Accessible Communication is Leadership Communication, Part 1

COVID-19 has changed almost every aspect of our daily lives. Since the pandemic started, millions shifted to remote work and embraced new technologies allowing them to connect with each other in new ways. Yet despite technological advancements that allow us to stay more connected than ever before, communication has gotten more difficult.

86% of executives already attributed business failures to problems communicating and collaborating back in 2014. In our new hybrid reality, barriers to clear and accessible communication have been exacerbated. HBR now identifies communication as one of the biggest challenges in today’s hybrid workforce.

You probably rely on digital tools to learn new skills and communicate with others on a daily basis. And whether or not you are among the 22% of Canadians living with at least one disability, you benefit from accessibility features and practices that make communication more successful.

Automatically generating meeting transcripts can save you the stress of rushing to take notes, regardless of how quickly you can type. Likewise, voice control and smart compose can make composing emails less time-consuming, whether you can see the screen or not. The world works better for everyone when accessible is the default setting.

When we make it possible for people to achieve their goals in multiple different ways, we improve the experience for all parties involved. Yet many of us miss out on valuable opportunities to increase ease and convenience for the people we communicate with on a daily basis. You don’t need to be an accessibility expert to make a positive difference in your communication. Here are three habits you can put in place right away to improve your communication with key audiences.

#1: Make inclusive access your default. Don’t force people to ask for it.

Whether you are leading team meetings or virtual workshops, always enable closed-captioning or transcription. These features benefit everyone who prefers to watch TV with subtitles on or who learns better when they can see what you’re talking about. If you need people to act on something you’ve communicated to them, be explicit and specific in your instructions. Things that might seem obvious to you will not be to others.

Always add alt text (alternative text) to images and videos in social media posts. Alt text provides context for users who don’t rely on sight, improves SEO, and broadens your reach. There is no downside to greater clarity – especially when it comes to communication.

#2: Provide multiple options for engagement. If possible, avoid putting people in a situation where they only have one way of communicating with you. At best, doing so could make the interaction inconvenient – at worst, it could make it stressful and confusing.

People’s brains work differently. What works best for you may not work best for your coworker. Always give people options to engage with your ideas in different ways. Tell them that you want their insight, and ask them how they prefer to share it with you – will email or chat do? or would they prefer to talk it out on a call? (You can also tell people what works best for you, and ask if they can accommodate your needs: “I benefit from seeing people’s faces when I’m talking to them, so I prefer face-to-face conversations or video calls. Does that work for you?”)

Remember: every time you compose an email, or schedule a virtual meeting on your preferred platform, or dictate a voice note, you are making a choice about how your audience will engage with your ideas. And you’re making that choice for them. This is why habit #3 is vital. 

#3: Ask for feedback and adapt to it. Don’t assume everything is fine just because no one has asked for accommodations. Instead, invite people to give you feedback.

Make it a habit to ask people if the way you’ve been communicating with them works well for them. And be ready to adapt to the preferences they share with you. You can ask how that last collaborative project went for them, and what you can do differently next time to make things easier for them. Doing this shows that you are open to making changes to better suit their needs, which makes it easier for them to share access needs with you.

Making your communication more accessible takes little time and effort. But it can significantly improve how successfully you work with your team and your stakeholders. The next time you need to connect with a key audience, take 10 minutes to reflect on what you already know about their access needs and preferences, and what changes you can make to set yourself up for success in this next communication.

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