Excelling in communication is one of the top consistently rated traits of distinguished leaders. But communication skills are not intuitive or taught in business school.
The communication style of recognized personalities such as the International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, former Liberal leader Bob Rae and even actress Angelina Jolie seems to come naturally, but I can assure you that great communicators methodically prepare for all of their presentations – big or small.
Bad communication has ended the career of many CEOs and other public figures. It is also costing companies a fortune: according to SIS International Research, a business with 100 employees spends an average downtime of 17 hours a week clarifying communication. This translates to an annual cost of $524,569 (U.S.).
Cocktail chatter buzzes with talk about communication 'faux pas' – a certain mayor who consistently puts his foot in his mouth, a leading technology CEO who hides for three days after a major blackout of their service, or a well-known cyclist who continues to deny the truth despite scientific evidence.
After working in communications for over 25 years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly among CEOs, sports figures and day-to-day managers. I like to think in threes, so try these tips to improve your communications and up the ante on your career:
1. Win their hearts, not just their heads.
Great leaders get personal. Your audience not only wants to respect you, they want to like you. It's okay to be humble, even self-deprecating (in a humorous way), but be sincere. Tell stories that help the audience get to know you and, at the same time, deliver your vision.
2. Be a chameleon.
Adjust your style, but not your message. Remember different people relate in different ways so get to know your audience, whether they are customers, investors, staff or the general public. Do your research. Recognize your employees' personal interests as well as their on-the-job skills and be prepared to talk about both. Would the person prefer a chat over coffee or a more formal meeting with an agenda?
3. Have a conversation, not a monologue.
The interactive nature of social media has changed the way we communicate and we are better for it. Interaction is crucial to growing your business, your career and your communication acumen. Create a conversation by incorporating audience feedback into your meeting or your presentation. Often, the less you talk and the more you listen and probe, the better. This makes people feel valued and important.
1. Drop the lingo.
This is the most common mistake made by leaders. You may be a technical wizard but the minute your audience doesn't understand what you are talking about, they tune out. This is a wasted opportunity. Try giving your presentation to your teenager's best friend and see if they get it. Anecdotes, analogies, and pictures work – like turning yourself into a human infographic.
2. Don't ramble.
Researchers from New York University found that we make 11 major decisions about one another in the first seven seconds of meeting. Create a strong opening and follow it through with succinct, to the point comments and memorable information. A surprising statement or a startling statistic grabs attention.
3. Never blame.
Leaders take responsibility. They admit their mistakes. They fix things. Publicly. It doesn't matter where the problem started, as the head of your company or your department, your audience needs to be reassured that you are in control. If something bad happens, step up and take ownership and make sure you provide the reassurance that this will never happen again.
Body language is a significant part of communication.
The words we speak actually account for less than 10 per cent of the message that we convey. So pay attention to your body language at least as much as your message when you communicate. Use your body and facial expressions in your delivery. Together, they make a powerful combination.
Pat McNamara is the CEO and founder of APEX Public Relations, a mid-sized agency of senior level communicators who specialize in consumer brand marketing, corporate and financial communications. Pat has also been recognized as one of Canada's Top PROFIT W100 Female Entrepreneurs for 12 years in a row.
This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab