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Get The Message Across

Here are some guidelines:

Appeal to hearts and minds. Many professionals, especially lawyers, accountants, scientists and engineers, use the power of reason and evidence to persuade others. They use logical arguments, marshal data in support of their proposals and are good at rebutting those points with which they disagree. Articulate leaders can be very effective when communicating in this way. However, there is the risk of failure. An overwhelmingly logical case sometimes intimidates others and may lead to rejection. Appealing to the hearts as well as the minds is often the answer. Messages crafted to ‘touch the soul’ increase the possibility of acceptance. Stories, examples, illustrations, analogies and metaphors that appeal to the emotions, hopes, values and aspirations of the listeners are an important adjunct to facts and opinions. They help to direct latent energy and enthusiasm into work, problem solving and effecting change. Beware, however, of using old and stale analogies, metaphors and illustrations. Beware especially of resorting to those that have been overused within the firm. They are clichés and may detract significantly from the message.

Ian Pearman, Account Director at advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers, who peppers his conversations with metaphors, says:

I believe strongly in the power of analogy. Analogies and metaphors are marvellous for communication. I find that I can get my message across and it is much more likely to stick if I am able to summon up good metaphors. I make a conscious effort to do it. Of course in advertising we are in the communications business but we have to remain vigilant about its importance inside the firm in our day-to-day activities as well. We don’t want to fall into the trap of the shoemaker’s sons being the worst shod.

Team leaders need to pay as much attention to ‘packaging’ their messages as to the content. Colourful language, as well as stories and analogies and so on, helps to communicate difficult and new information quickly and effectively. Leaders of teams in advertising agencies and design businesses usually find this quite easy, owing to their professional skills. Those in other sectors often have to work rather harder at creating the ‘packaging’. As with all things, practice helps.

Keep it simple. Confusion, irritation, suspicion and rejection follow in the wake of communications that are long-winded, clumsy and full of jargon. It is hard work to be clear and concise. It takes more time initially but saves time in the longer run. It is good practice to use everyday words whenever possible even with fellow professionals. Speak and write to express rather than impress. Here are two examples that I have come across recently with suggested alternatives:

Instead of saying ‘All aspects of the situation should be taken into careful consideration prior to the implementation of corrective action’, say instead ‘Please don’t change anything until you have checked it thoroughly’.

Instead of saying ‘We are going to facilitate a campaign throughout the firm to improve our service quality through the means of providing engagement letters for our clients which will allow them to perceive how assignments will be handled’, say ‘In future we are going to send engagement letters to our clients which will tell them what we are going to do and how we are going to do it’.

Tell it and tell it again and again. Sir Winston Churchill said: ‘If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use the pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time; a tremendous whack.’

Afew years ago I attended the annual conference of a medium-sized accountancy firm. At the beginning of the meeting the senior partner said a few words. He began to speak about the firm’s business plan. One of the partners jumped up, interrupted him and said, ‘I didn’t know that we had a business plan’. It transpired that the partner had been at the last conference, some 12 months before, and had participated in a discussion about the firm’s strategy, objectives and business plan. Extraordinarily, it became clear that in his part of the firm he and his colleagues had got on with their work for 12 months without even referring to the plan. He had forgotten that it existed. When challenged about it later he did recall that after the last conference he had filed all of the documents, which probably included the plan, and had never referred to them again. Clearly there was a failure of leadership in not reminding the partner of the firm’s strategy and in failing to encourage him and his colleagues to implement the associated plan in their part of the business.

I have noticed that professionals, being intelligent people dealing with intelligent colleagues, often think that it is necessary only to say something once and it will be implemented. The truth lies elsewhere. Busy people have many demands on their attention and messages usually sink in only after repetition. Good team leaders use a multi-pronged approach for their communications. They convey important messages face to face and one to one with their colleagues. They reinforce their messages at team meetings. They put key points in writing. They link performance reviews, collectively and individually, with intentions that have been previously communicated. They take informal opportunities such as corridor chats, waiting for meetings to start, lunches, a walk to the car park and so on to underscore the important messages that they wish to convey.

Support your message visually. Most people are able to understand, accept and retain points more easily if they are supported by simple visual aids. How about having a whiteboard or flip chart in your office so that you can illustrate issues more easily in one-to-one or smallgroup discussions? When you make a formal presentation to your team you probably use PowerPoint or an overhead projector. If so, there are a few useful things to remember. Keep visuals simple. Avoid too many colours, too many fonts and too much information. ClipArt and shadow formats have been done to death and are boring. Create something fresh. Beware the danger of designing in effects, flourishes and animations for their own sake. Your audience will pay attention to the devices rather than the message. Finally, remember that sometimes building up a picture with old-fashioned flip charts and felt pens supports your message more effectively than the latest trendy software. There is something in the maxim ‘The less significant the message the greater the need for a shield of visual gimmickry’.

Write clearly and concisely. Although they should never replace oral communications it is sometimes helpful to reinforce important messages in writing. Leaders of professional teams can do no better than keep in mind George Orwell’s six elementary rules for journalists (1946):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word when a short word will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous.

Orwell also observed: ‘A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself four questions, thus: what am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’