Truth 1 – Great Communicators Can Be Made
Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, was known as “the Great Communicator.” He made one of his most famous statements during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany on June 12, 1987. During this speech, President Reagan threw down this challenge:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Interestingly, the “tear down this wall” statement was vehemently opposed by foreign policy experts in Washington who had heavily lobbied the president not to say it. Ultimately, the lobbying was ignored, and Reagan included the challenge in his speech. On November 9, 1989, the border separating East Germany from West Germany was opened, and the wall came tumbling down. The Fall of The Wall will forever symbolize the end of the Cold War, which arguably was Reagan’s greatest achievement as president.
Think back to some great communicators like Reagan, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. What made them great communicators? It wasn’t that they were great orators, had flashy teeth, sported perfect hair, or demonstrated a flawless writing style. They had the following:
- Courage. They weren’t afraid to speak out against the status quo and challenge conventional wisdom.
- Conviction. They felt strongly about their ideas and wanted others to know their viewpoint.
- Wisdom. They knew their subject matter cold and could defend their ideas effectively.
- Clarity. Their message was simple, concise, and easily understood.
- Credibility. They were trusted by others and walked the talk.
Courage. Conviction. Wisdom. Clarity. Credibility. Five attributes that are essential, regardless of whether you are speaking in front of hundreds of people, writing a report to your boss, or running a PTA meeting. Five attributes that build the foundation of someone who gets his or her point across effectively.
Truth 2 – Seek to Understand Your Recipient
From its earliest roots, communication has focused on sender and recipient having some common understanding of the information flowing between them. This means focusing not only on what you are broadcasting but also on what the other person is receiving. Too many times in business we default to thinking about communication from an outbound perspective (what we want to tell someone) instead of from an inbound perspective (what the recipient expects). I’ve seen plenty of reports, presentations, surveys, status reports, and just about any other type of communication go bust because the sender of the information didn’t take the time to understand what the recipients were interested in, how they liked to receive information, and what was being asked of them.
In my career I have learned many lessons the hard way about understanding my recipient’s communication preferences. Whether it was inappropriate drop-ins, written versus verbal communication, or raising issues to the wrong person, I’ve seemed to make just about every mistake you can make. After licking my wounds, I’ve learned to accept the mistakes as gems and understand how to better read my recipient when it comes to communication preferences.
Some of the most effective communicators I have worked with throughout my career were outstanding at understanding the following:
- Who needed to be communicated to
- What information they needed to help them do their job
- Why they needed information
- How they preferred to communicate
- How often they needed communication
- When they preferred communication to happen
Implementing and tailoring your communication method to your recipient can go a long way toward saving you countless hours of frustration and anxiety. For example, one of my favorite managers (and mentors) at Microsoft had a very distinct communication style:
- He liked to stay high-level and drill down into detail where he had questions.
- He liked to focus on areas where his input or decision was needed.
- He preferred verbal, face-to-face interaction versus e-mail.
- He did not like nonurgent, random phone calls or drop-ins.
- He liked to have biweekly one-on-one meetings and reserved time on his calendar to be available.
- He liked to know how I was thinking about solutions to my own problems versus my just dumping a problem on his doorstep.
When I started working for this manager, I quickly picked up on his communication style. Through subsequent interactions (and making a few mistakes), I adapted my style to his and zeroed in on the right communication approach.
Throughout my duration with him, we had an outstanding working relationship, which all started with my understanding his communication idiosyncrasies and tailoring my style to meet his needs.
Take a little time to understand the communication preferences of those you interact with on a regular basis.What if you don’t know your recipient’s preferences? Try some of these ideas:
- Ask about her communication preferences. Plan your questions, and set up a time to interview her on how she likes to communicate. Generally, people love to talk about themselves, and you’ll likely get a lot of good information on how she likes to communicate.
- Watch how she communicates. Does she typically work with her door open or closed? Do others “drop in” for discussion? Does she keep a tight, structured calendar, or does she allow for flexibility? Does she like to stay on point during meetings, or is she open to some meandering in the conversation? Take a period of time—say, a week—and take good notes on how she interacts.
- Ask others. Coworkers or an administrative assistant might have some great insight into how your recipient likes to communicate. Get the scoop from someone else who has experience with the recipient.
