Leaders need to consider how best to communicate

Using succinct messages takes practice

My friend Lisa suggested I write about the balance between useful communication and too much information as a leader. It’s a dicey subject because you’re now going to judge this piece on that scale. (Was that last sentence necessary?)

Years ago, I had a weekly meeting in California. It was sometimes one hour and sometimes nine hours. I was one of the only senior executives on the team who wasn’t located at our corporate office. So I attended via video conference rather than spending two travel days for an often short meeting.

On one video conference, I made an emotional appeal for something that apparently was not well-received by a couple of people. One of my peers kindly called me afterward and said I made my point in the first 30 seconds and then spent the next five minutes killing any chance I had of winning the argument. I couldn’t see the rolling eyes of those not in the picture frame.

An extreme example of too much information is Fidel Castro, who once spoke for seven hours and 10 minutes straight. I guess the defense of communism is complex.

Likewise, Ayn Rand famously used 645,000 words in Atlas Shrugged to defend capitalism and individualism over government intervention. I loved the book but took quite a few naps in between pages. Just to prove she was wrong, the bureaucrats struck back by writing about 4 million words in the federal tax code. By the time you finish reading this, it might be more.

I’ve coached verbose executives. The cure involves thinking before talking, practicing and using succinct messages, which takes discipline. As Mark Twain reportedly said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." (More likely, this quote came from Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and logician.)

We might all agree that using too many words to make a point is imprudent and prone to irritate others. A teacher of mine says, “Don’t tell them everything you know, just what they need to know.”

We should differentiate, however, between verbosity, frequency and efficacy when contemplating how to communicate as a leader. My examples above only consider verbosity.

One mistake senior leaders make is communicating key messages (vision, strategy, values and critical issues) too infrequently. Once isn’t enough. The founder of a company I worked with had several key stories that he told so often that everyone could repeat them, but there was no mistaking the intent. Frequency is important.

Likewise, effective language is critical. Leaders who make it all about themselves are ineffective. Forget politics, but remember the ability of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to get their message across. They balanced reason with emotion to gain support for their message.

Brief, effective and repetitive. That’s the ticket!

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