Opinion by Thornton May

Leaders as communicators

Honing your message is critically important, but so is choosing the right medium to reach your target audience

Opinion by Thornton May

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It is remarkable how many leaders seem to overlook the undeniable correlation between mastering communication and successfully occupying a position of leadership.

The evidence has been piling up for centuries. Just on this continent, the Founding Fathers, in the late 18th century, were masters of the printed word via such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. In the 1930s and 1940s Franklin Delano Roosevelt owned radio with his Fireside Chats. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan excelled at television. And the president-elect, Donald Trump, may owe his position to his ability to parlay a communications trifecta: the political rally, the reality TV show and social media via Twitter.

I recently asked a group of CXOs their thoughts about the communication skills they thought would be required by the leaders of the future. 

Top-down communication is so last century

One key to effective communication is to focus on the most current modes. The political rally is an ancient form, but it’s still relevant, and Trump has been a social media pioneer. Meanwhile, the campaign of his opponent from the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, relied heavily on email. There’s reason to believe she might as well have tried to reach people by circulating clay tablets.Similarly, there are CEOs in the world today who think that, once a strategy has been synthesized, they can use traditional information channels such as email to turn the ball over to underlings for execution. That’s old thinking. 

Part of the problem is that employees don’t open emails from their CEO. How a big a problem is this? Consider that the CEO of a major global manufacturer who converted the strategic program for the coming year into an email and sent it out to the entire employee population with the subject line “Urgent, Must Read.” Several weeks later, a consultant engaged to assist in the digital transformation of this enterprise asked the IT group to determine the percentage of the employee population that had actually opened the CEO’s email. The answer: 27%. 

The IT risk manager at another Fortune 20 company wasn’t surprised to hear this story. After all, in his organization, employees are specifically advised not to open electronic communication from senior executives because the message is probably a phishing attack. 

Even if that weren’t the case, as just about any chief HR officer will tell you, communication canyons exist in every organization, not just between the CEO and her direct reports, but also between every level down to the rank-and-file employees. That puts a chasm between the CEO and the rank and file that can’t be bridged without the right tools. 

The millennial CEO of a company that specializes in helping organizations get full value from the rapidly expanding array of collaboration tools not surprisingly held that things such as group chat are the right tools, but he emphatically maintained that email is not a preferred or effective method of communicating with millennial workers. 

So what is effective? Consider these five points, gleaned from some great communicators and thinkers:

1. Be short and to the point

Winston Churchill recognized the importance of brevity. He coined a phrase that sadly never really caught on: short-windedness, an antonym of long-windedness (to speak at length and in a tedious way). Research done by Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, indicates that 55% of readers stop reading a piece after 15 seconds. Joseph McCormack, in his wonderful book Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, discovered that modern executives “have a hard time focusing. The average attention span is now down to eight seconds. A goldfish has a 9 second attention span.” 

On Aug. 9, 1940, Churchill wrote a memo to the War Cabinet stating that “to do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.” Churchill concluded his memo suggesting that upon achieving brevity, “the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.”  

2. Have something important to say

In an over-communicated world, the greatest gift can be silence. If you are working on a really important document or message and something needs to be said, say it. If not, there is no need to add meaningless bytes to the information torrent. Ask yourself, How much is the information I am about to share really worth?  

3. Be signal, not noise

The Washington Post cites former Harvard President Derek Bok, author of Higher Education in America, arguing that 98% of articles published in the arts and sciences are never cited by another researcher (75% are not cited in social sciences, and 25% in hard sciences). Similarly, 90% of marketing content published never gets used. In the modern corporation, some of the most impressive communicators are those who communicate least — but when they speak, people listen. 

4. Do your homework — pre-package key message points

The speakers who are best off the cuff tend to be the ones who have done the most homework — the ones who have thought hard and long about the big picture. Their rigorous thinking allows them to pre-package powerful insights. A good exercise regarding key issues is to ask yourself, “What would I say about key issue X if I only had two minutes?” Some people call this the elevator pitch as in, “If you had a seven-floor elevator ride with the CEO, what would you say?” 

5. Don’t overexplain

Give people just enough information, never too much. The tendency is to include information “just in case.” Elmore Leonard attributes his success as a bestselling author to not overexplaining. In his words, “I leave out the parts that people typically skip.” 


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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