The two primary things that any speaker must consider is the message, or content, and the audience, or target. You would never try to explain Newtonian physics to a first grader, nor would you recite the A-B-Cs to a college audience. While those are obvious examples, what many speakers and writers try to do is exactly that – deliver a message that is inappropriate to the audience. Such messages only create confusion and, too often, waste effort. Clarity of communication in the first instance avoids these types of time-wasting activities.
When a message is unclear, the most common source of the confusion is rooted in the speaker’s thinking. Very often, the speaker has no confidence in their own message. You know how it is often said that people fear public speaking? I have no empirical evidence to support this, but I firmly believe that the primary source of this fear is a lack of confidence in their message. What if my audience figures out that I have no idea what I am talking about?
Thus the starting point for clear communication comes from clear thinking, or as is often said, make sure the brain is in gear before engaging the mouth.
Clarity and Audience
When you truly understand your topic you can talk about it at length. If you find yourself telling everything you know, then you probably need to study your topic a little more deeply. You should always have much more information than you share. If you are telling your audience everything you know, you are probably talking too much anyway. Your content must be tailored to the level of your audience. Even if the audience is a mix of informed levels, you must still find a way to communicate to each of the levels present. I run into this frequently in classes – the client sends people from all levels to attend. Even when I am told that I will be speaking only to the senior people, some of them are too egotistical to believe I can teach them anything. The excuse is that they are too busy, so they delegate class attendance. The fact is – they cannot humble themselves sufficiently to learn. Which is fine with me. They have just demonstrated their disqualification to serve as a leader. I did not want to talk with them anyway. I only want to talk to leaders. From any level of the organization.
Thus many of my classes start with, “I realize some of this introductory material will be a review for many of you, but please bear with me while I confirm to myself that we are not leaving anyone behind right out of the gate.” Inoffensive, inclusive, and usually informative. I confirm that each member of the class has at least some exposure to the basics. This becomes increasingly important the more complex the subject.
There is no more arcane, difficult, convoluted, and confusing subject in government contracting than the subject of government fiscal law. The golden rule states that he who has the gold makes the rules, and with the government, per the Constitution, not one single penny can be spent unless and until the US Congress has appropriated the money. And no one can think of more strings to attach to money than Congress. Yet I manage to get great reviews on my fiscal law classes. Why? Well, first, I have studied the subject thoroughly. I stay current by following the new appropriation law process and the most recent decisions related to the expenditure of funds from the judging entities (not always courts!). Then I reduce it to three primary principles of fiscal law – all money appropriated by congress is limited by its time (period within which it can be obligated), purpose (the things the money can be obligated to procure), and the amount (OK, everyone gets that element.) By giving my audience a framework within which to categorize the information I am going to tell them, then telling the information, then giving them examples of the types of expenditures and how they fit within the appropriation and obligation process, they grasp what they need to know to do their jobs. I don’t tell them everything I know; they have no desire to learn that much detail. Because I understand contracting and appropriation, I can align the two disciplines and help them understand the right and wrong ways in which the money can be spent or, more appropriately, obligated.
This takes, literally, years of study. I have no degree in the subject; I hold no special certification. I have simply studied the subject thoroughly and can convey that information to a varied audience. I can think clearly about the subject and thus speak clearly about it.
Delivering the Message for Comprehension
A CEO speaking on a conference call to a group of investors will approach the subject in terms of things about which investors care. When speaking to his or her direct reports, there may be information that is important to them, but not others. When speaking to a group of new employees and welcoming them to the organization, the message again considers content and audience. The first step is always to determine what the message should be and then phrasing it appropriately for the audience. It is said that most newspapers are written to a 6th grade level. Explaining to a 6th grader the intricacies of higher mathematics is probably not useful. Explaining the truth about Santa Claus to a college professor is equally useless. On the other hand, a sixth grader can and should understand math principles to their level of understanding, and the College Professor can write a book on the Leadership Principles of Santa Claus.
Have you ever told a joke? Have you ever heard a joke? Many will claim they cannot tell or remember jokes they hear, but the truth is they remember more than they even know. Why? Because throughout man’s existence, history – recorded and unrecorded – has always been told in story format. What is a story? It is a message that has a beginning or setup, it has a series of events, usually told chronologically, and then a resolution of the conflict presented – the ending. When the goal of the communication is to encourage the listener to remember a principle, the most effective, perhaps the ONLY effective, way is to couch the principle in a story. Think of the 22 minute sit-com which always reaches conflict resolution within the block of time allotted.
