Fourth in a series of Seven Essential Executive Skills. For the other articles in the series, click this link: Seven Essential Executive Skills.
The equation looks like this:
Leadership is about relationships.
Relationships require communication.
Effective communication = opportunities for better relationships = increased influence.
What Does Effective Communication Sound Like?
Great leaders find ways to communicate effectively. Some may appear to be “naturally” articulate. But that is deceptive.
I know a man who can command attention with his voice. At first.
He has an amazing voice. He’s articulate. He’s well spoken.
But as you listen to him, you realize he doesn’t really have anything to say. Conversationally, he’s fine to talk to. But he doesn’t have a message.
He sounds nice to listen to. He doesn’t have influence.
I know another man with a Cerebral Palsy. I can’t understand him as he speaks.
He’s loud. He seems disjointed. I felt awkward at first.
He has an interpreter who translates.
He speaks with intent, with deep knowledge, and with purpose.
He has influence. He shapes the way other leaders think and act.
Having a great voice, being telegenic, clever presentation tools…it can all help. But none of it is necessary.
The Seven Essential Ingredients for Effective Executive Communication
One: Have A Message
This seems obvious. But we’ve all listened to a leader who rambled.
Like an unprepared student responding to an essay question. Hoping that if they write long enough they’ll accidentally trip across the right answers.
Even worse, we’ve listened to leaders who had no message. They mistook having a podium for thinking that they, themselves, were so engaging that it didn’t matter what they did or said.
Coaching Question: What is it that you are trying to communicate?
Two: Know What You Want To Accomplish
It’s not enough to have a message. You need to know what you are trying to accomplish. Not just in the big picture – but in that specific opportunity of communication.
What is that meeting supposed to accomplish?
Be very clear on the outcomes you are trying to produce. Then craft your message to produce those outcomes.
Be vicious when it comes to pruning out anything else.
When I make mistakes in communication, it’s often because I’ve lost my own plot. I’ve forgotten what I’m trying to accomplish.
Correct it by getting back on-point.
- What is the single most important, big picture outcome that you are trying to accomplish with this message?
- What are you trying to accomplish in this speech, memo, meeting or whatever other communication events?
Three: Be Empathic With Your Audience
I was being introduced to lead a day-long workshop. There were about 60 people in the audience.
To conclude the introduction, my host announced that a well-respected and deeply loved colleague of most of the people in the room had just passed away.
Then she handed me the microphone.
Empathy is the ability to convey that you genuinely understand and care about the experience of someone else.
It doesn’t mean you necessarily feel it yourself. Although, you might.
It doesn’t mean you necessarily agree. It is possible to recognize and value where someone is coming from without needing to present a value judgment.
When the people you desire to influence feel like you see, hear and recognize where they are at – they open themselves up to be influenced by you.
There are many ways to do this.
I often use stories in articles and when I speak. They usually work better when they are self-deprecating.
It’s intentional. It helps people connect.
It helps others decide whether they think I “get it” enough to offer something they can use.
I used to work with people who had experienced incredibly traumatic events. I learned that mirroring or reflecting back what I heard them say was a powerful tool.
I often use it now when I coach or work with an audience.
“I’m hearing that this has been an enormously frustrating experience…”
“I know that these changes are creating some real difficulties….”
“That’s a great accomplishment! I’m glad to see that you are excited about it. You should be! You worked hard to make that happen!”
I don’t recall the words I used when I responded to the audience in the story above.
But I do recall that I stopped. I acknowledged that this was unexpected and painful news for many in the audience. I let them know that this was more important than my workshop.
I explored what the group felt like it needed to do to respond, at this time. I also gave permission for anyone who felt they needed to leave or move around to feel free to do so if it helped them.
It took less than five minutes. But they saw that I cared. They asked me to continue. I had their attention for the rest of the day.
- What is your audience going through right now? How can you find out?
- How might they be impacted by your message? How would you like them to be impacted?
- What can you do or say that will communicate that you recognize where they are at and care?
Four: Cultivate Healthy Confidence
Healthy confidence requires four things: Belief, Ability, Action, and Humility
If belief is lacking – you either won’t act or will self-sabotage.
If ability is lacking – you’re self-deluded or a fraud.
If action is lacking – the confidence is a worthless sentiment.
If humility is lacking – you become self-serving.
