“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
Sir Winston had a way with words. That’s for sure.
Many bosses and leaders regularly address their team. Most of the time, these presentations or speeches are delivered during rather informal meetings. Sometimes they’re more formal and include some slick slide deck. Sadly, we’re in a meeting intensive era where workplace meetings often consume more time than actually getting anything done. We’re often busier meeting about the work than we are doing the work. So it goes.
Constructing and delivering effective presentations or speeches to your team is a worthwhile study, but that’s not my point today. Today, I want to focus on how we speak to our team to foster higher performance and a more achievement-driven culture.
What we say matters.
How we say it also matters.
How long and how often we say it can matter, too.
If you don’t think so, just ask any successful professional sports team coach who has been fired?
People stop listening. Some may never start.
Jack Welch died a week or so ago. In spite of how you may feel about him as a corporate leader, this much is true – the man had the ability to quickly turn a 300,000 person behemoth. Nobody in corporate history had proven as effective as Welch in getting a message through to the troops, up and down the chain. His candor cut through the clutter and got into the hearts and minds of GE employees faster than companies many times smaller than GE. General Electric had no peers during Welch’s tenure. That’s why Wall Street loved him. The man delivered financial results, not just speeches.
How much time do you spend on your speaking ability? Are you growing and improving your ability to communicate so everybody understands…clearly?
Some leaders put the burden on others. “It’s their job to know and understand what I want,” says one CEO. That’s a foolish perspective. He’s the one doing the talking. They’re listening. Yet he wants to put the full burden on them while he hides behind the fact that he’s the boss.
I’ve worked with top-level leaders who struggled with all sorts of communication challenges. Some go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Others struggle to stand in front of a sizeable crowd. Still, others find saying precisely what they want difficult. I even worked with one CEO who intentionally communicated with ambiguity in order to create what she called, “productive tension.” Being unfamiliar with that phrase I asked and was given this explanation. “People are left to wonder about it and that makes them work harder to please me.” Interesting. Horribly abusive in my opinion, but interesting. 😉
What are we trying to accomplish when we speak? Or write?
It’s important to know the answer before we communicate. Situations dictate different desired outcomes.
What you need to communicate can range from bad news to good news, from major problems to exciting opportunities, from stern warnings to enthusiastic encouragement. Public speakers learn to know the audience. Know who you’re speaking to. Top leaders know who they’re speaking to already – or they think they do. But context, the specific context of the people, matters. Not all the people in your organization are capable of hearing the exact same communication. That doesn’t mean they can’t get the same, or similar, message, but you’d better not deliver it identically to everybody.
So you have to figure out what you need to communicate – and that will determine what you say and how long you say it. It’ll also likely impact how long you want to spend saying it.
Dallas Stars’ hockey Stanley Cup-winning coach, Ken Hitchcock, used to talk about addressing his team after a loss. He’d say that most losses meant not even entering the dressing room after the game. He argued they knew they had failed. He didn’t feel any need to call their attention to the obvious. Besides, he felt the next day’s practice would provide a bit of time and distance where they could more critically view the videotape and their bad performance. Hitch understood what he was trying to accomplish.
How do want people to feel about what you say?
Yes, feelings matter. How people feel about what you say will have a direct impact on their performance. So yes, feelings matter a great deal.
“I don’t care how they feel. I just care about what they do,” says the tough-nosed CEO. The problem is he fails to understand that people are driven to do based on how they feel. So don’t be stupid. Or hardheaded.
When you’re delivering bad news you may be tempted to just want to get through it. Avoid that. Instead, concentrate on how you want people to feel when you’re finished. Do you want them to feel safe? Secure? Do you want them to feel panic and despair? (don’t say that)
It’s fine to consider what you want them to DO once you’re finished but work your way back to how they need to feel first. Do you want to help them elevate their performance? Then make them feel things necessary to help foster that.
Sure, it’s perfectly fine – and sometimes appropriate – to insert some “productive tension.” I don’t have a problem with that idea. I just have a problem with creating it by making sure you’re not being clear. I find that’s a foolish use of it. I’ve used it effectively when trying to coach higher performance but found a person – or a team – rather unresponsive. You could read people the riot act or you could insert some tension to let them know things are now more serious. It can give people a stronger sense of urgency and accountability.
Design your communication to spark whatever feelings best serve the situation.
What do you want people to do? What’s the call to action?
Here’s a big shock. It can’t be, “Live better, be better, do better!” Way too generic.
Learn to be specific. Learn to always be clear. Make sure everybody – I mean EVERYBODY – understands what you’re saying.
If people leave your presence and huddle in the hallway asking, “I wonder what he meant by that?” — then you failed. If people are wondering what you mean, then how do you expect them to perform anything at a high level?
Make it clear what you need people to do with the information you’ve passed on. Ask them. Tell them. In the clearest terms appropriate for the setting. For example, you’re going to relay information to your executive team differently than you will to your entire organization. Likewise, the calls to action are going to be different, too.
This is why I began with how you want people to feel. Once you make each group feel whatever will help them move forward, now you have to arm them with a plan – a strategy – to do that. Move forward. You must avoid leaving people wondering, “Now what do we do?” You have to answer that for them with a clearly defined plan so they can act with confidence.
Keep people updated. Don’t leave people hanging.
How do you feel when somebody tells you something important, then they go dark? Exactly. Don’t do that to the people under your leadership. Remember, there’s a big difference in being a leader and just being the boss. Any rube can be a boss, but it demands skill and talent to be a leader. And it takes work. First on yourself.
You’re constantly asking, urging, coaching and challenging people to grow and improve. It seems only fit that you ought to be first to answer that bell. So don’t neglect your own self-improvement.
Keep people in the loop. Modern culture is in love with the word, “engaged.” Or “engagement.” Keep them engaged. That’s assuming you did a great job all along the way to get them engaged.
Don’t let the good work you did falter because you drop the ball.
You’d never allow a salesperson to fully captivate a prospect, deliver a killer presentation and have an intensely engaged potential client — only to neglect to ask them for the sale. Or to get the sale, then neglect to follow-up with the necessary actions required to dazzle the client. You’re no better than that if you have all your people engaged, but then you forget about them and assume they’ll keep up.
“If it is to be, it’s up to me.” Stop relying on the system, the culture or the machine to do your work for you. Your communication is critical up and down the line. People want to hear from you. They need to hear from you.
Let me leave you with a powerful truth my experiences have taught me.
People need a story. They need to know the role they’re playing in the story. As their leader, it’s up to you to give them the story that can ideally serve them to perform at their best. If you fail to do that, they’ll write their own story. And it will be awful. People who lack knowledge and understanding will always write a bad story. They’ll write a story based on their fears and paranoia. How do you suppose that’ll help the performance inside your organization? Then take command of crafting the story and make sure you tell it well.
Be well. Do good. Grow great!
P.S. I grew up being a fan of Edwin Newman, the famed newsman who was fanatical about clear communication. Here’s an interview I found to help foster more curiosity about him and his work. Enjoy!