Whether the story is real or fictional, people remember stories. They become, at least on some level even if only visceral, emotionally attached to the actors. This is one reason that biographies are such excellent things for leaders to read. (220.127.116.11). Think back to your parents’ reading you Aesop’s fables and Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Those lessons are with you today. There is just something about a story that registers with the human mind.
What was the last short story that you read? Typically longer than the modern joke, it has the same attributes. Get a book of short stories from John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, or other writer whose style you like. Look at the structure of the story – the beginning, the conflict, the resolution. To tell a good story, you must read many good stories. When the time comes to relay a story of importance to the sustained leader’s vision, you will be well versed in the technique and will be able to effectively communicate the specific message you are seeking to convey. Story-telling is a skill that can be learned by any aspiring leader and will be one more arrow in their quiver for demonstrating sustained leadership.
The sustained leader learns to tell a story; one with a beginning, middle, and end. One of the best ways to learn this is to learn to tell jokes – clean wholesome ones with a point or a humorous twist. Consider the following example that puts a twist on what was once a popular advertising slogan.
Bus Driver Joe was unemployed. Every day he went to town to find a job, but each day he returned still unemployed. One day, however, he returned home to tell his wife that he had finally gotten hired as the driver for the Sesame Street School bus. On his first day he drove to the bus yard, got his bus and map, and proceeded to his route.
At the first stop he pulled up and a very rotund little girl climbed aboard. “What’s your name, little girl?” he sked. “My name is Patty,” she replied. “Welcome to the Sesame Street bus. Have a seat and we’ll have you to school soon.” At the second stop an even larger little girl boarded the bus. “What is your name?” asked Driver Joe. “My name is Patty,” she replied. “Well, isn’t that interesting. You have the same name as the other little girl. Climb aboard and we’ll be at school soon.”
As he pulled up to the next stop he noticed a lady with a little boy. As the youngster got on the bus, his mother said to Driver Joe, “This is Ross, and Ross is special.” “No problem,” replied Driver Joe. “We’ll get him to school safe and sound.” As Driver Joe pulled up to the next stop he saw a young hoodlum throwing stones at cars as they drove by and yelling to the passerby’s. When Driver Joe opened the doors the boy stomped onto the bus and announced, “I’m Lester Pease and I’m riding this bus.” Whereupon he proceeded to the back of the bus, took off his shoes and socks and started picking at his feet.
After dropping his young charges off at school and turning in the bus, he went home and his wife asked him how his first day on the job had been. “Not bad,” replied Joe. “Two all-beef Patties, special Ross, Lester Pease picking bunions on a Sesame Street bus.”
Corny, yes, but a story nonetheless. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The punchline might make people laugh or groan, but that is not the point. The point is that storytelling is memorable. This is not a story you tell off the top of your head unless you have studied it, memorized it, and practiced it to be able to present it without backtracking, leaving something out, or just totally butchering it.
When considering your communication and its audience, consider the variety of delivery devices. Each might require adjustments to your usual communication technique. For example are you texting, tweeting, emailing, or placing a phone call? Is this a formal or informal communication? Is the message solely for the recipient or would it be OK if they share it?
Jack and Suzy Welch share the story of an associate of theirs named Joey Levin.
‘The best tech people are bilingual,” Joey explains. They speak fluent tech; they’re the real thing. But they also speak fluent business. They embrace the company’s mission and values. They understand what activities drive revenues and costs. They worry about the competition. They feel strong ownership of the numbers.
Become multi-lingual. Learn the jargon of those areas important to your area of leadership. (2.0). Lack of clarity in communication suggests that the speaker is unclear in his or her thinking – that they do not have an adequate command of the language in their story. A sustained leader understands that clear thinking leads to clear communication. Conversely, muddled communications suggest that the thinking behind it is likewise muddled and will mislead and confuse your audience.
I know you think you understood what it was you thought I said,
but what you don’t understand is that what you heard is not what I meant to say.
Be a sustained leader. Communicate effectively.