The most important skill leaders possess is their ability to communicate. Great leaders inspire, empower and create change within their organisations. A leader that mumbles through a 90-slide PowerPoint presentation does not inspire. A leader that cannot articulate a clear purpose fails to empower. So a leader who struggles to explain, will never create the necessary change to realise their vision. In short, communication is at the heart of great leadership, but great communication requires a commitment to ongoing improvement.
Having worked with many leaders, from the founders of small start-ups to the heads of large multinationals, I have noticed a number of recurring shortcomings that can undermine a leader’s communication. The good news is that small changes can make a huge difference. So, here I will set out the top three things a leader can do to improve their communication skills.
1: Be Single Minded
Take the time to choose the single point you want to communicate. As the old saying goes, ‘throw me one ball and I’ll catch it, throw me three balls and I’ll drop them all.’ Good communication relies on the same principle; it is always about one single point. As with a single ball, a single point is memorable, understandable and shareable. It may be true that what you need to communicate will be complex, but expressing that complexity too soon can cause unnecessary confusion. You may have had months to develop your understanding, but in a presentation you only have a few minutes to get your point across. The complexity may make you sound knowledgeable and well considered, but risks confusing your audience. So keep it simple, always start by working out the single principle you want the audience to understand and stick with that point. This is the easiest and most important way to ensure your audience are on board.
2: Use a Story
Studies in psychology show that stories influence our attitudes, beliefs and the decisions we make. You would expect all leaders to spend time honing their storytelling skills. But as we know, most leaders don’t make good storytellers. When researching my book ‘Why You Need A Business Story And How To Create It’ I interviewed many business leaders. Most claimed they did not use stories for a variety of reasons. Many cited the following three, ‘I didn’t deem it suitable for the modern world of spreadsheet P&L,’ ‘Stories are for children,’ and ‘The word story has connotations of lies, tales and untruths.’
However those same leaders also agreed that stories were powerful forms of communication, and could all recall great business stories that had influenced them. Not one of the leaders I spoke to had a clear process for creating stories. Surprising really, considering they all lead businesses which are driven by process. But when it came to the truly important job of communicating, they winged it – not applying any process at all.
So, the most useful piece of information I can share with you now is a simple three-act story structure that will give you a process to make your future communications more memorable.
Act 1: The objective of Act 1 is to gain the interest of your audience. To do this you must set out a problem or obstacle. By introducing a problem or obstacle, you will set in motion a natural curiosity in your audience to hear the outcome.
Act 2: Conflict or struggle; stories come to life when there is a conflict or struggle. For example, a technological challenge that seemed impossible to solve. The conflict or struggle provides the resistance for the leader to push back against thus creating tension, and nothing holds an audience’s attention quite like tension. If they were keen to hear what would happen next during act one, now with the added conflict you should have their undivided attention as they fully engage in your story, curious to hear the resolve.
Act 3: The Resolve; the resolve closes the story after your have overcome the struggle that took place in Act 2. It’s the moment where the tension ends and you demonstrate to your audience what you learned as a result of overcoming the struggle. The resolve can also be used to highlight what you stand for, the additional value you can now offer thanks to the unique journey you have experienced, or what the world will look like once you’ve achieved your vision.
By organising your single-minded thought into these three acts, you ensure it appeals to the structure our brains have been taught to expect stories to be told in.
3: Ditch the Deck
What differentiates average leaders from great leaders? Their ability to communicate without the need for slides to keep them on track. Sure, you may need to show a chart or diagram to explain something visually, but do you really need the rest of those slides? Or are they just prompts to keep you on track or because that’s how everyone in your business presents? If you have been single-minded in your thinking then the journey from A to B can be shared with a clear narrative, told by you, with your voice and your expressions. You can’t rely on the deck to do that for you. A deck is not human and has no expression or body language. So go on, ditch the deck and own the presentation.
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