Cut! Say Less to Say More
Over the years I have worked closely with a number of outstanding leaders – many of whom were sterling communicators.
Some were former military officers who exchanged uniform for suit. Others were lifelong academics who carried the air of professorship into all of their work. And others were natural politicians who rose through the ranks of their profession. Together they represent a wide variety of temperaments, philosophies and personal styles.
So it was with that background that I was initially stumped by a recent question from an executive who had asked for our help in raising their communications game: “What’s the one thing that you end up telling all the folks you train?”
My mind searched for the “right” answer, from the physical imperatives to control the hands and make eye contact, to the need to temper one’s emotional response in the face of criticism, to the use of stories about people to make messages real for audiences. These all matter, and everyone can improve on these skills.
But the answer that I kept coming back to was this: Use fewer words.
Most people, left to their own devices, tend to say more than a listener can process. Experts know too much and feel an existential need to explain their subject matter to great detail. True believers can’t stop making their case for fear that someone somewhere in the room has not been totally converted to their cause. And people with power tend to get very positive feedback from insiders who tell them they “are doing great” and “really told them off that time, boss.”
The leaders we work with combine all of these characteristics to varying degrees to produce a habit of mind and mouth that provides more and more words. Unfortunately, by the time we meet them, these habits can be pretty well baked in.
We get the ball rolling in the other direction during our training, helping leaders see how paring down words increases their impact exponentially. Great lines from history make our case: “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” and “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We also cite well-known lines from popular culture, including, “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “You can’t handle the truth!”
Memorable. Powerful. Spare.
Then we work with the leaders to cut, cut, cut their elevator pitches down to statements that could be delivered on an actual elevator ride. They leave convinced of the need to minimize words and better prepared to do it.
But when we check in over the next few months to see how well the training plan has been implemented, we often hear that progress has been slow. “I just can’t help myself,” some say, or “She is fine with the opening statements but spends too long answering questions,” a staffer reports.
That’s to be expected; habits don’t change overnight. That’s one of the main reasons we stress (and I mean stress) the use of a “murder board,” or hard-nosed practice session, before leaders head out to communicate for real. It is in essence a live-fire exercise with staff playing the role of reporters or legislators firing questions at the leader, followed by a critique and immediate tactical adjustments.
It’s one part of a healthy culture for effective leader communications. Smart leaders surround themselves with disciplined people who turn this idea into action. We have seen it work wonders. If it only accomplishes one change, cutting words is a giant leap in the right direction.
But you don’t need to have a complete plan in place to start applying this core lesson where you are today: Hone your message down to a short burst that packs power – and deliver it with strength.
That is all I have to say about that.