In my last post, I stated that one of the key parts of being an influential leader is your ability to communicate, and do it well. We’ve all experienced that leader who was able to stand up in front of a crowd and speak in a way that impacted us directly, and deeply. But that’s not the only type of communication you should be concerned about as a leader. In fact, the majority of our day isn’t spent in rousing speeches and impactful presentations. Most of it is spent in our daily interactions with our team. Team meetings, random conversations in the hallway, and even a quick lunch are the times where your communication skills can be tested, and will have the most impact.
In the aforementioned post, I identified the 4 key characteristics that a leader needs to develop to increase their influence:
- Relationship Building
I purposely started that list with communication because it’s really a foundational skill that helps all of the others. As a leader, effective communication is what’s most important to your ability to simplify your message, build relationships, and make connections.
But, not everyone feels like they have the ability to communicate. I’ve talked to many leaders over the years who have told me how inadequate they feel when they lead a meeting, give a presentation or even have to coach a team member. They’re smart, capable and have risen to a place of leadership, but when it comes to communicating, they feel like they struggle. Unfortunately, they often compare themselves to other strong communicators and feel that their skills just don’t match up. So they lose their confidence, and remain convinced they’ll never get there.
So, what makes an effective communicator? The ability to present to an audience is definitely a nice skill to have, but it’s not all that’s important. To be an effective communicator, you need to be able to:
- Present the facts. An important part of any message is the sharing of facts. And communicating the most important facts — and not just listing all of them — is key. Also, the facts have to be meaningful and impactful to the message you are trying to send. Just listing out facts on their own can actually create more confusion and limit your effectiveness.
- Effectively Use Emotion. If there is anything the receiver of a message can see through, it’s the ineffective, and fake use of emotion to convey the message. Being overly angry to try and convey a message of dissatisfaction, or being overly emotional and teary to make the message seem more dramatic are easily seen for what they are, emotional manipulation. You have to be authentic and convey your message in the way you feel. If you find yourself asking what emotion you need to convey, it’s not real.
- Read the receiver. This is one of the more difficult skills, especially if you are already nervous about what you are communicating. If you’re struggling to convey your message, you are likely more focused on what you are saying and how than you are on how the receiver is behaving. You have to watch their body language, verbal responses, and even facial expressions so you can tell if you are connecting with them. If you read that you aren’t, this is your chance to make adjustments quickly.
- Unless you are giving a formal presentation that doesn’t allow for questions and feedback, you should be constantly listening for what others are telling you. Being an effective communicator requires that information flows both ways. Otherwise, it’s just ‘telling.’ The ability to listen to what others are telling you, either explicitly or implicitly, is a key part of being effective.
Now that you know what makes an effective communicator, how can you develop these skills? Here are some concrete steps to get started.
- Get feedback. You may already think you are a great communicator. Surely everyone understands your messages, follows through on everything you ask of them, and looks to you for sage advice. I hope so. Evidence, however, says this generally isn’t true. In a recent post, Dr. Travis Bradberry cites a study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business that said participants frequently overestimated their ability to communicate, especially with those they knew well! If you aren’t sure, or you have a feeling you are less than effective, ask for candid and honest feedback from someone you trust. You might even ask a member of the team you lead to give you constructive criticism. Let them know you want to improve and be a better communicator. If they’re willing (if they aren’t, that might be feedback on its own!), ask them what you can do to improve how you communicate, what you communicate, and the clarity of your message. There are also some interesting personality profiles and even a communication quiz you can take online that will help you better understand yourself. Most importantly, don’t rely on your own assessment. You need to know what others see, especially since they’re the ‘receiver’ of your communication.
- Practice your listening skills. Remember, being an effective communicator isn’t simply about what you say. It’s also about what you receive from others. One of the best ways you can start to improve is to force yourself to listen better during meetings, conversations, and even when watching television. One of the worst habits you can have when communicating is to say what you need to say, and while someone else is responding back to you, be focusing more on what you are going to say next. Instead of worrying about what you want to say, spend some time in the practice of listening. You’ll be amazed at what you hear, and might even pick up a few tips from others.
- Learn to separate. The more passionate you are about what you need to communicate, the more your feelings and emotions can overtake your brain. To improve your communication, you sometimes have to be able to separate your internal dialog from the current situation. Step back and ask yourself what about the communication is getting you so engaged and could be taking the message down the wrong path. Don’t misunderstand — there are plenty of things that can, and should be emotionally connected with you. The passion you bring to your message is part of it, and can actually help you be more persuasive and impactful. But, when your emotional connection isn’t resonating with the receivers, it’s time to step back and make sure you aren’t making it too personal.
- Practice, Practice, Practice. I tell this to other leaders more often than anything else. If you are communicating an important message, giving an emotionally charged presentation, or just updating the board, you need to practice first. There aren’t many people who are good at just ‘winging it,’ and those who try often end up stumbling around and losing their audience. This goes for individual one-on-one conversations as well. If you need to have a particularly difficult conversation with someone, practice first so that when the emotions start rolling, you are ready for the eventual issues and have worked through how you are going to deal with them.
- Find a mentor. If you really struggle with this aspect of your leadership, there’s nothing better than having someone who can mentor and coach you through the improvement process. Whether they help you with your message or coach you on your delivery style, having someone you can look up to as a guide is powerful. Of course, you don’t want that to become a crutch, but if you set realistic goals with them, and a definitive timeline for when you are ready to go it on your own, a mentor would likely be more than glad to help you. If a less formal relationship isn’t for you, you could also consider a consulting coach who’d be more than willing to share their experience and expertise in a more objective way.
Ultimately, your ability to communicate effectively to those you lead is paramount. Your job as a leader isn’t to “do” on a daily basis. Your job is to lead others to get things done, and further the goals of the organization. To do that, you have to be able to communicate your vision, goals and roadmap of where you are going. That vision has to be understandable and actionable, and that starts with communication.