Winston Churchill said, "the difference between mere management and leadership is communication." A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that employers rated verbal communication as the most important skill they look for in job candidates.
As leaders, what we say can often be overpowered by how we say it. Marketer, Seth Godin recently wrote about an experience where he observed this play out while listening to a Pulitzer-prize winning author do a radio interview. The lack of verbal communication skills demonstrated by this author detracted from his message. Godin wrote, "your words and your approach sell your ideas, and at least on this interview, nothing much got sold."
While we all have strengths and weaknesses as leaders, and some are more naturally gifted in this area of verbal communication, that does not excuse all leaders from mastering the basics, so their "what" carries meaning. If we cannot get our message across clearly, where others can act on it, merely having a message does not matter.
With that in mind, here are some basics around communication for leaders:
1. Communication is not a one-way street. In a study done by Ken Blanchard, 43% of employees not only listed communication and listening as the most important skill for leaders, but also listed inappropriate use of communication and listening as the biggest mistake leaders make. Effective communication does not stop at just speaking clearly, but includes listening in return.
The Blanchard study concluded, "failing to listen to feedback, ignoring alternative viewpoints, or failing to seek clarity through active listening can undermine leadership effectiveness and trust." Perhaps there's something to the old adage about having one mouth and two ears!
2. Communication is about creating shared meaning. One of my communication professors in college had this key phrase in his definition for communication, generating and attributing shared meaning. Someone once said, "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." At Soderquist, we have a set of protocols that hang in our office outlining agreed upon 'rules of engagment' for interacting with one another. One of those protocols is "speak in a way that others understand."
While this seems simple, it is extremely important for leaders to be constantly aware that what they mean is actually being understood by others, and they aren't hearing something else entirely. An easy way to do this, and it goes back to communication being a two-way street, is habitually ask for feedback on what others are hearing from you.
3. Verbal communication can be improved. Perhaps this is the most simple in theory, but hardest to execute. In the post referenced above by Seth Godin, he lays out practical steps one could take to eliminate verbal fillers ("um" and "like") that hinder our verbal communication and make us harder to understand or be compelling. The point is, everyone can improve their verbal communication whether it is something that comes naturally or not.
Don't be fooled into thinking that only a select few are gifted with communication skills. Every leader has the capacity (and expectation) to improve their communication, to be better heard and to better hear those they lead.
What are your thoughts? What areas of communication are you working to improve? We would love to hear from you in the comments.
For more practical tips for leaders, check out our Leadership Magazine below.