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Are you thinking enough about how you communicate?

Apr 11, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“A sticky idea is one that people understand when they hear it, that they remember later on, and that changes something about the way they think or act. That is a high standard. Think back to the last presentation you saw. How much do you remember? How did it the change the way you make decisions day to day?

Leaders will spend weeks or months thinking about the right idea, but then spend only a few hours thinking about how to convey that message to everyone else. That’s a tragedy. It’s worth making sure that the lightbulb that has gone on inside your head also goes on in the heads of your employees or customers.”

Chip Heath, interviewed in The McKinsey Quarterly (November 2007)

Chip Heath, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford, is a specialist in how messages are communicated in organisations. In this interview, he spells out three ‘must-dos’ in communication: keep it simple; keep it concrete; make it surprising.

When John F Kennedy launched America’s new space programme in 1961, he couldn’t have put the goal any better: To put a man on the moon in a decade. It was simplicity itself – understood by the whole world. It was concrete – everyone could picture what success meant. And it was surprising and unexpected, and tickled the emotions.

Simplicity, explains Prof Heath, is not about dumbing down. It is about focusing on the very core of the communication and highlighting it in plain language. Even good leaders often suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’. In other words, they know too much about what they’re talking about, and forget that most of their audience doesn’t. As Chip Heath pointed out, if you’ve had a conversation with an IT specialist about what’s wrong with your computer, you know all about this curse!

Business leaders must especially beware of talking in abstractions, which I can confirm they nearly always do. They are forever extolling people to ‘maximise shareholder value’, to ‘design customer-centricity’, to ‘manage trade-offs’. When they do this, they are not always babbling. They are merely speaking in a language that makes perfect sense to them – but not to others. Consider that putting a man on the moon could also have been stated thus: “Seize leadership in the space race through targeted technology initiatives and enhanced team-based initiatives.”

Jack Welch’s earthy stories and Steve Jobs’ mesmerising product launches are the stuff of legend. Not every CEO can communicate with the ease and power of those masters. But every CEO must be an accomplished communicator – that cannot be delegated. Leaders must inspire. They must paint pictures, they must provide compelling narratives, and they must use words to take people with them. That cannot be done by a leader who over-complicates every message, who refuses to spell out what the message actually means, and who speaks in bland, predictable platitudes.

It is a shame we don’t spend enough time thinking about what we say, write and show. Many Kenyan CEOs delegate all of that to specialists or outsource it to PR agencies. That is sad. Most people I know would rather have a leader who delivers messages that keep resonating in the mind.

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