When it comes to most problems, you can often trace the root cause to a breakdown in communication. Something said the wrong way, or not at all, can lead to assumptions that create unnecessary challenges. So wouldn’t it be great if more of us focused on improving our personal communication style?
“The people who are good communicators also have intellectual and emotional intelligence,” says Jack Modzelewski, author of Talk is Chief: Leadership, Communication, and Credibility in a High-Stakes World. “They’re very in tune with others, whether they’re talking to one person, a small group, or an audience of many.”
Learning good communication skills isn’t emphasized enough in many business schools, and people who are promoted to high levels, such as CEO, are often surprised how much they’re needed, says Modzelewski. “You can rely on other people to help, but at the end of the day, you have to own your words and your communication style,” he says. “Anything you say becomes a matter of record. Words do not go away.”
Being a better communicator means putting your audience first.
“Intuitively, it’s not so much about me as the messenger, but more about what I want to convey to people and [whether or not] they are going to believe me,” says Modzelewski. “Dialogue needs to share a vision, and people who are good leaders are thinking about it all the time.”
One of the challenges is that the digital world has added complexity to communication. “Every word and nuance has the potential for misinterpretation,” says Modzelewski. “There is nothing worse than a leader addressing people who walk away saying ‘He didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.’ This is a challenge in an age where employees and other constituents have immediate access to so much public information and commentary about their organizations, industries, and leaders.
Another communication challenge is addressing multiple generations—talking to as many as four age groups in one company or organization, says Modzelewski. “Leaders need to be mindful of the different ways that people of different generations today receive, process, and share information,” he says.
Finding your personal communication style
Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to become a better communicator, and the first is to be authentic.
“Don’t try to emulate a person that you’re not,” says Modzelewski. “You can learn from others who have a strong, effective style, but at the end of the day, you have to work with your own personality.”
Another rule of thumb is to not be afraid to feel redundant. “You may have to repeat your message over again to make it stick and make it memorable,” says Modzelewski.
Skip the jargon and get to the heart of the matter, making sure you’re very clear in your style. “If you walk away and someone didn’t get what you’re saying, you failed,” he says. “Simplify your message to reach a broad audience, and don’t talk over people’s heads.”
One of the best ways to hone your communication style is to find ways to connect, says Modzelewski. “Today’s leaders deal with so many stakeholders inside and, more importantly, outside the organization, such as investors, creditors, customers, and regulators,” he says. “It’s an awesome responsibility to communicate with that many people, and it helps to appeal to their emotions rather than stick to analytical points of view.”
Take the approach that leaders work for the organization, and form your dialogue from there, Modzelewski suggests. “Some leaders form their style by being out there all of the time, meeting with customers and employees, visiting retail stores and factory floors, and walking the halls,” he says. “That’s a great way of getting insights, and in that sense you become memorable.”
Use storytelling as a tool for creating your communication style. “When people hear stories, they listen more attentively more than they do to facts and analytics,” says Modzelewski. “This comes down to creating a culture where people tell stories about good lessons and bad lessons, and leaders set that tone.”
What’s most important for leaders and communication is trust and credibility. “Make sure that you have a role in the narrative of the organization and that you’re not outsourcing to communication or marketing departments,” says Modzelewski. “The clearer you are, whether it’s in informal or more formal communication, the better chance people have of understanding you.”