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Leaders as communicators

Thornton May | Dec. 13, 2016
Honing your message is critically important, but so is choosing the right medium to reach your target audience

The millennial CEO of a company that specializes in helping organizations get full value from the rapidly expanding array of collaboration tools not surprisingly held that things such as group chat are the right tools, but he emphatically maintained that email is not a preferred or effective method of communicating with millennial workers. 

So what is effective? Consider these five points, gleaned from some great communicators and thinkers:

1. Be short and to the point

Winston Churchill recognized the importance of brevity. He coined a phrase that sadly never really caught on: short-windedness, an antonym of long-windedness (to speak at length and in a tedious way). Research done by Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, indicates that 55% of readers stop reading a piece after 15 seconds. Joseph McCormack, in his wonderful book Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, discovered that modern executives “have a hard time focusing. The average attention span is now down to eight seconds. A goldfish has a 9 second attention span.” 

On Aug. 9, 1940, Churchill wrote a memo to the War Cabinet stating that “to do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.” Churchill concluded his memo suggesting that upon achieving brevity, “the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.”  

2. Have something important to say

In an over-communicated world, the greatest gift can be silence. If you are working on a really important document or message and something needs to be said, say it. If not, there is no need to add meaningless bytes to the information torrent. Ask yourself, How much is the information I am about to share really worth?  

3. Be signal, not noise

The Washington Post cites former Harvard President Derek Bok, author of Higher Education in America, arguing that 98% of articles published in the arts and sciences are never cited by another researcher (75% are not cited in social sciences, and 25% in hard sciences). Similarly, 90% of marketing content published never gets used. In the modern corporation, some of the most impressive communicators are those who communicate least — but when they speak, people listen. 

4. Do your homework — pre-package key message points

The speakers who are best off the cuff tend to be the ones who have done the most homework — the ones who have thought hard and long about the big picture. Their rigorous thinking allows them to pre-package powerful insights. A good exercise regarding key issues is to ask yourself, “What would I say about key issue X if I only had two minutes?” Some people call this the elevator pitch as in, “If you had a seven-floor elevator ride with the CEO, what would you say?” 


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