The theme of the Doing Leadership series is that leadership is about action, not status: it’s about choices and intentional activity that anyone can undertake. Communication is the fourth principle of active leadership and it is the act that most directly and intentionally imparts our leadership to those around us.
Many assume that communication is simply written or spoken words or messages expressed from one to another. But that’s just one part of it. Effective leadership communication actually has three parts:
1) The message as intended,
2) The message as communicated, and
3) The message as understood.
Unless the message is understood as it was intended, then effective leadership communication was merely an attempt. Anyone can express himself or herself and be heard; to be successful, leaders must be understood.
I often hear clients say they need to communicate more. Usually, what they really need is to communicate better. Increasing the amount of ineffective communication only makes matters worse. Great communicators focus on quality, not just quantity.
There are three keys to ensuring that your communication output has the intended impact. First it’s important to choose the right words and content for your message. Are the instructions clear and the tone correct? Next, you must also know your audience. Have you framed your message in a way that they can understand, digest, and act upon? Are you open to their communication and feedback to you? Finally, true leadership communication must engage its hearers. Does your message inspire, energize, and motivate listeners to act and to commit?
Know these things:
Words Matter–Recently a politician running for office made some unfortunate remarks that everyone immediately recognized as wrong. In an attempt to save face he retracted them and said, “I used the wrong words in the wrong way.” He might as well have said, “I failed a key test of leadership.” It’s a leader’s job to choose the right words and use them in the right way. His audience, the voters, recognized this: he went immediately from leading in the polls to falling far behind. Even though retracted his remarks, he continued to suffer the consequences of his failure of leadership.
Communication is a two-way street–First you must know your audience so that you can craft communication that will be understood. Then you must listen yourself. For, Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry Group, communication was leadership job one. “Communication is the only way that we can connect. At that point in time, we had 5,000 employees around the world; there are 7,000 today. We asked ourselves, ‘How do we share with them? How do we communicate? How do we touch them in the most effective, most clear way, and on a very consistent basis?” She starts by understanding her listeners. “Ninety-five per cent of the time, I put myself in somebody else’s position,” she says.
Stories sell—Stories are a powerful tool for many reasons. First, stories engage listeners and readers far better than facts and figure. Remember: stories illustrate and facts validate. Second, a good story intersects with the story of whoever hears it. There is often common ground in terms of the themes and ideas a story expresses, and people like to connect to the familiar. Third, stories are memorable. They become mental coat pegs to hang ideas on. Fourth, stories are usually better at communicating emotion than statistics, and positive emotion is what moves people to commit or buy.
Do these things:
1. Clarify and simplify–In the age of the sound byte and perpetual distraction it is important that your message be clear, simple, and easy to digest. Focus on one, two, or three main points, not a dozen. Filter out unnecessary details that can be filled in later (if necessary). Repeat and reiterate the key points. The following may be so familiar as to seem cliché, but the advice is legitimate: “Tell ’em what you’re gonna say. Then say it. Then tell ’em what you said.” For bonus points, see if you can condense your whole message into a single text message or Tweet. Then use that to reinforce your communication.
2. Make your message matter–You must first break preoccupation before you can capture attention. Tell listener why what you are talking about matters to them. Listeners consciously or subconsciously want to know, “How does this affect me? ” You might craft the most elegant communication in the world but if those you lead aren’t interested in it, find it meaningful, and aren’t compelled to do something about it, then it is lost.
3. Engage your listeners–You must give your hearers a reason to listen and to care. If communication is boring, chances are it will be neither heard nor received. Enliven your leadership communication with stories, quips, asides, quotes, and jokes.
Communication is a principle means, along with your example, of directly transmitting insights and imperatives to those around you. Craft your communication carefully and thoughtfully to ensure that your leadership messages reach their destinations, the minds of your listeners, in the way that you intend them.