I’m often asked, “What are the most important skills a leader needs to have?” Obviously, there are hundreds…indeed thousands…of books, articles, and blogs devoted to this topic, and while they are different in some respects, there’s also considerable overlap. For example, most “experts” agree that leaders need to be good at making sense of what’s going on in the business environment, at anticipating threats and recognizing opportunity. They need to be good at building high performance cultures, shaping effective strategies, and pulling the right levers to enable their organizations…however large or small…to execute those strategies successfully.
And of course, most people would agree that effective leaders must be able to persuade, motivate, and inspire the people around them…which comes down to the ability to communicate effectively. If you can’t communicate your ideas in a clear, compelling way, you’ll never fully engage your employees, and if you can’t do that, your success will be limited…no matter how much opportunity is available, no matter how brilliant your strategy may be.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas that might help you develop your communications skills.
Tailor your message.
If your goal is to persuade, motivate, and engage, you need to connect with your audience, and that means you need to tailor your message accordingly. And to do that effectively, you need to know your audience. You need to walk in their shoes and figure out what they care about. What gets them excited. What scares them. What they already know and what they need to know. Remember, communication is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Listen more; talk less.
You can’t get to know your people by talking at them, no matter how important your message. So you might want to spend more time listening instead of talking. Ask questions. Be present. Ask if you can take notes, to make sure that you capture and retain people’s ideas. The more you listen, the better your own ideas will become…and the better you’ll be able to convey those ideas in a way that resonates with others.
Beware of information overload.
This is a particular problem when you’re delivering an important message via a formal presentation (as opposed to a conversation with one or just a few other people). We’ve all sat through Power Point presentations where the slides (probably lots of slides) were jammed with bullets, graphs, charts, and data. How successful were those presentations?
Today it’s easier than ever to gather information. Sometimes it seems as if we’re drowning in data. The real challenge today is how to create meaning from all this information and complexity. What goes into your message and what gets left out or put aside for another day? What does your audience need to know right now? Again, knowing your audience is critical here. That’s what allows you to make the right choices…put the data and information into the most appropriate context…and focus your message most effectively.
Prepare and practice.
Whenever you’re delivering an important message, whether it’s in a one-on-one conversation or a presentation to a thousand people, never, never wing it…even if you’ve delivered a similar message many times. Again, you need to think carefully about your audience and tailor your content accordingly.
And if you want to really engage with your audience…if you want them to stay with you all the way on an exciting, compelling journey…you need to practice what you’re going to say. In detail. Out loud. Over and over again, so that any unnecessary content gets weeded out, the narrative smooths out, and all the dots get connected. Too many leaders think “I’m a good presenter,” and rely on an outline of key points to get them through a presentation. For most of us, the result is that we ramble, we lose the thread of our message, we go down too many rabbit holes that leave the audience wondering how much longer it will be before they can break for lunch. That’s not good enough.
Deliver message. Repeat message six times
One of the most frustrating things for leaders is the sense that they delivered their message effectively and got great feedback, but nothing seems to have changed. People are still doing the same things. They’re not following the new direction. The message…apparently delivered effectively…seems to have been a waste of time.
But here’s the thing. Very few people will listen to a presentation and then immediately begin to make changes to their work or behaviors. The fact is that in most cases we all need to hear a given message several times before it really sinks in and we’re ready to act on it. My rule of thumb is that after listening to a message twice, people will hear it. After listening to the message twice more, in a different environment, they will internalize it. After hearing it twice more, they will get engaged and act differently.
So, finally…here are a few questions for you to consider.
How would you rate
your communication skills? Would your people agree?
When was the last time you asked for some feedback on your communication skills?
What might you start doing today to grow your skills in this critical area?