5 Communication Mistakes Too Many Leaders Make

This is a guest post by Alison Davis, CEO of Davis and Company, an employee communication firm helping companies improve employee engagement. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

5 Communication Mistakes

Congratulations! You’ve been promoted or successfully built your business, and now you’re a leader.

But now the hard work is ahead, especially when it comes to communicating with your employees. That’s because almost everything you learned as a manager doesn’t apply any more.

While manager communication focuses on the task at hand, leaders have a broader role: to articulate where the organization is heading, clarify what employees need to do to help the organization succeed, and share progress and accomplishments.

The good news is that when you fulfill your communication role, employees become motivated to do their best work. Employees want to connect with their senior leaders and feel engaged in the company’s strategic direction. Hearing from the boss is a key driver of satisfaction.

But leaders often lack the clarity, time and skills they need to communicate effectively. As a result, they make these 5 communication mistakes:

 

“Communication is the real work of leadership.” -Nitin Nohria

 

Mistake #1: Disappear.

You feel like you spend the whole day in meetings: one-on-one sessions, team meetings, large-group conferences. So it seems you’re always in front of the people who work for you. But if you analyze who you spend time with, you’d realize that you’re visible to only a small percentage of employees. And the larger and more spread out your organization is, the greater the likelihood that many employees rarely see you.

What to do differently: You need a communication plan designed to provide maximum visibility, given your time available. The best practice is to schedule a mix of:

  • An all-hands or town hall meeting at least once a quarter
  • Briefings with managers several times a year
  • Informal sessions (you can call them “coffee chats”) with small groups of employees at least six times a year. These chats are more about hearing from staff members than delivering a message.
  • Presence on electronic channels. For example, if you’ve got an internal social networking platform, participate in online conversations. Or create written or video messages on an intranet site.
  • Showing up and walking around. These informal “sightings”—having lunch with a few people in the cafeteria, touring a new facility—are very valuable for demonstrating that you’re in touch with what’s happening.

 

“Presence is more than just being there.” –Malcolm Forbes

 

Mistake #2: Use “CEO Speak”

One of your key functions as a leader is to think about the long-term strategy. But because you focus so much on the big picture, it’s easy to forget that although employees are smart, they’re also overloaded with information. And employees don’t see issues from the same 35,000-foot perspective leaders do—they’re standing at ground level, trying to focus on what they need to do right now. So when you share information that’s strictly high-level, it doesn’t resonate.

What to do differently: Make your messages simple, tangible and relatable. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing we need employees to know this month, this quarter or this year? To understand? To do differently?” Then focus on providing employees with the core information they need most.

 

Communication Tip: Focus on providing only the core information people need.

 

Mistake #3: Get the timing wrong

One of leaders’ toughest communication challenges is managing timing. If you wait too long to share information, you run the risk that employees already know what you’re now revealing—which affects credibility. But communicating too soon can also be a problem. For example, when leaders have been working behind the scenes on a big change like a reorganization, they start to become impatient, feeling they should tell employees something. So they announce that the company will reorganize soon and more will be shared later. The result? You create anxiety because employees don’t know exactly how they will be affected. It’s better to sit tight until all the details are set.

What to do differently: Focus on how and when employees will be affected, and time communication to meet employees’ need to know, not your need to tell.

 

“Life is about timing.” –Carl Lewis

 

Mistake #4: Do all the talking

Many leaders associate “communicating” with sharing information. As a result, they plan town hall meetings that have 50 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of Q&A. But when my firm asks employees what they need from leaders, here’s what they say:

  • “More open dialogue with top management.”
  • “I obviously want to hear from leaders, but it’s also important that leaders listen to us.”

What to do differently: One of the most effective ways to create more employee engagement is to communicate in a way that encourages employees to participate. And a key ingredient is the ability of leaders to engage employees in two-way communication.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the least effective way to begin a Q&A session is by saying, “Does anyone have any questions?” This question sets the expectation that only people who don’t understand something that has been shared will speak up.

Instead, try saying this: “Based on what I’ve just told you, what will be the hardest aspects to accomplish?” This approach creates two-way communication in a way that makes people more comfortable about participating.

 

Leadership Tip: Don’t ask for questions. Instead, encourage an immediate two-way communication.

How to Capture Attention, Build Trust and Close the Sale

The Power of Story

All of us love a good story. We are swept into the latest book or blockbuster film or we are enthralled by a particularly talented storyteller in our office. Those who tell a story well have our attention.

Leaders should strive to be good storytellers, painting a vivid scene and picture of what’s ahead. That’s the art of persuasion and influence. It’s also the skill of most sales leaders, who use narratives to explain a difficult concept. We are creatures who love a good story.

 

“At the end of the day, people follow those who know where they’re going.” -Jack Trout

 

I know that I may review spreadsheets and be dizzied with statistics, but one emotionally connecting story can have more immediate impact.

Former Procter & Gamble executive Paul Smith is now a speaker and trainer on storytelling techniques. His latest book, Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale, attracted my attention. Because I’m a big believer in the power of story, I wanted to connect with him to talk about his work.

