Leaders learn too! Becoming an effective communicator.
We often hear reference to someone being a ‘natural communicator’ suggesting it is a skill you are either born with or not. But the skills and behaviours associated with communicating effectively can be acquired in the same way as many others, with the structured intervention of a good coach or mentor.
In the current business environment, leaders are expected to be the voice of the business through good times and bad, and to have a ready response for any situation.
The importance of effective communication cannot be stressed highly enough. If what you are trying to say is not the same as the message being received by your audience, problems will ensue.
Take a light-hearted example of poor communication (light-hearted to us, that is, not to the unfortunate individual responsible). Back in 2006 a local council in South Wales needed to stop supermarket delivery lorries entering the site via a local housing estate. Mindful of the bilingual (Welsh/English) policy in place, and recognising his own linguistic limitations, the English-speaking officer emailed the required text across to the translation department. A reply was duly received, the sign was prepared in both languages, and erected in the appropriate spot. All was well, the message had been communicated, until bemused members of the public began contacting the media. Unfortunately the intended recipient in the translation department was away, and the Welsh text on the sign actually says "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated".
The moral of the story? If you are the communicator, make sure your audience know what you’re talking about; if your audience misread your message, there’s a good chance the resultant impact will fall a long way short of meeting your expectations.
Leaders in business must be able to communicate clearly and effectively, whether communicating the strategy, engaging with employees, speaking to customers, addressing shareholders, or dealing with a crisis. The audience will vary, the message may need to be adapted accordingly, but the basic rules of clear communication remain fundamentally the same. In the hands of an experienced communication coach, even the most reluctant public speaker can acquire the skills and behaviours to communicate effectively and appropriately in a range of situations.
There are certain key aspects of leadership communication which are pretty much universal; the building blocks on which the wording can be based:
- An effective leader should provide inspiration, particularly when times are tough. Focus on the things that are going well, that can succeed. That is not to say the problems should be swept under the carpet, but opening your communication with an inspirational message that gets the attention of the audience is more likely to keep the engaged, so inspire them first – inform them later.
- Know your ideal outcome, the primary purpose of your communication. Where are you trying to lead your audience and what is the preferred result? Keep that in mind and build towards it.
- Develop a ‘strapline’ for your communication which emphasises the main point in a clear manner and is easily recalled. Build the structure of your communication out from here in a logical structure so it can be remembered.
- Involve your audience, interact with them by asking a question or making a specific situational reference to them in your speech which demonstrates empathy and understanding of their position. Once you have captured their interest, your influence is likely to be more effective.
- Avoid jargon or technical wording which may not be appropriate for your audience. The phrase “no-one likes a smartass” is pretty much universal. Pitch the communication and the vocabulary at a level appropriate to the audience. If they don’t need to know the latest widget technical specification then don’t bore them with it. That said, don’t forget to demonstrate your credibility and experience as the appropriate person to communicate the message, just be sure to do it in a manner which will be well-received by your audience.
- Keep the communication positive, even if the message is negative. Focus on what can be achieved rather than on the behaviour you don’t want to see.
- And the old adage is still true: tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. It reinforces the message and makes it more likely that the audience will listen, will understand, and will remember.
Communication can often be a challenge for new leaders, or leaders moving up the organisation into a new role. Often it seems the higher a leader is in the organisation, the more of their time is spent communicating. It is therefore critical that communication is effective at all levels of leadership, but particularly at Board and executive management levels.
Communication is not just about the verbal message you send out; it is also about your personal brand, your credibility, how you are perceived by the audience in relation to a range of intangible messages you give out which will influence how your message is received. Will you be believed? Will you garner support? Will the audience act on your message in the way you need them to? Effective communication is about much more than iterating a series of words, and although the wording of the message is important, the skills and behaviours that wrap around the message are critical to the impact of the delivery. It is these elements of communication that can be made so much more effective with appropriate intervention and guidance from an experienced coach.
Leaving communication skills to chance at senior levels in the organisation can be extremely risky. Take Gerald Ratner for example, who in 1991 memorably wiped £500 million from the value of Ratners jewellers with unwise comments about the quality of the products by saying: “"We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, 'How can you sell this for such a low price?' I say, because it's total crap”. Or John Pluthero, the UK Chairman of Cable & Wireless, who in 2006 sent a memo to staff which said: “Congratulations, we work for an underperforming business in a crappy industry and it’s going to be hell for the next 12 months”. In each case it is probably fair to say the message was less than well-received by the audience.
The value of communication coaching is widely recognised and accepted as part of the career path through senior management and promotion to the C-Suite. Demands on time, perceived credibility, and the effectiveness of the individual in the new role are all impacted by the effectiveness of the messages they send out, both the wording of those messages and the wraparound skills and behaviours that impact the delivery of the message. Add to this the unavoidable fact that the more senior an individual, the less likely they are to receive (or accept?) negative feedback, and you have a situation where poor communication is unlikely to improve.
Senior leaders in an organisation are not usually lacking in intelligence; they know whether or not they are communicating effectively, or perhaps more truthfully, they certainly know when they are not being listened to or having the desired impact. The stresses associated with ineffectual communication are unnecessary and avoidable. The intervention of an external communication coach will provide the feedback missing from within the organisation, and is a truly effective way of improving communications skills, producing a more relaxed and far more effective and communicative leader.
To find out more about executive coaching for communication or any other topic, contact:
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