Improving leadership communication. Most leaders think they are good at communication – so there’s no need to improve.
After all, it’s fundamental to how they do their work. Leaders can’t work without communication and, ideally, excellent communication.
Yet, while there are many great leaders with excellent communication skills, some fail to hit the mark. The fallout from this failure can be serious, impacting on key initiatives, employee engagement, corporate culture, and more.
If you’re a leader of a corporation or small business or your own small agency, you need to be outstanding when it comes to communicating key messages. We turn to Nick Meir, an executive communications coach, strategist and keynote speaker, to reveal how you can avoid common pitfalls and communicate like a true pro.
Improving leadership communication
Nick, for a leader to be an excellent communicator, what does it take?
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective communication can be self-awareness.
Understanding how your communication style impacts others and how you are perceived is becoming more and more important.
Twenty years ago there was a general acceptance of how leaderships comms worked among a fairly homogeneous corporate culture, but we now have four generations in the workplace with very different needs and attitudes.
The leader as an excellent communicator
You’ve been working on improving leadership communication for some time now. What are the most common problems you encounter?
The number one issue is authenticity. Far too often leaders will try and adopt a “style” (usually an imitation of the senior leadership team), and consequently a “house style” of leadership communication emerges. The greatest business communicators ooze authenticity. They understand who they are, understand their own weaknesses, and they are happy in their own skin.
The second biggest issue preventing leadership improving communication is understanding audience. And it is definitely not a discipline that is either easy or readily adopted. Asking that simple editorial question “why should my audience care” can be both powerful and exposing. Once a leader starts walking in his team’s shoes the messaging becomes more relevant and, in some cases, softer.
Improving leadership communication: authenticity means abandoning corporate speak
Corporate speak has evolved from a need to be clear, focusing on facts and evidence without emotion. But so much is lost in that approach. What kinds of techniques or tactics can leaders use so that they communicate clearly yet at the same time with enthusiasm or even passion?
Corporate speak has become a dialect. There are words and phrases used in business that simply don’t exist in the real world. I’m sure I don’t need to list them all but far too many emails and corporate communication turns into an unnecessary game of buzz phrase bingo. Once a leader becomes more authentic I usually find their vocabulary changes. I often ask questions like “Do you speak like that at home?”.
Passion comes from within and using an unnatural vocabulary doesn’t help convey passion. I encourage business leaders to deliver messages through stories. Telling analogous stories are very effective and spark a much more authentic tone of voice. As human beings we are programmed to receive and understand information via stories. It is how we have evolved. When we hear stories our brain chemistry changes and we experience feelings of warmth and trust.
Leaders should reduce email use and opt for face-to-face
In medium to large organizations the volume of email each week can be high. It’s standard today that when leaders have important messages to deliver, in-person is the best way to go. Yet many leaders are still using this email. Why? And how do you go about persuading them not to?
When I’m running communication workshops the subject of email often comes up. Some teams send each other toe-curling numbers of emails (copying in the world and his dog).
In a workshop recently one attendee was venting about the number of emails she receives. I asked: “How many emails do you send in an average day” there were ripples of laughter around the room. She looked a little sheepish and I said “You reap what you sow”. It turned out the manager in question was a serial sender of emails. I asked her a simple question: “When you send out an email do you expect a reply?” – I saw a penny dropping.
Email saturation is a blight on far too many businesses and it is up to the leadership to set the tone. Far too many emails are political/ass covering – I encourage people to take a long, hard look at their sent items and see how many emails were necessary, and, as far as possible communicate either by phone or face to face.
Use a mix of channels to communicate important messages
Communicating with large groups of people poses its own challenges. Some leaders think that because they have delivered the message via whatever channel, everyone will hop on board. This is seldom the case. In larger companies, what steps can leaders take to ensure that key messages are well and truly delivered?
This is an issue I tackle on a regular basis with leadership teams. Many leaders are used to communicating with their teams in one way, via email. I was consulting with a leadership team a few months ago who were having a problem getting their internal messages through. The open rate on their emails was hovering around the 10% mark.
They were getting worse results than an average marketing mailshot. We helped develop a strategy which involved a mix of video, live presentations, and interactive news letters.
Important messages require a textured delivery. The human brain is very good at ignoring what it perceives as the same old message. Segment the message and deliver it creatively across multiple platforms.
We are now hitting 80%+ open rates on email and engagement has improved dramatically.
How comms can help improve leadership communication
Corporate communications or PR teams usually have a role to play in helping improve leadership communication. How can they best play their part in helping leaders hit the right tone and reiterate important messages, without becoming repetitive?
Hire our team! Seriously, it’s pretty challenging to reform from within (ask Martin Luther). Providing counsel to executive leadership teams is a tricky business, especially when the advice is coming from a more junior manager. Hiring external expertise will not only provide a fresh pair of eyes the counsel will often be unencumbered by the existing corporate culture.
I think the other challenge is having the in-house expertise to be able to make compelling executive communication content. Internal communication is invaluable for driving collaboration, cultural, and business value, as such it should be viewed as an investment rather than an overhead.
You got it wrong. Now what?
When leaders get it wrong – all the way from a factual error, hitting the wrong tone, through to losing their temper in a meeting – what kind of communication and messaging is required to get things back on track?Tricky. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. It very much depends on the potential damage being caused. Perception is everything and leadership teams can often forget that they are under a microscope when it comes to communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Teams notice EVERYTHING about their managers. From they way the walk into the office in the morning, to the tone of voice in a meeting. Judgements and perceptions are formed based on the tiniest of details.
Therefore, presentations need to be practiced, tone of voice scrutinized, and every email scoured for spelling mistakes. Getting things back on track following a howler will depend on the scale of the error and the audience. If a leader turns up late for a meeting, looks flustered, and then delivers a garbled message and she/he is new into the role, then they are going to have a big problem as perceptions/first impressions will have been formed. If an established leader with a solid track record makes the same mistake and has a great relationship with their team then they will be much more easily forgiven and the incident brushed off as an “off day”.
Developing an authentic voice as a leader
What steps can a leader – particularly a new leader – take to develop her or his authentic voice?
It’s not as easy you might think. There is one executive I’ve been working with for around five years. Early in our relationship I said to him that he was paying me to coach him to be himself. He looked at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. A few weeks ago we were having dinner and I reminded him of our conversation, and he knew exactly what I meant.
There is no quick fix to developing an authentic voice, especially for those leaders who have been subsumed by a particular culture for ten years or more.
Having the confidence to be yourself and develop an authentic voice will depend very much on the psychological make up of the individual. Different leaders require very different approaches.
However, there are three essential components which will set an individual on the right road: 1. Being self-aware 2. Being open to fresh thinking on tactical delivery 3. An ability to hear and act on feedback.
Books to help improve leadership communication
Finally, do you recommend any books or seminars etc for leaders who want raise the bar and be better communicators?
My early career was in theatre and then broadcast media, so this influences my selection:
- Building A Character – Constantin Stanislavski (this is a handbook for actors).
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini (something of a perennial).
- Your Voice and How to Use It – Cicely Berry (very useful and practical).
Executive communications coach Nick Meir
Nick Meir helps businesses and executives better engage with their audiences by being authentic and focused, among other things. He is passionate about story telling and helps clients become better leaders and communicate their vision. You can find Nick on Linkedin and Twitter.
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