How to get your colleagues’ attention

Conveying crucial information to busy higher-ups—or even to easily distracted colleagues—can be difficult. Here’s how to make sure your message gets through.

It can be hard to get key people’s attention, even when you need it the most.

A friend recently described the frustration of her words simply not registering. Rhonda, a VP of communications, went into the CFO’s office for a sign-off on the annual report. She made a point of explaining carefully that the report was going to press at 6 a.m. the next day.

The CFO assured her that all changes were made and to let it go. The next day, after the presses had been rolling for five hours, the CFO sat down in Rhonda’s office with a copy of the annual report stuffed full of marked pages. “OK,” he said. “Let’s go over my changes.”

Despite Rhonda’s best intentions, somehow her message to the CFO was lost. Communication with upper management—and with other colleagues, for that matter—can be a lot more complicated than it seems. This is because nothing happens in a vacuum.

Each of us at any given time is the product of long-term and short-term stimuli. This interference or “noise” in the model is often the culprit in miscommunication. The CFO may have been thinking of the board meeting coming up, the audit just completed, the first quarter figures, or the person who cut him off on his commute into work.

All this occurs beneath the surface and is, for the most part, invisible to the casual observer. Your partner in the conversation is probably not even conscious of these factors.

By becoming a student of human nature, you can help yourself by presenting information to your bosses or colleagues at a time and in a manner that blocks the “noise” and makes them more receptive.

How do they work?

Studying the preferred rhythms of people’s work habits can provide clues to the best time to approach them.

Do they like to clear out emails first thing in the morning or chat with other executives? Do they need that first cup of coffee or tea? Do they have a “golden” time when they prefer to work on projects that demand their undivided attention? What’s on their agenda for the day?

An administrative assistant can tell you if they have a meeting or conference call scheduled. Plan to talk to them afterward (unless you sense the event went badly).

Timing is everything

Emails allow people to address subjects at a time that is best for them. But does your boss like detailed reports or quick notes that can be fleshed out in person? Does he or she like to catch up with emails over the weekend?

Some executives prefer face-to-face updates as developments occur; others would rather be brought up to speed on several topics at a scheduled time. Adjust your method of dealing with each individual.

Even if your company has an “open-door” policy, most leaders are probably not tuned to your channel when you cross the threshold. If they keep their eyes on the computer instead of making eye contact, their focus may be elsewhere.

Look at their body language. Is it tense or relaxed? Simply asking, “Is this a good time?” or, “When would you like to discuss the Simpson project?” will allow them to address the problem at once or choose another time.

Obviously, if they are on the phone, come back later—unless the information you have is urgent and perhaps relevant to the conversation they are having.

Speak their language

Remember, it is generally not a senior executive’s job to understand the detailed process behind your efforts. They may not decode lead times, press runs, and final deadlines as you’d intended.

Their minds are probably focused elsewhere. They are looking at the big picture and, hopefully, trust you to handle the details. Provide context for them to make better business decisions. Your task is to know the factors determining those decisions and to use a vocabulary that speaks to them. Addressing the economic factors that drive decisions can often be helpful. Know what’s important to them, use their language, and avoid jargon.

To get your boss’s attention, you have to know your stuff. If you are prepared, if you do good work, if you have a strong recommendation, let your boss know. Confidence (without arrogance) is highly persuasive. Be firm and speak with conviction, communicating in a way that your boss can understand. It’s hard to ignore that.

Ken Ball is director of corporate communications for RHR International . A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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