All four need to be cultivated.
If you lack belief in your ability to communicate: Build and practice your skills. Join Toastmasters. Hire a coach. The best way to build this skill is to find low-risk environments to practice and gain confidence in.
If you lack ability – listen to feedback. Ask for feedforward: “What is one thing I could do that would improve my presentations?”
Turn your communication into experiments. Pick one area to improve and make a goal to practice that in the next five (Or three. Or seven) opportunities to communicate.
If action is lacking – create accountability. Set communication goals and communicate them to your team. Or hire a coach.
If humility is lacking – join a community of experienced, skilled & confident communicators. Ask for feedback. They won’t be as impressed with you as you are. But they might be willing to help you grow.
- Which one of the above areas would I most benefit from growing in?
- What steps will I take to attain that growth?
Five: Be Clear & Concise
I had never been taught about clarity or concision when I emerged with a freshly minted undergraduate degree in Sociology.
Remember, this is a field shaped by the thinking of Karl Marx and a number of other German thinkers.
Inaccessibility, density, and run-on sentences were signs of intelligence.
(I’m 99% confident, that in the last 100 years, no one has actually read in entirety, what these social theorists actually wrote. First of all, anything translated from German to English creates headaches. Secondly, all of my professors and textbooks quoted the same quotes.)
We wrote for very small audiences and, as budding academics, were taught to forgo any hope of influencing anything.
It took me a few years to be purged of this.
When people first speak publicly, the fear is usually, “I won’t have enough to say!”
Then when they are given a microphone, they can’t seem to stop. And it’s hard to know what they were trying to communicate.
Saying too much, unclearly, is the default for most people.
New executives can sometimes talk too much because they don’t know, for sure, what needs to be said. So, they say all of it in hopes of covering all their bases.
Experienced executives can sometimes talk too much because no one will stop them and they’ve fallen in love with their own voice.
There’s a great little book that I like called, Talk Less, Say More: 3 Habits to Influence Others and Make Things Happen. It’s written by Connie Dieken. If this is an issue for you, I recommend picking it up.
The clearer you are about what you want to say and what you want as a result, the easier it is to say less and communicate abundantly well.
- In one or two sentences, what is the key message you want to communicate?
- What response are you expecting or hoping for from the audience?
- What is the simplest way to say or ask for this?
Six: Have A Call to Action
What should a listener or reader do with what you’ve said? Don’t make them guess. Tell them.
I’ve had calls to action in each section here. Questions that some readers will stop and answer for themselves.
If I didn’t ask the question – they wouldn’t have anything to answer.
I’ll have a call to action at the bottom of my article. If I didn’t ask, people wouldn’t respond.
Never hint or hope that people will figure out what you want them to do. Invite, tell, guide, instruct, ask – but be clear.
Putting it differently, if as a leader, you are sharing information and have no need for it to generate action or changes in behavior – what is the value of the information? What are you trying to lead?
Perhaps there are some occasions where a call to action isn’t required. But they are rare.
Leaders call people to action.
- What is the response that you are looking for from your next communication opportunity?
- How will you call people to act?
Seven: Communicate Frequently & Regularly
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.
But most of the time it just causes people to forget.
Your communication needs to be frequent and regular. Then you can provide small, real-time reminders and encouragement.
As opposed to saving that up for when things are about to go off the rails. Or for the big party.
When it comes to shaping culture and the performance ethic of your organization – you need to frequently & regularly reference these things.
It’s how you shape culture and expectations.
I’ve heard it said, “People leak. We have to keep filling them up.”
You’re doing your job right when you see people moving their lips along with you. They should be able to hear your voice (hopefully saying helpful things!) in their head.
You can’t communicate vision once – and then walk away. You can’t describe the value of a change once – and then hope it sticks. You can’t have people read a policy once – and expect it’ll be fully complied with.
Lead with your words. They don’t have to be a lot of words. But they need to be there.
- What is the most important message or change that you need to communicate right now?
- How can you reference that message more frequently? Are there different mediums of communication? Different aspects to focus on? Different audiences within your organization?
To Wrap Up
Think of the main messages you need to communicate over this next week, month or season of your organizational life. Take 15-20 minutes to think through the questions that I’ve asked here.
You’ll find that you are able to communicate more clearly, with less effort and achieve a greater response.
If not, tell me about it.
Take good care,
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