10 Ways to Hone Your Communication Skills as a Business Analyst


10 Ways to Hone Your Communication Skills as a Business AnalystOne of the soft skills that BABOK [1] specifies is communication, and for good reason—understanding and being properly understood is key to any profession, but especially business analysis, where details are king and unearthing them is meticulous work. And an analyst has multiple avenues of communication that affect her work—intranets, surveys, interviews, in-hall conversations, impromptu meetings, focus groups, status reports, email chains, informal status updates in a cubicle, formal meeting agendas, blogs, wikis, not to mention requirements. Failure to communicate, in writing or orally, one question properly in an interview, one update to an engineer, or one expected performance to a QA expert, and the trajectory of a project can change. Without strong communication skills, an analyst’s work is thwarted.

Here are some ideas that can help ensure that you convey exactly what you need to.

  1. Communicate to people where they are. It may be tempting to announce that all project updates will come henceforth in weekly written status reports posted on the company intranet, and it is the duty of each stakeholder to check the intranet in a timely manner for any updates. But the fact is that some people do better face-to-face because they ignore emails; others need things written so they can refer back to them. Don’t fight the personality type. In a publicity campaign, marketers know they can’t rely on one channel to create a buzz. One morning talk show or newspaper article won’t do it. They need to hit dozens or hundreds of outlets at once so that people get the message over and over before they retain it. With business analysis communication, the principle is the same. Communicate the same clear message to everyone, everywhere, at once.

  2. Make the message easy to comprehend. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Communicate what you need to say in as few words as possible. Think TwitterTM feed, not legalese or tax code. Make your written updates and status reports newsletter-ish, with new information bulleted at the top and with relevant action items accompanying them. And if your audience includes customers, engineers, and sales staff, always err on the side of communicating to the masses rather than using any technical jargon. Some of your readers or listeners may be able to understand a complex software textbook. Every last one of them can understand USA Today.

  3. Set concrete objectives, not just subjective visions. Quantify your research and expectations. In a meeting, don’t say “This needs to happen as soon as possible,” but “The drop dead date for this enhancement to roll out is June 1.” Not “Can you please get me your feedback as soon as possible?” but “I know you’re busy, but if we’re going to meet the project deadline, I need to hear from you by end of business today.”

  4. Tailor the message to the audience. BABOK states that a sign of strong writing skills is the “ability to adjust the style of writing for the needs of the audience.” What does your audience need to hear? Software developers may not need to be sold on the awesomeness of the new product, but a customer who’s providing early feedback or is part of a virtual focus group will. So something like, “We need your expertise to help us shape a new product that will take at least 10 hours off your work each month” will serve you better than more technical language.

  5. Be proactive. Don’t let others interpret a project’s details or status for you. If it’s controversial or important, put it clearly in writing, and send it out in dated material. Don’t let colleagues, stakeholders, or developers hear it from someone else. A lot of this goes back to requirements – if it’s not in the requirements, it shouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. But the fact is that a lot of forward-thinking speculation exists outside of requirements – and the difficult truth is that some stakeholders will never read the requirements that closely. Make an effort to actively reach them where they are.

  6. Use the resources at your disposal. If you’re stuck on how to communicate something clearly to the masses, call on your marketing department. Chances are they’ve called on you many times to help them understand a product, but analysts rarely call on marketers to help them communicate a product or enhancement in an understandable way. Technical writers can also help. One phone call to a communications expert can help you tailor your message and save dozens of times re-explaining things later.

Written Communications

All of the above general communication principles also apply to written communication, such as emails, surveys, and requirements. But writing can be tricky, as BABOK says: “Written communications are capable of recording a great deal of information, but it is frequently challenging to ensure that the written text is correctly understood.” Here are a few tips specific to writing:

  1. Do a read-through to eliminate run-on sentences and overly technical language. People who are technically proficient tend to make ideas more complex than they have to be. “Depress the appropriate key indicating whether you would like to abort your updates or continue and save,” versus “Hit Cancel or Enter.” You may need to repackage some ideas to be more readable for a broader audience.

  2. If need be, brush up on your vocabulary and grammatical skills. Most business analysts are also part-time copywriters by default, thanks to requirements. BABOK notes, “Effective written communication requires that the business analyst have a broad vocabulary, strong grasp of grammar and style, and an understanding of which idioms and terms will be readily understood by the audience.” A good basic guide for brush-up is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Spoken communications

You tell people about your projects in phone calls, meetings, presentations, and hallway conversations. All of the general communication principles above also apply here, but here are a few specifics:

  1. Always use spoken communications as a supplement to what’s already in writing. Never rely on speaking alone. This is how gold-plating, assumptions, and rumors get started. Make sure what you want to communicate is written clearly, and published for your audience to access easily.

  2. Keep your tone positive and friendly. If you’re tired or frustrated, try not to show it. It will make people less inclined to help you, or listen to you. BABOK notes that one can develop and deliver “powerful presentations by positioning content and objectives appropriately (i.e. positive verses negative tone).” Negativity often makes people defensive, and there’s no benefit in alienating your colleagues. For every audience, stay positive—whether presenting a problem or a solution.

Practice Active Listening

Active listening is simply repeating back what you understand the speaker to be saying, and verbalizing what you interpret from that. This gives the speaker a chance to clarify, and eliminates assumptions. Often analysts aren’t even aware that they’re making assumptions and building them into their requirements, so this practice is especially useful during the discovery phase. For example, a customer service rep might say, “We hate the current report feature. It takes forever, and customers are always frustrated with it.” An analyst practicing active listening would then say something like, “So your main concern is finding a way to get the customers the information they need that same day, whether it’s in a report or not?” This would lead the SME to affirm the analyst’s assumption, or correct it.

Most of these principles become second nature after they’re used a while. Hopefully they can make your communications, and your work, go more smoothly. Looking for more resources to develop this soft skill? Many colleges now offer courses specifically for business communications, or you can turn to established texts such as The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner and Writing that Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business.

Author : Morgan Masters is Business Analyst and Staff Writer at ModernAnalyst.com, the premier community and resource portal for business analysts. Business analysis resources such as articles, blogs, templates, forums, books, along with a thriving business analyst community can be found at http://www.ModernAnalyst.com

[1] A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), Version 2.0, International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ©2005, 2006, 2008, 2009.

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GBeam posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2012 3:49 AM
I must say this is very well put!
cledford posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2012 4:09 PM
Great points.
Wallace posted on Monday, September 17, 2012 3:24 PM
Good food for thought and ideas to practice. Thanks!
Travis Barker MPA GCPM posted on Sunday, November 4, 2012 10:29 PM
Thanks for the article.

It was very informative.

I enjoyed your points about active communication versus recipient of information. The distinction between the role of the communicator and the listener, which allows the speaker to evaluate what was and was not understood. The challenges faced using the different media/mediums available also presents a useful analysis for the public speaker to consider.

Managing within fast paced, dynamic, technical, and social environment that is diverse and non homogenous requires the manager to take every opportunity to transmit information through available media/mediums, and formats. Values and symbols, through admission and omission, both contribute towards and detract from the team's understanding of what is being communicated.

Thanks again.

Travis Barker, MPA GCPM
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