I spend a lot of time thinking about corporate communication, both internal and external. And here is a bold statement: There is nothing more important. Work gets performed, sales are made, and brands are created, all through communication. Here are some keys.
Say first what it’s not about
Currently, we’re helping a company deal with an underperforming executive. In counseling her, we suggested that the CEO first tell the exec what the conversation is not going to be about. Why? The exec is smart. During the talk, she would be trying to think ahead, to see what’s coming around the corner.
This technique avoids that problem, clears the mind, allows focus, and inspires trust. As Harry Beckwith counsels in his latest book, You, Inc., the first rule of communication isn’t “communicate so that you are understood,” but “communicate so you cannot be misunderstood.”
Speak in a language people can understand
My mother told me this, and like a lot of what she said, it took me a while to grasp the wisdom. Here is an example from recent business news. A large company is letting employees go and replacing them with lower-paid employees, calling it “wage management.” Reminds me of the VP of HR who insisted on testifying that a downsizing was really a “rightsizing.” Obfuscation (even if factually accurate) makes people, like those on a jury, mad. Remember what Ma counseled.
Easier said than done. In the article “Why It’s So Hard to Be Fair” that appeared in the March 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review, Joel Brockner says that employees who hear a fair process being communicated to them are less likely to do bad things like sue or have excessive absenteeism. He cites studies that show only one percent of ex-employees who feel they were treated with a high degree of process fairness file a lawsuit versus 17 percent who believe they were treated with a low degree of process fairness.
How do you do it? Get employee input into decisions, ensure a mechanism by which common mistakes can be corrected, explain why decisions were made, be consistent, and act on accurate information. It’s the process, not the outcome.
Impart intent, communication follows
In their insightful book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about a military technique. A commander can’t write down all the orders, so she gives them in broad form. The subordinates are trained to ask two questions: first, if we do nothing else on tomorrow’s mission, we must do _______; and second, the single most important thing that we must do tomorrow is _______. The big idea? As soon as people know the intent of an order, they begin generating their own solutions.
Questions are powerful. They clarify. They act as a fulcrum. Asking “Why should we do this?” “What facts support our beliefs?” or “How will our actions affect the employees?” is a powerful tool. Ask in a way that it’s clear you are seeking the truth, not making an objection.
“No” is powerful. Too often in communication, we equivocate not wanting to offend, keeping options open, and straddling the fence. That’s ineffective communication. When “no” is what you’re thinking, “no” is what you should say. Read Start with No, Jim Camp’s outstanding book on the effective use of “no.” Stringing people along is “unethical.” “No” clarifies and liberates. Always be ready to walk away from a deal, any deal. That’s real power.