The Leadership Journey: How to Communicate so People Will Listen

I have been hanging around the leadership arena for many years, and I can’t tell you how many mistakes I have made along the way with my communications.

Why is this so?

I know what to do, but my mind races ahead. I recognize I have the words to say what I want.  The only trouble is they come out too fast, disorganized and in my own shorthand that makes it difficult for others to fully understand me.

Has this happened to you?

I work hard, everyday, to improve my communication skills.  Some days are easier than others. If I am feeling on top of my game, my words flow effortlessly. But when I am anxious, my mind is a hotchpotch of thoughts racing to my lips to be the first out of my mouth. Invariably my communications shorthand clicks in.

How can we get back to basics?

Before a meeting or a speech, take time to organize your thoughts. Write an outline, maybe even write the entire speech, but –  please! – never read it unless you want a room full of people dozing off. That said, memorize your opening and closing so you have it down cold.

Anything else?

As you prepare your remarks, imagine your audience. Who’s going to be there? People new to the topic or industry veterans?  What do they want to know that they already don’t know? What three major points do you want them to leave with?

Notice, I said three points. Okay, maybe only one or as many as four. But avoid a “brain dump” – rambling on and spilling everything you know. Start with a catchy, humorous opening. Hit your points, and wrap up with a pithy conclusion.

The best speeches tell a story. You’re the CEO, say, of a genetics firm and once asked a leading infectious physician what diagnostic test topped out her wish list. Her response: “I need a tool that will tell me if a MERS patient will respond to a specific antibiotic.”  So began the company’s fact-finding mission to personalize antibiotic treatments to save lives.

The 7 Cs of Communication:

Drs. John Baird and Jim Stull wrote the 7 Cs of Communication, which are widely used today. They aim their advice at written communications. Here I’ve adapted it for the spoken word.

1.     Clear –  be clear as to your intent; don’t make your audience read between the lines, which can lead to confusion and frustration. Be straightforward and fully explain what you mean.

2.     Concise –  less is more. Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? Many folks spend 80 percent of their time explaining things that aren’t much value to the audience. So mine the 20 percent of substance and build on it. Don’t ramble.

3.     Concrete –  turn your words into pictures.  Use colorful words and images. Lean toward the specific and away from the abstract. You say your product is “better” now? Exactly what does that mean for the customer who will buy and use it?

4.     Correct –  double-check your facts and be careful of plagiarism. If you want to use someone else’s quote or material, be sure to attribute it. Also, avoid making sweeping generalities or opinions that have no factual basis. Finally, don’t represent your opinions as “facts.” That’s counterproductive and may turn people off.

5.     Coherent –  connect the dots –  don’t make people guess. This goes back to knowing what your audience knows. Don’t assume they’ve read your book, are familiar with your business, or possess advanced business expertise. A key challenge is a mixed audience with a wide band of sophistication. My advice is to start out at a lower level and work your way up.

6.     Complete –  there are all kinds of angles to this one.  Speak in complete thoughts, Don’t make your reader guess what they should conclude. Avoid speaking in shorthand and using confusing acronyms.

7.     Courteous –  we do not need to insult others just to make our points. A condescending or arrogant speaker is quickly turned off. An audience is far more likely to warm up to a speaker who is respectful of them. Avoid slang, locker talk, and profanity. It’s just not appropriate.

I’ve added my own 8th C of communication.

8.     Connect  –  engage your audience as much as possible. Open your speech or meeting with a show of hands. Ask your audience questions. Invite their questions. Always use eye contact and look for signs of affirmation that folks are listening. If you see eyes wandering or people sneaking out the door, stop and ask the audience what they want to hear about.

Beyond the 8 Cs:

Power Points are almost de rigueur nowadays, but they distract the audience and compete for the speaker’s attention. Use your Power Point to anchor your speech with a few key words or visuals. Avoid long paragraphs.

Finally, keep in mind that emotion binds the speaker and audience together. Build excitement and passion. Speak to the desire of every human to be of value in this world. I frequently talk about the human impulse to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs -a pyramid of human needs that starts with basic survival and peaks with self-actualization. Everyone wants and needs to gravitate up that pyramid to some level. Appeal not only to an investor’s logic, but to their potential to save lives or transform communities. Logic doesn’t move people to action. Emotion does.

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