Leadership Skills: How to Communicate at Work

Communication is a life-long struggle in all areas of our lives. Most noticeably, our workplaces seem to lack clear correspondence that leads to desired results. Here’s the question: does anyone really know how to communicate at work?

Leaders must be effective communicators in word and speech. Further, organizations will blossom or whither depending on the communication of their leaders.

Here are some tools you can use to enhance your communication at work.

How to communicate at work

Photo by 祝 鹤槐

Speaking: The BLUF Approach

Leaders use two primary forms to communicate. First, they use the Bottom Line Up Front approach. Second, they employ formal and informal methods of communication to articulate their message clearly.

The BLUF should be the first thing you say in a speech, brief, lesson, or discourse. Indeed, the BLUF summarizes the thesis of your agenda and synchronizes the group around a clear idea.

That’s it—no fluff or pomp. Just say the reason for why you’re speaking at that moment.

Do not overthink this part. It’s the easiest portion of the brief, but it is the most effective piece that you’ll say as well because you’ll have your audience’s full attention.

In the book Brief: Make a Bigger Impact By Saying LessJoseph McCormack discusses how our decreasing attention spans make it challenging to retain important information. If you start with your BLUF, you will have accomplished two things:

-Maintained your audience’s attention

-Delivered your most important piece first

These two things are powerful in your audience’s mind. First, they didn’t have to use brainpower searching for your main point. Second, they can process your brief with the BLUF in mind.

Sometimes, when we prepare for a brief, we’re tempted to start with the build-up details and tie it all together in our main point at the end of the brief.

Instead, reverse that concept, and you’ll have more success in helping your audience understand you.

Like the BLUF approach, James Humes wrote a book called Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, that talks about using a power opener to an address. If Abraham Lincoln did it, then you can too.

Formal vs. Informal Communication

Next, think about your forms of communication at work. We communicate formally in memos and synchronization meetings along with other methods to quickly and effectively disseminate information.

Moreover, leaders have formal and informal communication, according to Navy Captain (R) David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around!

True to form, formal communication channels serve as a standard system to deliver succinct messages for the company. Additionally, it’s essential for the company/organization to function because it is an efficient communication system.

It’s practical to speak the same language across all departments—for example, the U.S. Military shares common symbols for military units. Moreover, every military officer knows what an infantry platoon looks like on a map because the military has a common understanding.

In theory, this formal communication expedites decisions throughout the organization.

Despite its advantages, formal communication does not suffice for all interactions.

In addition, informal communication creates efficiencies within a company/organization as well. For example, the Army has stacks of manuals that teach soldiers how to do certain tasks. However, Army trainers often take their soldiers aside and show them how to conduct certain tasks with little more than a couple of sticks and a few rocks.

People thrive off of informal communication. For instance, after meetings, I’ll ask my colleagues questions to clarify meeting topics. Obviously, my coworkers aren’t going to conduct a formal brief for me about those matters. Instead, they’ll explain the concept in simple terms.

How to communicate at work

Photo by Ivan Samkov

Write How Others Want To Read

Writing is vastly different from speaking. For instance, speakers relate their messages to audiences who rely on verbal and non-verbal cues from the speaker. However, writing must articulate a whole new picture.

Whether it’s a casual email or a formal letter, leaders have a couple of methods they employ while writing a message.

Avoid Passive Language

Be as direct as possible. I still struggle with this often but understand that your bosses have demands on their time. So, if they can’t discern what you’re trying to say, then your memo isn’t worth their time.

Additionally, passive language muddies your message and frustrates your audience. Instead, use direct language. Here’s an example of a passive followed by the active sentence:

Passive: The file was given to the representative.

Active: Bill gave the file to the representative.

The passive sentence provokes more questions than the active sentence, such as: who gave the file to the representative? It may send you down an endless train of inquiries from the boss. Conversely, the active sentence cuts off the ‘who’ question and provides context to your writing.

Formal and Informal Writing

Yes, these apply here, too. Use official memos for correspondence with persons outside of your organization and within. Formal communication represents you as a person and the company for which you work.

A good rule is to re-read what you wrote after writing a formal document.

Also, check for spelling and grammatical errors! Frequently, professionals will forego this step and publish an official report riddled with errors. I have seen several emails and memos with typos from senior military leaders.

Informally, jotting notes or short emails require etiquette as well. Understand for whom the message is intended. Although you’re using informal speech, maintain your professional bearings as well.