 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

 

Stories Influence and Persuade

You witnessed, first-hand, the power of a sales story when you purchased some art. Would you briefly share that with us?9780814437117

Sure. Last summer my wife, Lisa, and I were at an art show in Cincinnati. She was on a mission to find a piece for our boys’ bathroom wall at home.

At one point we found ourselves at the booth of an underwater photographer named Chris Gug. Looking through his work, Lisa got attached to a picture that, to me, looked about as out of place as a pig in the ocean. It was a picture of a pig in the ocean! Literally. A cute little baby piglet, up to its nostrils in salt water, snout covered with sand, dog-paddling its way straight into the camera lens.

When I got my chance, I asked the seller (named Gug) what on Earth that pig was doing in the ocean. And that’s when the magic started.

He said, “Yeah, it was the craziest thing. That picture was taken in the Caribbean, just off the beach of an uninhabited Bahamian island named Big Major Cay.” He told us that years ago, a local entrepreneur brought a drove of pigs to the island to raise for bacon.

Then he said, “But, as you can see in the picture, there’s not much more than cactus on the island for them to eat. And pigs don’t much like cactus. So the pigs weren’t doing very well. But at some point, a restaurant owner on a nearby island started bringing his kitchen refuse by boat over to Big Major Cay and dumping it a few dozen yards off shore. The hungry pigs eventually learned to swim to get to the food. Each generation of pigs followed suit, and now all the pigs on the island can swim. As a result, today the island is more commonly known as Pig Island.”

Gug went on to describe how the pigs learned that approaching boats meant food, so they eagerly swim up to anyone arriving by boat. And that’s what allowed him to more easily get the close-up shot of the dog-paddling piglet. He probably didn’t even have to get out of his boat.

I handed him my credit card and said, “We’ll take it!”

Why my change of heart? The moment before he shared his story (to me at least), the photo was just a picture of a pig in the ocean, worth little more than the paper it was printed on. But two minutes later, it was no longer just a picture. It was a story—a story I would be reminded of every time I looked at it. The story turned the picture into a conversation piece—a unique combination of geography lesson, history lesson, and animal psychology lesson all in one.

In the two minutes it took Gug to tell us that story, the value of that picture increased immensely. It’s the kind of story that I now refer to as a “value-adding” story because it literally makes what you’re selling more valuable to the buyer.

 

“Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” –John Barth

 

5 Reasons Stories Matter

Why is story telling so important?

I could probably give you dozens of reasons, but here are my favorite 5.

  1. Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made– Human beings make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place. So if you’re trying to influence buyers’ decisions, using facts and rational arguments alone isn’t enough. You need to influence them emotionally, and stories are your best vehicle to do that.
  2. Stories are more memorable– Lots of studies show that facts are easier to remember if they’re embedded in a story than if they’re just given to you in a list. And you can prove that to yourself right now. All of you reading this know that by this time tomorrow you won’t remember this list of 5 things. But you will remember the story of Pig Island. And next week, next month, or next year, you’ll be able to tell the Pig Island story and get most of the facts right. But you won’t remember any of the 5 things in this list.
  3. Stories can increase the value of the product you’re selling– as you saw in the Pig Island story.
  4. Stories are contagious– When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Wow! You’ll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!” Never. But they do say that about a great story.
  5. Storytelling gives you a chance to be original– Most buyers have seen every pitch, tactic, and closing line in the book. They’ve heard them from you, your competitors, and the last three people who had your job. Storytelling gives you a chance to go “off script” and say something they won’t hear from anyone else.

 

Many people may think, “Oh sure, a sales person should be a good story teller.” But you turn that around and say it’s more important to have a buyer tell their story. I love that. Tell us more about that.

I figure if you don’t hear their stories first, how will you know which of your stories to tell?

A colleague of ours, Mike Weinberg, says it this way: “You wouldn’t trust a physician who walked into the examining room, spent an hour telling you how great he was, and then wrote a prescription, would you?” Of course not. Then why would a buyer accept the recommendation of a salesperson who did the same thing?

 

How to Get Others to Tell Their Stories

Why Leaders Must Deliver on Promises

Setting Expectations

Recently, I purchased a gift basket for an employee who goes above and beyond, day after day. She never seeks praise, but quietly serves others in a way that is admirable. She consistently demonstrates the 9 Qualities of A Servant Leader. The basket we picked was pictured on the website and looked like this:

basket2

 

Yum, right? Full of fresh fruit and other goodies, we thought it would demonstrate some small measure of gratitude for all she has done for others. That picture set our expectations and it seemed a fitting thank you.

 

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” –Steve Martin

 

Unexpected Disappointments

When she received it, she was grateful. That’s who she is, part of what makes her successful. But then she took a picture of the basket, and I did a double-take. Because here is what it looked like:

basket1

Not exactly as advertised, huh?

We were shocked.

A brand isn’t a logo. A brand is a promise. It’s an experience.

 

“Building a brand is about a thousand little new touches.” -Eric Ryan

 

This particular business has destroyed its reputation with the experience.

We all know that this destruction can happen with corporate brands. It can also happen with personal brands: