Winston Churchill said, “the difference between mere management and leadership is communication.” A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found employers rate 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 wrote about an experience when 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 mightily from his message. Godin wrote, “your words and your approach sell your ideas, and at least on this interview, nothing much got sold.” You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t get your point across effectively, no one else will benefit.
We all have strengths and weaknesses as leaders—and some are more naturally gifted in the area of verbal communication—but it does not excuse any leader from mastering the basics so that their “what” carries its intended meaning. If we cannot get our message across clearly so others can appropriately act upon it, merely sharing a message does not really matter.
Here are three solid communication basics for leaders:
1. Communication is not a one-way street. In this infographic created to illustrate a study done by the Ken Blanchard Companies, 43% of employees not only listed communication and listening as the most important skill for leaders, but they also listed inappropriate use of communication and listening as the biggest mistake leaders make. Effective communication does not stop at just speaking clearly. It 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, and using them proportionately!
2. Communication is about creating shared meaning. Someone once said, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” At Milestone Leadership, we have a set of protocols that outline our agreed upon ‘rules of engagement’ for interacting with one another. One of those protocols is to “speak in a way that others understand.”
While this seems simple, it is extremely important for leaders to be constantly aware of whether or not what they mean is actually being understood—that others aren’t hearing something else entirely. An easy way to do this (which harkens back to communication being a two-way street) is habitually ask for feedback from others to see if you’re on the same page.
3. Verbal communication can be improved. Perhaps this is the most simple in theory, but hardest to execute. In the post by Seth Godin referenced above, he spells out practical steps one could take to eliminate verbal fillers (“um” and “like”) that hinder our verbal communication and make us harder to understand and less compelling to our audience. Everyone can improve verbal skills, even if it doesn’t come naturally.
Don’t be fooled into thinking only a select few are gifted with a great talent for communication. Every leader worth following has the capacity (and expectation) to improve his or her 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?