BONUS: There Is A Difference Between The “To” Line And The “CC” Line In An Email

Yes, this is important. Yes, there is a difference. Pay attention to who goes where. Reserve the “To” line for people who you want to act on the email you’re sending. Those on the “cc” line are people who you want to be informed about the email.

Putting the correct people in the “To” and “cc” lines clearly shows what you want from those people. It mitigates confusion about who is actively involved and who needs to be informed.

How to communicate at work

Photo by Jessica Lewis

A Message Sent Isn’t Always A Message Received

How many emails do you send in one day? Leaders must take responsibility for those with whom they correspond. If they send an email, there’s always a follow-up.

Usually, that follow-up is a phone call or a face-to-face conversation.

Use this formula because even though you sent that email, chances are your recipient did not read it. If you’re getting one hundred emails each day, then assume they are getting just as many. Ensure your recipient receives your message.

Proper Correspondence

If you’re unsure which method of communication to use, understand your preferred means of contact:

Use these as rank-ordered preferred methods of contact:

-Face to face




Refer to the previous paragraph that a message sent isn’t always a message received. Use at least two of these to send a clear message. Remember, you’re operating from your audience’s perspective, not yours.

Take responsibility if your recipient did not understand your correspondence.

How to communicate at work

Photo by nappy

Special Note For Face To Face And Telephone

The follow-up is a formal email to the person. Usually, you’ll add people who are involved in the project if it applies. Sometimes, it’ll be a personal email. You must have a “paper trail” of what you talked about to avoid the “he said, she said” dilemma.

BONUS: Contact List

Organize your contact list. My contact lists usually have the person’s name, title, company, phone number, then email. Get info wherever you can get it. Typically, competent professionals will have signature blocks to their emails. Log that information. It’s useful for the future, no matter how frequently you contact that person.


It’s cliche to say that communication is essential. True. How we use it is the key to getting results. Communication boils down to a few points:

-Who are you addressing?

-What do you want this person to know?

-How can you get that message to them?

Follow these questions. Miscommunication occurs because the sender and the receiver are not taking responsibility for the message itself. Once both understand the importance of the correspondence, then progress can occur.

How do you use effective communication as a leader? Leave your answer in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

Books Mentioned

Brief: Make a Bigger Impact By Saying Less by Joseph McCormack. Read a review here.

Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln by James Humes

Turn the Ship Around! Navy Captain (R) David Marquet. Read a review here.

Photo Credit

Featured Image: Christina Morillo

1: 祝 鹤槐

2: Ivan Samkov

3: Jessica Lewis

4: nappy



12 thoughts on “Leadership Skills: How to Communicate at Work”

  1. This is a good Post Robert. People often get confused or misunderstand the differences between management and leadership. As you rightly point out, leaders need to adapt and alter their communication style appropriately and ensure that its on point with any given situation. Its certainly an area where I continue to focus on both personally and professionally. An evolving learning experience but particularly important. Thanks for your thoughts – both informative and reinforcing. Jason.

    1. Jason,

      You’re right! Management is not leadership but you can use leadership in management. As a leader, it is critical to communicate your message clearly to your teams and bosses alike. Thank you for your comment!


  2. Thank you so much for this excellent article, Robert! Communication is certainly crucial to being an effective leader. I like how you used the BLUF acronym to describe the best mode of communication-I like for people to get to the point instead of dilly-dallying around. Haha Tell me the objective from the get-go, and we can utilize our time figuring out how to bring it about. I used to have a huge problem with passive language in my speaking and writing, but I have greatly improved in this area, and actually think about active language with every professional sentence that I say/write (some may call it neurotic, but I call it being careful. Haha). Great read! God bless you!

    1. C.N.

      I use BLUF a lot in my work, especially if I’m talking to my boss or someone senior. It has helped! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for your comment!


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  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for this informative article about how to communicate at work, and I think people could understand your points clearly because you made it comprehensive. For the tips you mentioned here, I think the re-read works the best for me since I sometimes rushed to complete my jobs & sent out emails that have many errors… So, I check my sentences and spellings before I click the “send” button, now the situation gets better. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing,

  5. I rarely send – or receive for that matter – letters any more, but do you think there are circumstances in the internet era of 2020 when an e-mail is too informal, and a hard copy is necessary?

    1. Simon,

      Good question! I absolutely believe that formal correspondence is necessary. It’s the same reason that colleges still send acceptance letters in the mail, or why political figures still send/receive physical copies of letters. It shows trust and confidence that the message being sent/received is a legitimate message. It’s about the perception of legitimacy that a physical correspondence sends to its receivers. I appreciate your question, and I hope I answered it well for you. Thank you!


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