Thursday, 10 March 2016

Which Communication Trap Do You Fall Into?

Have you ever been in a meeting that has caused you to lose the will to live? I have been reflecting on language and communication over the last month because recently, I have had that experience. What prompted it? Quite simply the incredibly poor calibre of communication by senior, successful professional people. And it got me pondering….Janice Obuchowski wrote an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review more than 10 years ago that still resonates today. She talked about three kinds of communication trap – namely anonymity, obscurity and tedium.

The anonymity trap is where leaders start talking the same corporate language. Words and phrases which are relatively unique to that organisation get used over and over again. I wrote in my book last year on the topic of Executive Presence: Demonstrating Leadership In Times Of Change And Uncertainty, that one of my clients uses the phrase ‘taking people on the journey’. I have many problems with this; not least of which is that I don’t understand what it really means. However, in the context of the model, the phrase is an example of the anonymity trap because everyone says it, and so no single voice ‘stands out’. In other words, everyone sounds the same.

The obscurity trap is overuse of jargon, technical language and little known words and phrases in order to sound intelligent. I recently sat in a session where a colleague used the word ‘ersatz’. Exactly, how many of you right now are looking up the meaning of the word? I guarantee almost no-one (me included) knew what they meant when they said it; and it was designed to demonstrate being clever and erudite. Except that it didn’t work. It caused confusion and irritation, not to mention discomfort when clarity was sought. (It means an inferior substitute by the way).

The tedium trap is just way too much information. This is where our communication is a tsunami of facts, figures, stories, data coming at the audience at speed. Too much; too overwhelming; too little thought gone in to our communication. The result is unfocused and often irrelevant information.

So how do we, as leaders, stop falling into one or more of these traps? Well to convey Executive Presence I would suggest:
  • Don’t use standard formats or templates for presentations or pitches. Be different by structuring your message differently – especially at the beginning and the end (when attention is at its highest).
  • Use metaphor and analogy – it is far more effective for conveying a message – especially when the communication is dull and/or complicated.
  • Split your message into three parts to make it a narrative structure, just like a story.
  • Be clear on what you want to achieve by communicating the message. Beware of ‘just updating’ people. The last thing we all need is data for the sake of having data. Unless you want a decision (for example, is it red or green? Tuesday or Thursday?); action (for example, to send a note or make a call) or commitment (time, money, people etc.) then why are you telling us?
  • Be brief! Less is always more….
  • Cut out the buzzword bingo nonsense.
  • Be humorous (but not flippant) if this is a natural ability you possess.
Our communication is a reflection of the culture in which we live. We all have the capacity to be affected by it (for good and ill), and our challenge as leaders is to make our communication stand out for the right reasons, not blend in with everyone else for the wrong ones.

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