Good communications is a prerequisite for leadership. And so it can often come as a shock to leaders to find that most of their messaging seems to land on barren land. Take-up of internal communications can remain stubbornly low. When planning leadership communications it is not just the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ that are important. The first place to start is ‘why’.
1. Why do you want to talk?
It may seem odd, but how many times have you been on the receiving end of communications from leaders who are doing it because they feel they ought to rather than because they have something to say? There seems to be an assumption built into many leaders’ minds that people want to listen merely because of the fact that they are the bosses. In organisations, too much leadership communication takes place out of vanity.
Management believe that their people need them. Leaders want to keep their profiles up because ‘management visibility’ is a Key Performance Indicator in their people scores. Their reaction to falling take-up rates for internal communications is to get their experts to devise ever more sophisticated ways to get the message across. The result is an increase in the cacophony of noise. People already have far too much information to deal with both in their personal and their professional lives. Just because it’s coming from a leader doesn’t make it any more likely that they’ll listen to it. If it’s of no interest, they simply switch off. So the starting point for the communications professional is to not give in to pressure to create vanity publishing and always work on the principle that less really is more.
2. Authentic voice
Communications professionals are often guilty of trying to create a great communicator out of a leader. That often means making them communicate in ways that feel unnatural for them. Successful communications requires authenticity. If the leader is in reality a cerebral but rather shy accountant then create communications channels where he or she can feel comfortable. For instance, they may be more relaxed and more effective in smaller, intimate environments rather that in large ‘town hall’ settings. Build confidence slowly before moving on. These days we wouldn’t dream of giving as a first-time outing a gig in front of packed Wembley Stadium with simultaneous broadcast across the world to an inexperienced, nervous stammerer. Likewise, don’t launch a blog for a leader who is known to have two pencil sharpeners on his/her desk.
3. Use real words
“Going forward, we expect a return to stability in weather-related consumer confidence leading to an upside growth potential with limited dilution of margins.” Or, if the snow clears up we reckon people will start spending again. It is extraordinary how many leaders only feel comfortable speaking the language of business schools, as if using normal words is a threat to their status. I’m pretty sure that they don’t speak like that at home when they ask what’s for supper. You’ll have much more chance of getting your message across if you fly your business jargon up the flagpole and leave it there.
4. Pull not push
Leadership communications is far more likely to be successful if people come to it rather than have it forced on them. There are very few messages which really do need to be transmitted immediately. Most people are far happier to view and receive communications in their own time. Provide the messages in a variety of channels and let people choose when and how they engage with it. Some prefer to watch an interview, some prefer a written article, some like seeing a person in the flesh. There is no one-size-fits-all for leadership communications. For instance, broadcast interviews are excellent ways to get not just a message over but also to provide an empathetic human face. But make a transcript available as well. Oh, and one final thing, please ditch the cascade. Unless, of course, you like watching your message become at best diluted or at worst ignored.
5. Digital not analogue
Much leadership communications is stuck in the analogue mindset. It is top-down, one-dimensional and often involves people being talked at. If you’re lucky there may be a chance to fill out a survey so that senior managers can see if you’ve become “engaged”. True communications involves listening. That’s not the same as asking a question (if you think it is, try just asking your partner questions when you get home and see where that gets you). True, effective communications is about creating a relationship based on trust. It is not about imparting information. The 19th Century American humourist, Ambrose Bierce, summed it up neatly when he described a bore as “someone who talks when you want them to listen.” Didactic, one-dimensional communication cannot and will not survive. If leaders really want to engage with people then they should spend more time listening and less time talking.
6. Don’t worry about how people hear the message
Every profession seems to be worrying about the lack of trust. The fact is that it’s rarely personal, it’s just that levels of trust are far lower than they used to be across all parts of society. What people do trust is, of course, people like themselves. So don’t neglect the grapevine. Allow people to share information and communication the same way as they do in their outside lives. Let people post comments on your communications and post to friends in the business. It can often be a far more powerful endorsement than if it’s come directly from the leader. That’s the real benefit of viral channels.
7. Make it normal and usual, not abnormal and unusual
Too many leaders get stuck in a rut of only communicating at certain times. Doing that tends to reinforce the feeling that they talk to their people and not with them. Successful communications should be a constant dialogue of listening, engaging and talking.
8. Don’t let communications get in the way of the real thing
“How did my town hall go down?” asked the leader, as he tucked into a lunch tray set out in his office. It’s all very well leaders trying to position themselves as open, communicative human beings who share the pain of their employees, but too often they hide behind the trappings of their self-justifying status. Cars whiz them to the office, straight to a private lift, where an array of private office staff screen their calls and emails. Communication shouldn’t be switched on and off. True leaders communicate by being accessible, by being seen to be part of the organisation. Formal communication should be the icing on the cake of normal business life. It is no substitute for real human interaction.
9. And finally…
Many leaders seem to think that they are endlessly fascinating to other people. So much so that they find it difficult to stop talking. They seem to fall in love with the sound of their own voice. Therefore, another tip for successful leadership communications is to keep it short and punchy, and always leave them wanting more