Teach Your Leaders to Be Great Communicators

We have allowed the bulleted slide deck to become a perfectly acceptable crutch—and a substitute for communication skill. The solution lies in understanding that communication can only ever be about the audience’s brain.

It is no coincidence that Steve Jobs is remembered not only as a legendary business leader, but also as an exceptionally effective communicator. These two skills are closely intertwined.

Yet even amid the recent trend in which organizations—especially larger ones—are taking leadership development far more seriously, there is little if any focus on helping leaders improve their communications skills.

Everyone agrees that exceptional communication is critical to help leaders perform at their highest possible level. With the impending retirement of today’s senior leadership generation and the ascent of a new generation of professionals into those leadership roles, organizations have been stepping up to the plate to offer in-house leadership academies and other forms of training on topics ranging from managing disruptive change and managing in a global environment to operating with a diverse workforce designed to ensure that the next generation of leaders is properly prepared.

Why, then, has so little attention has been paid to helping leaders learn to communicate effectively? Communication drives executive effectiveness; it is vital to nearly every aspect of a business’ success. Without effective communication skills, a leader’s message does not stick and will not fulfill his or her fundamental mission of driving results by compelling people into action. Leaders who communicate poorly or at a mediocre level—which sadly has become accepted as the norm—fail to secure the support they need from their superiors. They fail to secure confidence and trust from their teams, to acquire financial backing for key projects and initiatives, and to build relationships with key constituencies and communities in which they operate.

Slide Decks Are a Substitute for Skill

In fact, communication skills appear to be on the decline. We have allowed the bulleted slide deck to become a perfectly acceptable crutch—and a substitute for skill. Given how time-oppressed most executives are, its convenience is seductive. Slowly but surely, this has steadily driven down the quality of our executive communication. When I ask people how effective they find the typical presentations they sit through, only around 15 percent rate them as “good” or in a category higher than “good.” A full 65 percent say the presentations are mediocre or worse, and a full 20 percent are rated as “extremely poor.”

To bring this to life, I recently witnessed the CEO of a leading consulting firm address an audience of 3,000 to 4,000 people. During this address, his communication, comprising a thick deck of overly detailed slides coupled with a wandering narrative and a lack of connection between his material and his audience, meant that within just a few minutes, the disconnection of his audience had become both palpable and troubling. More so because our research shows that when a leader presents poorly, more than 70 percen of the audience correlates that poor communication with that leader’s overall leadership ability.

Clearly the slide deck just doesn’t cut it. But the problem runs much deeper, and the answer is a lot more interesting than ditching PowerPoint: It lies in understanding that communication can only ever be about the audience’s brain.

The brain wants and needs to consume information in a particular way. When aligned with this, communication is incredibly effective—regardless of a presenter’s delivery skills. When misaligned, failure continues to be guaranteed.

Science shows that the brain is wired to process ideas. Biologically, it is reductionist, boiling information down to ideas it can grab hold of. This is what the brain retains. It does not, however, traffic well at the level of facts and data, especially in large quantities. Thus, great communicators operate at the level of ideas, thereby feeding the brain the exact currency in which it traffics.

The Hallmarks of Great Communication

Executives can be taught to communicate effectively. When given the right tools and process for message design, they can master the hallmarks of great communication, which:

  • Pivots on a small number of big ideas.
  • Is clean, crisp, and simple, remaining within the bandwidth of what the brain can absorb.
  • Is grounded in the needs, wants, concerns, and fears of the audience rather than in an executive’s personal priorities and preferences.
  • Has a logical narrative flow. Story is key both to human cognition and retention.
  • Leads to a logical call to action.

The refreshing truth is that when executives are trained in the right principles governing message architecture, these outcomes become the norm. Sadly, traditional presentation skills training can never achieve this—the focus on “eye contact and body language” is largely irrelevant to the real problem and generally yields no actionable results for either the communicator or the audience.

As you think about executive training, don’t forget communication. Focus on message architecture and brain alignment. You’ll find that other leadership solutions will fall into place more naturally—and with better results.

Tim Pollard, author of “The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design” (Conder House Press, 2016), is the founder and CEO of Oratium, a communications firm helping organizations from Fortune 500 companies to law offices hone their presentation and messaging skills.

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