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Communicating as a Leader

Leadership Skills: How to Be a Successful Communicator

Jacqueline Moore asked:

As a business leader, one of the most important leadership skills you’ll ever demonstrate is knowing how to communicate. When you think about it, most business leadership consists of communication of one sort or another.

You hold meetings with staff or board members or suppliers, you interview potential managers, you meet customers and shareholders, you chat in the corridor or on the phone. All of these formal and informal moments offer you the chance to influence, to enthuse and to inspire.

So how can you make the most of these moments – how can you become a truly successful communicator?

Communication involves a variety of interactions. It involves discussing, and listening, and debating. But communication also often involves a senior executive passing on some information. This may seem a fairly simple task. But it’s amazing how often business leaders don’t give enough information, or shroud it in jargon, or tell the wrong people.

HOW you pass on information can significantly affect what happens next. If you want people (whether your staff or your suppliers or customers) to act on the information, you need to make sure they understand it. And that’s not as simple as it sounds.

There are several lessons we can learn here from people whose whole business is communication. Journalists depend entirely on their words. And journalists are taught a range of tips and techniques for making their information compelling, interesting and easy to understand. Many of these techniques are just as useful for business executives, and are well worth exploring.

I’ve found that thinking about how news stories work in newspapers, for example, can help executives communicate complex messages in a simple, brief and yet memorable way, both in print and in person.

News stories are designed to grab our attention from the opening sentence. They try to tell us the news in simple, easy-to-understand language. And they don’t assume we know much about the subject already. So when you as a business executive have some information to pass on, it’s worth trying to compile it as a news story – that way, you won’t miss out anything vital.

So what makes a good a news story? In an ideal world, the opening paragraph should:

– sum up the story

– have the most important facts first

– be short and punchy and contain only essential facts

– use emotive words early on

– possibly contain an appropriate quote

– appeal to the reader in his or her area, in his or her business, or because it affects his or her pocket or way of life.

That’s a lot to fit into a few lines. So the easiest thing to do is make sure your opening paragraph answers all the questions a reader may have:

Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?

Take an example of a news story from a business newspaper:

Who? Former senior executives at X Corp

What? were arrested

How? by FBI agents

Where? in New York

When? today

Why? on suspicions of tax evasion.

This works equally well when you’re announcing something to your staff (the order in which you answer the questions can vary):

Who? I (John Doe, CEO of Y Company,)

What? want to thank

Where? all of you in our Toronto division

Why? for raising sales an impressive 5 per cent

When? in the fourth quarter

How? and invite you all to a celebration lunch next week.

In a news story, it’s important not to venture your own opinion or comment. The above item may appear to cross this line – it describes the sales increase as ‘impressive’ – but further down in the story (or in the internal memo or in the email to staff) the writer could justify the use of the word ‘impressive’ by comparing it with the target or with increases in previous quarters.

If the fundamental purpose of news is to inform, it’s essential that you allow your readers to make up their own minds on the information you provide. Do not try to sell your own opinion as fact.

To sum up, the crucial point to remember when you’re communicating information is that the most important information should appear first. If you do that, answering all the questions as suggested, there’s a good chance that you’ll get your message across and that everyone will understand it.

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