How to Keep Communications Crystal Clear
Over the past year, I have worked in and studied an organization that enjoyed an exciting market position and lost it—not because of the competition, not because of the economy and not because of go-to-market strategy, but because of poor communication from the leadership team about what the company’s plans were for the future. Employees at every level began to gossip and complain about the company’s lack of direction. Even though a well-defined strategy for moving forward did exist, most of these people didn’t know the details. Leaders began to criticize their staff for “not getting it,” rather than communicating effectively about the changes under way.
Why did that happen? One simple reason: Management forgot the importance of the following basic rules. They assumed they had been heard because they made the attempt to communicate, but they hadn’t done so in a way that their employees could absorb.
Here is the wisdom that all leaders need to succeed in communication during a company shift. These rules may sound intuitive, but we often forget them.
Think first, speak second
My husband, who manages a team of engineers who think in steps and sequences, loves to say that “step one is think.” Partially because we have established reactive patterns with constant, immediate responses to communication (via email, voicemail, IM, SMS), we neglect this first critical step. Before you communicate anything of importance, take the time to ask yourself two essential questions:
a. What result do I want?
b. What impact do I want to have?
When we start by thinking about the impact of our decisions and actions, we can craft our message in a way that hits the target. For instance, if you want your listeners to be engaged and motivated, try communicating with a story or another method that helps them see what’s in it for them.
Joanne, a financial-services IT executive, needed to tell her team that a project they have been working on for a year had been scrapped, so they would have to refocus on something new. She initially wanted to say, “I’m so pissed off this happened, and I’m thinking of quitting because it’s a crazy decision.” But she knew that tone would leave the team angry and unmotivated, so Joanne thought through her message. Instead, she chose to tell the team, “I’m disappointed about this, just like you are, but we have an opportunity here to learn from all of our hard work, and particularly from how we have become a high-functioning team. Because of all the work you’ve done so far, we’ll be able to hit the ground running with our next project. Let me introduce it to you—I think this is going to be a chance for us to show the company what we’re made of.” The impact? She didn’t lose a single member of that team, and they all made a successful transition to the new project with little fallout or complaining.
Make it memorable
Human beings—myself included—can’t always remember what we had for breakfast, let alone something like the top strategic initiatives of our organization, how to complete a task in compliance with a new law or even that our boss wants to move a meeting from 1:30 to 2 p.m. To communicate memorably, you must do two things: Keep your message simple, and engage an emotional response.
If you turn your message into a top five list, people will remember it better. Come up with a representative image or metaphor, and people will remember it better. For example, Mike used the biblical image of David and Goliath when telling his team about a new strategy to beat the largest company in their industry at its own game. Tapping into images gives listeners a mental cue to reference and hang on to.
Say it over and over and over and over again
Did I mention that typical humans forget things? Be sure to repeat the most important information in your message, because it will help your communication stick in your listeners’ long-term memories. Marketing research has shown that it takes five impressions before people begin to recognize a brand. That isn’t many, but it’s much more than one! Just ask that husband of mine how many times he has used the phrase “step one is think” with me—you can bet I remember now.
Do what you say you will
Never underestimate the power of following through on your word. Whatever you promise, make sure you deliver. This creates basic trust in leadership. When you say you’ll do something, stick to it and do what you say you will do.
Focus on what, why and when—not just how
Many managers forget that although we may know exactly how to accomplish a given task, our focus should be the result we want from others. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague told me about working with a young assistant who didn’t deliver the results she wanted. She had become frustrated and was thinking of firing her new employee. I asked her, “What did you ask for?” With that simple question, she realized that she’d given her assistant a step-by-step process for creating a new file system without telling him what she wanted it to look like, why he was working on it or when she wanted it completed. He did his best to follow her instructions, but none of the “what, why and when” information had been outlined for him.
Consider your audience
A final rule for leaders: Always think about your audience and how they will hear what you have to say. Ask yourself these questions: What do my employees care about most? What’s in this for them? Which nugget of information do I need them to take away? Not long ago, I saw an executive team that owned an organization try to communicate a new company objective about increasing revenue 100 percent in two years. However, the employees responsible for actualizing that goal didn’t own a stake in the success of that goal. They interpreted their directive as a sign that the executive team was getting greedy, and that the troops were being asked to push harder and harder with no reward. An alternative to the message about increasing revenue? The employees—all very customer-focused and proud of their reputation for providing exceptional customer service—would be excited about collectively creating success through reaching more customers, aiming to achieve referrals from 100 percent of customers.
If management had introduced those messages first, they could have much more successfully followed with their revenue goal.
KARLIN SLOAN, M.A., is founder and president of Karlin Sloan & Co. (karlinsloan.com), based in New York City and Chicago, which provides executive coaching, team building and leadership development services. Email Karlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.