Do you ever wish that your IT staff communicated more effectively? With key stake holders? With each other? And with you?
Do your team members frequently go into too much detail when they communicate? Talk too much and listen to little? Get hung up on arguing their point rather than building consensus? Walk away from conversations before they've achieved and confirmed a shared understanding?
Do you ever find that you can't get past the second slide of your PowerPoint deck in a meeting? Or that your boss starts interrupting your answers with more questions, before you've answered her last one?
If you answered "Yes" to any of these questions, check out the following two powerful techniques to improve your communication skills.
A 'One-Two Punch' to Double Your Communications Impact
A few months ago I started a thread in one of the LinkedIn groups frequented by senior IT managers. I asked, "If your staff could magically improve just one leadership skill overnight, which one would you most want them to improve?"
The question got a lively response from dozens of leaders over the next few days. Answers included prioritizing work, managing their time, delegating, managing employee performance, holding people accountable, and communicating.
While there were many different opinions shared on the what, the why and the how, the single most common response was the fundamental importance of effective communication skills for a leader. Related to that was the shared belief that so many of our leaders today do not possess strong enough communication skills.
The range of responses mapped pretty well to my experience coaching hundreds of IT leaders from entry levels up to the CIO level. The responses also reflected the universal importance and challenge of communicating well.
There are two powerful techniques that anyone can apply to significantly improve the way they communicate and the impact they achieve. For the best results with these techniques, I suggest picking one and apply it for a few weeks. See what works for you and what doesn't work for you. Do more of what is working, and analyze what you can do differently with what is not working.
Practice that technique until you are totally comfortable with it and it's consistently working for you. Then focus and work on the other one.
1. Don't Bury the Lead
Newspaper journalists (remember them from a long time ago...?) are taught in Journalism 101 the simple idea called "Don't Bury the Lead." In its basic form, it means start your message with your most important point, and keep coming back to it.
In traditional news media, that usually means having a good headline. In blogs and email messages, it means having a good subject. In PowerPoint slides it means creating a strong Title. Drilling down a level, it also means using a key related approach from journalism, often called the Inverted Pyramid Structure.
Take a look at a good news story. It can be in a newspaper, magazine or blog. Do you notice that the headline tells the entire story, albeit at a very high level? It helps you decide if you want to learn more about that story, or not. Either way, it is effective in letting you know what the story is about.
Now read the first three paragraphs. Do they answer the complete set of standard news questions, including Who, What When, Where and Why? If the story is well written, it should provide the next level of such detail after the headline. Again, just enough to tell the whole story, but at a very high level.
As you proceed through an article that uses this inverted pyramid structure, each group of paragraphs should provide increasing levels of detail. That enables you to get the whole story, at whatever level of detail you decide meets your needs. That may be just the headline, the first few paragraphs, perhaps the first dozen paragraphs, or maybe the entire article.
An example of doing this in a PowerPoint deck would be to make your complete presentation in about 5 slides. Slide 1 would be the presentation title or headline. Slide 2 would be the slide titles of slides 3, 4 and 5, maybe with a brief subtitle for each. Then the last three slides would tell your entire story. Period. End of main deck.
Slide 6 would start your appendix. The appendix would contain as many additional slides as you might want for backup to support additional discussion, as your audience engages to learn more about the story that you completely presented in your first 5 slides.
Don't think you can do this? Don't think this can work? Try it, no matter how weird it feels, and see what happens. If your experience is anything like mine and a large percentage of my clients, this will work magic for your ability to persuade and influence via PowerPoint presentations.
2. It's Not About Your Message, It's All About the Audience's Beliefs
The second most common error I see people make when they communicate is to focus entirely on crafting their message. They refine and finesse their message until it's "perfectly clear." This overlooks the likelihood that your intended audience does not see the situation the same way you do. Nor are they likely to have your perspective, knowledge or beliefs.
The way we usually commit this error is we address only what we think our target audience needs to know, based upon how we view the situation or issue. Then we're disappointed when our audience does not do what we want them to do after we've delivered our beautifully crafted message. (Sound familiar?)
The missing element and critical success factor for technique number two, is to make the time and invest the energy to figure out and address what the audience believes. That is, what do they currently believe about this situation, what do they need to believe about it in order to do what we want them to do, and then what message do we need to craft to enable them to shift what they believe?
For example, a management team kept refusing to fund a project to replace an older data center that had many environmental risks. The infrastructure operations team kept enhancing their analysis and business case with more and more data and statistics. And the Management Team kept giving them less and less time to make their case.
One afternoon during a heavy rain, one of the data center managers took a few photos of the corporate "Quad" as it was called, totally under water and looking more like a lake than the familiar campus. He also took a photo of the "lake" lapping against the top step of the main entrance to the data center.
A few days later the project team went to the management team with three slides. The first showed the campus Quad on a sunny day. The second slide showed the "lake", which looked nothing like the first photo, even though it was shot from the very same position. The third slide was the close up shot of the water lapping against the top step of the main entrance to the data center.
Once the management team understood that the first two photos were taken from the same position and represented an accurate "before and after" of a heavy rain (and not that unusual an occurrence), and then saw the actual height of the water at the data center entrance, they approved funding for the project to replace the data center.
What had changed? In the earlier presentations, the IT staff were making a very rational case to prove that the magnitude of the risk of maintaining the old data center was not acceptable. However, the detailed statistics did not effectively communicate the reality of the risk to the management team, which was much further removed from the details than were the data center managers.
Leveraging the old saw that one picture is worth a thousand words, the project team directly addressed the management team's belief that the risk was not as big as the data center managers were claiming. The three pictures changed that belief, effective communication occurred, and the desired action was taken.
Putting Them Together and Taking Action
Either of these two simple techniques will significantly improve the effectiveness of your communication. Combined, however, they reinforce each other and can easily double the impact your communication efforts can have in delivering results.
The two examples we used to illustrate the techniques referred to using PowerPoint to address a group. But the ideas apply just as well to a report, an email message, or a one on one conversation.
The key to success involves taking the time to think about how to best apply these techniques in one of your situations, and then to overcome your normal inertia and discomfort with doing something differently. Reading about these techniques is step one. Step two is putting them to use -- allowing that a bit of practice may be needed to make them work for you and make you comfortable with using them.
Please let me know how it goes when you put these into practice, and feel free to ask me any questions you may have.
Bob Kantor is an IT management coach and consultant, specializing in improving IT leadership effectiveness.