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What every leader must know about communication

Aug 08, 2008 Business Daily, Leadership

“…Mr (Gordon) Brown’s most damaging flaw: he is a lousy communicator. A failing in any leader, for Mr Brown this weakness has proved catastrophic…Sadly (for him and for Labour), Mr Brown has a bad habit even more damaging than saying impossible things: saying nothing at all, often at excruciating length…Beyond the universal if dispiriting fact that most people vote with their guts – forming their views on policy on the basis of character judgments rather than vice versa – Mr Brown’s oratorial woodenness matters…”

The Economist (28 June 2008)

The excerpts above are from a recent issue of The Economist which recently skewered the British Prime Minister’s poor communication skills, leading with the statement: “Gordon Brown’s failure to speak to voters in a language they understand has undone him”.

No one doubts that Mr Brown is an intellectually rigorous, thoughtful leader. What may make him a very short-lived Prime Minister is not his lack of depth. It is the inability to convey his thoughts, ideas and policies in language that resonates and sticks. He comes across as wooden, dour and evasive. Voters don’t like that.

We do not have a tradition of great communication skills in Kenya. Our political leaders have almost always been of the old school: those who arrive with a long-winded prepared speech written by someone else, and who then proceed to read it excruciatingly slowly in a monotonous tone, hardly ever looking up to make eye contact with the audience. There is no better cure for insomnia. This anachronistic style explains partly why we have not had a major political idea that has resonated with the people of this country. We simply don’t know how to convey ideas.

Those who imagine that it’s the actual words that matter should think again. Recent research shows that in any face-to-face communication, the actual words make very little impact – just 7%. The tone of voice accounts for 38% of the impact. Body language accounts for a staggering 55%! So, the way you modulate and project your voice, your body posture and, most importantly, your facial expressions and smiles, affect everything. Once you understand this, it will transform your communication skills.

So the content doesn’t matter? Of course it does. I am not advocating a communication style that is all style and no substance. Thought Leadership has covered this issue before: in order to stick in people’s minds, your message must be simple, concrete and surprising. These are essential tests to apply. Can everyone understand this, or just me? Am I saying something solid and measurable, or talking in woolly abstractions? And is there anything in my message that grabs the attention and compels people to listen? If you fail those tests, redo your speech or presentation.

This not to say that every person who aspires to leadership better be born with the oratorical flourish of a Barack Obama or a Martin Luther King. Communication is not just about great speeches – it happens every day in every interaction you have with your staff, customers and investors. In every conversation and in every meeting, ask yourself: am I being clear, am I reaching out, have I grabbed the attention?

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