Friday, January 13, 2012

Gaining Strategic Alignment: Communication is Key

To lead one must effectively collaborate with the entire executive team, the board, and every associate/employee in the company. 

Delegating responsibilities to direct reports and investing more time into honing communication skills are two examples of how this is accomplished. In its simplest form 80% of your job as a leader is communication…with that in mind, here are five tips to become a more influential, engaging communicator.

1. Reach Out and Align Interests
Communication is “a means to influence,” and when done well, it can help win support for your strategic ideas, says Susan Cramm, executive coach and president of Valuedance, a leadership-development firm.

Figure out what drives people and where your interests meet theirs by asking them about their goals and projects
Engaging with others reveals their unique strengths and limitations, Cramm says. In one case, the vice president of operations at her company had dyslexia and needed financial statements read aloud to him. Cramm says that if she had not gotten to know him, she “would have assumed that he wasn’t interested in financial performance or didn’t want to collaborate with finance.”

2. Teach and Share
It’s crucial to adjust your message and your vocabulary “into something that’s crisp, compelling, and accessible to the audience. You may need to adjust you terms, phrases, etc to match the group, sales and marketing people use different language than engineers and operation staff. The overall message obviously does not change just the words you use to  make your point.

An example of a way to do that is to set up a brown-bag or pizza lunch or meet briefly with other departments to update and explain your view and perspective in a casual context, says Joel Garfinkle, founder of Garfinkle Executive Coaching. Be encouraging and use business terms instead of jargon. It also helps to speak in terms of your audience’s interests, showing it that understanding the numbers could help gain traction for its own ideas. For example, the marketing team could make a better pitch for a new initiative by analyzing its profitability or sales will benefit from a discussion on costs and pricing as examples.

And if you reach out to other departments before formal presentations, they will be more likely to pay attention when you do get up to the podium, Cramm adds.

3. Tell a Story
To keep meetings and conversations engaging, model them after the dinner-table conversations people have after work, when “all the stories come out and the real communication happens,” says Bill Maw, CFO of Liquidnet, a vendor of securities-trading systems. That means telling stories that keep your audience’s attention through humor, imagery, and other techniques.

At a workshop Maw attended, an insurance executive spoke about his company’s quest to improve Six Sigma quality. With its language of four nines, green belts, and Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycles, Six Sigma can sometimes sound incomprehensible. So instead of talking about “lean processes,” the executive spoke of his effort to shed time-consuming, bureaucratic procedures. He told a story about a little yellow form that had been used at the firm for 30 years and that everyone had to fill out, although no one knew why, Maw says. The speaker imagined the form, always beyond reach, floating along through his enormous office building and taunting him. Call it executive humor, but the audience was laughing. “I felt like I was walking around that place with him,” Maw says. “He was talking about probably one of the most boring topics, but he dragged you into a real-life story.”

4. Get to the Point
Another way to keep people engaged during meetings: don’t bore them to tears with extraneous details. Craft presentation slides to highlight broad themes, and keep presentations to no more than six slides. Putting a limit on the number of slides, by the way, does not mean crowding every tiny bit of information you can onto each slide. When a leader unveils a 25-word introduction slide, “you can just feel the room deflate,” Bates says.

Including too much detail on slides can also tempt you to read the presentation, a mistake that can keep you from engaging with the audience. Include only important facts and numbers, and rely on an outline that allows you to speak conversationally. Fewer slides don’t mean the conversation has to be less substantive, though, because “people can always ask questions,” says Bates.

Keeping the slides simple sometimes means choosing graphics over words. Maw recalls a workshop instructor who used a picture of a train wreck to represent the failing U.S. economy. The message was potent. “You don’t really need to state the obvious with more facts [when] everybody knows how bad things are,” he says. “Sometimes people overkill a message, where one simple but impactful picture says it all.” A leader should be in command of the message and speak from the heart and the sides should be an outline to maintain flow and avoid forgetting something.

5. Don’t Go It Alone
To improve your presentation skills, seek help from all the resources your company offers, including other people, Bates says. For example, reach out to a marketing employee for help creating compelling visuals for your presentations. Or, interview key audience members before a presentation, asking them to point out your blind spots — what you might be neglecting, and what they would like you to cover. That can lead to more engaging and relevant presentations and foster more productive communication.

Most leaders are afraid or think it shows weakness to ask for help – I know from experience it shows you are human and people will be more inclined to follow if you are approachable!

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