Truth 3 – Communication Styles Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All
Let’s assume that you’ve taken the time to understand the recipient’s communication expectations, as discussed in the preceding truth. Through your discovery process, you zero in on how the recipient likes to communicate. You discover, though, that his communication preferences are very different from your style of communicating. He may like structured appointments, while you may prefer “drop-ins.” He might enjoy high-level reviews, where you tend toward more detailed discussions. He may prefer e-mail updates, while you function better with verbal updates. Yes, these are big differences, but this doesn’t mean you’ll forever be in a communication struggle. Quite frankly, you need to have a heart-to-heart discussion with yourself on what is more important: the content you are communicating or the mode in which you are communicating it.
Consider an example. Suppose you’re attempting to get buy-off on a major project you’re managing with your divisional vice president, and you have only 30 minutes to get your point across and get approval. You have a great project description document that has all the information necessary for justifying the project in a 40-page report. You have a couple of alternatives:
- Bring the project description report to the meeting, and walk through key report aspects with the divisional vice president.
- Prepare an executive summary PowerPoint-type document that presents key report aspects that are important to the divisional vice president.
Design your communication around your recipient.
With the first alternative, your preparation time for the meeting is minimal, because you have all the information prepared and ready to go. However, you run a significant risk of not getting your point across, because you have a lot of information and clutter that can get in the way. With the second alternative, your preparation time for the meeting is increased, because you are creating a special document that has information already contained in the charter document. However, your likelihood of getting your point across is increased, because you’ve taken away nonessential information and clutter that could get in the way.
This is a great time to ask yourself what is more important: getting approval for your project or saving yourself preparation time. On the surface, most people would say, “Duh—getting approval for the project!” Despite this viewpoint, I’ve been amazed at the number of times I’ve seen people in this very scenario choose the first alternative and go down in flames because the information was too clumsy to walk through. Getting approval for the project took second chair to an inappropriate mode of communicating the project. Ugly.
Also take note of this: However you adapt your communication style, make sure your passion doesn’t get lost in the words. If your message has the passion of mashed potatoes, you’ll have a more difficult time getting your point across effectively. So, regardless of how you adapt your communication style, do so with passion in your message.
The moral of the story is simple: design your communication around your recipient. It may mean that you have to adapt your style to meeting the situation and the recipient’s preferences. It may mean that you “lose” because you’re adapting to someone else versus their adapting to you. Put your ego aside and focus on the end, which is getting your point across, regardless of how you do it.
Truth 4 – If You Think It Doesn’t Make Sense, It Probably Doesn’t
One of my managers was a bit inflexible when it came to communication. He was in many respects a very competent manager and knew his subject matter very well, but it was clear that I simply had to do things his way, or I got my head bitten off. One example of this was when I was managing a large project to reengineer some processes that employees use to enter customer orders for our products. We had prepared a large PowerPoint presentation for a number of key stakeholders to review some key design concepts. When I reviewed the presentation with my manager, he told me to create a Word document in addition to the PowerPoint document.
The Word document would literally be a copy and paste from the PowerPoint document. When I asked why we needed a redundant document, the response was “Because this has to be in Word.” I asked someone on the team to take everything we did in PowerPoint and copy and paste it into a Word document. We spent a significant amount of wasted time and money creating and maintaining a redundant document that no one read, all because one manager told me it had to be in Word. Now, I’ll admit I had a bad attitude about this and wasn’t feeling very empathetic toward my manager, but I really struggled with the “It has to be in Word” answer.
Here’s the million-dollar question: What is “realistic?” It depends on your point of view. What may be very realistic to me could be completely unrealistic to you. I’ve found it very helpful to look at three guidelines to find some common ground on reality:
- Need. In assessing need, you take a hard look at whether your recipient needs your information to do his or her job either now or in the future.
- Frequency. In looking at frequency, you assess how often you need to communicate to ensure that your recipient can act on your information in a timely manner.
- Content depth. With content depth, you determine how much information the recipient needs to do his or her job. For instance, the instruction manual on operating a cellular telephone does not need to explain how a signal travels to and from cellular towers to your cell phone.
