that you care about your audience and are genuinely committed to creating a more fulfilling and engaging work environment.