Leading is Communicating

September 27, 2011

Leaders spend their time communicating. Stephen Denning, in his book, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, referenced Henry Mintzberg's The Nature of Managerial Work(that I haven’t read) noting that talking comprises 78 percent of what managers actually do with their time.

Of course, talking isn’t necessarily communicating. As a leader, people need to hear and understand your message. It needs to ring true with them, to inspire them to action. Great leaders are great communicators. Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan come to mind. As we all know, Reagan became known as The Great Communicator. He earned this reputation for a number of reasons:
  • He was optimistic about the future – particularly at a time when the country needed it.
  • He had a strong sense of purpose. He believed in our country and that it and the people in it deserved greatness.
  • His speeches used anecdotes and his messages were designed to distill complex issues into basic terms that everyone could understand and relate to. (Along with providing great sound bites!)
  • He paid attention to his speeches and his audiences’ reaction to his words.
  • His speeches had an emotional appeal that moved people.
The last point is shared by other great communicators. David Pottruck, former CEO of Charles Schwab reported in the book, Unusually Excellent,that his experience and belief is “that the content of what he says as a leader is rarely remembered; what is remembered is how his made his listeners feel.”

Strong emotional content is a potent weapon of a communicator. Consider what Harrison Monarth says in Executive Presence:“Research shows that people base decisions on emotions before they check them against the facts. Trial lawyers have long known that the degree to which they and their clients are liked by jurors can make a difference in the final verdict.”

When it comes to business communication, people need to believe in you to believe your message. You need to be perceived as credible and sincere along with being regarded as competent by those receiving your message. As Josh Leibner, Gershon Mader, Alan Weiss, Ph.D. wrote in The Power of Strategic Commitment,“People won’t rally around empty phrases and cute metaphors, no matter how memorable or clever. They rally around that which they buy into and believe, and which serves as a continuing reference point for their decisions and behaviors.”

The book Unusually Excellentby John Hamm offers the following tips for how to communicate effectively:

Clarity: Be organized, concise, and direct. Less is usually more. Get your message to a few, pithy essential points.

Consistency: Stay on message. Consult your previous communications to make sure that you are not contradicting what you said before—and if you must do so, incorporate an explanation as to why.

Carefulness: Respect both the dignity and the intelligence of your audience, as well as the positional power of your own role. Do not abuse either.

Courage: Speak plainly, and eschew euphemisms, passive verbs, and “weasel words.” Address tough issues plainly and honestly; speak directly to the fears of your audience.

Conviction: Think of great speakers of history: not only did they have a powerful message and well-written text, but that text was written in such a way that it reflected their own personalities and speaking styles, which in turn enabled them to speak unforgettably from their deepest beliefs in what was possible. They used both the right words and their own convictions to create in the minds of their audiences a powerful and energizing vision of a better future.

Compassion: There is a dangerous, albeit natural tendency among leaders to make themselves appear larger than life, even infallible. But much worse is the concomitant tendency to wrap this attitude in a manner that suggests aloofness, coldness, and a lack of human feeling.

Completion: in most cases you are given only one chance to deliver your message. So deliver it—all of it. Close the deal; finish the message. Don’t make the mistake of setting up the message, preparing the audience, delivering it brilliantly—and then neglecting to make the call to action.

Ultimately, if people are having a difficult time understanding your message, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. Make it easy on your listeners: Be clear, sincere and concise!