Let’s carry this forward to a simple scenario: A colleague has just started a new project that affects a small group of people within your department. She sends out very detailed daily e-mails to everyone in the department that communicate the project’s status, what was accomplished the previous day, and what will be done the next day. The information, while very detailed, is largely redundant from day to day. She expects everyone in the department to read her daily status e-mails as the means of keeping up with the project.
What can make this communication unrealistic? Let’s look at it using the three communication guidelines just mentioned:
- Need. Only the affected members in the department working directly with the project have a need for the information.
- Frequency. Getting information on a daily basis probably isn’t necessary due to the redundancy of the information from day to day.
- Content depth. While some may benefit from very detailed information, it probably isn’t necessary for the broader distribution.
To make the communications more realistic and applicable, the project manager should consider the following:
- Construct two separate communications—one for the small group of people who are directly affected by the project and a second communication for the rest of the department.
- For the small group directly affected by the project, gain specific agreement with them on need, frequency, and content depth of communications to ensure that they get what they need when they need it.
- For the rest of the department, look at ways in which other projects or organizations do broad-based communication, and mirror their frequency, content depth, and need. Look to department meetings, intranet websites, or other established communication vehicles for ideas.
Get aligned on your communication expectations. By gaining a common understanding of need, frequency, and content depth, you will go a long way toward ensuring clear communications between you and your recipient, and you will get your point across smoothly and effectively.
Truth 5 – Help Others Help Themselves
Very early on in my career I did a presentation for some senior executives at a company I consulted for. In this presentation I did just about everything wrong. My slides had way too many words on them. I read the slides to the audience. I faced the screen too much instead of facing the audience. I didn’t practice enough and confused even myself at one point. I mumbled instead of pronouncing my words clearly. In short, I was a disaster, and the client confirmed my poor performance by not awarding us the work.
If you’re a good communicator, share your techniques, tools, and tips with your colleagues.
After the presentation, my manager sat me down and gave me some very thoughtful, direct feedback on all the things I did wrong. I’d always admired his smooth, easygoing communication style and was very willing to listen. He offered some examples of presentations he had done and also left the door open for me to seek his advice and counsel on my communication style. His willingness to help me with my communication style affected me tremendously and imprinted upon me a desire to help my colleagues be more effective communicators.
Before I go any further, I want to reveal a basic philosophy I think is important about working with people. I want others to help me be better, and I want to help others be better. Through the years, this desire has at times been beneficial to me and my colleagues, and at other times it has gotten me into hot water because I didn’t approach the situation appropriately. Having said that, I’d rather offer help to a colleague and let him or her choose to either take it or leave it as opposed to not offering help at all.
How do you go about helping your colleague be a better communicator? Consider using a few techniques:
- Set the example. In setting the example, you establish credibility with your colleague by demonstrating good communication skills through real-life experiences. Formal presentations, meeting facilitation, and written reports are great means by which you can help set an example and gain credibility as someone who can get his or her point across effectively. By setting the example, you teach through in-the-moment, real-time learning versus a more theoretical lab setting.
- Openly share templates. Do you have a great presentation format that has been effective in communicating with senior management? Or do you have an outstanding status reporting template that concisely shows a project’s status? Freely make those templates available to others so that they can benefit from your work and maybe improve on your ideas.
- Make yourself available and open for advice and open to feedback. Some colleagues may want to leverage your experience in work that they are doing and seek your help in making their work product better. Extending an open hand to colleagues by offering to sit down with them and help them better get their point across through their work product is an outstanding means to improving an organization’s overall effectiveness. They not only get to benefit from good examples, templates, and tools, but they also get some consulting on their specific work product. Obviously, you need to control how much of this you do and ensure that it doesn’t negatively impact your primary job responsibilities. However, I do believe that it is important in any work setting to help others learn and improve. The higher you are in an organization, the more important it is to help those coming up the ranks with you learn and improve. It’s a worthwhile investment that pays huge dividends if done well.
What if you’ve got a colleague who needs help but is unwilling to accept it? Well, it’s not your responsibility to take on a communications crusade and enforce change on unwilling participants. If the person doesn’t want help, don’t force it. Do continue, though, to set an example and offer useful templates and tools.
Article Source: Extracts from “The Truth About Getting Your Point Across, and Nothing But the Truth”. A book by Lonnie Pacelli, published by Prentice Hall PTR