One of the most difficult challenges we humans face on a daily basis is the task of communicating precisely what is on our minds to someone else.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that we must first translate our thoughts into language; that is, selecting the exact words we believe communicate the message we wish to send. Unfortunately, words often mean different things to different people as they translate for themselves the meaning of what they have heard. Furthermore, we know from the study of human communication that our tone of voice and facial expression convey considerably more of the message we actually send — a message that registers instantaneously with the receiver — than the words we use themselves. And when the message receiver cannot hear and/or see us — email, telephone — they nevertheless often imagine our tone of voice and/or likely facial expression from their interpretation of the words. No wonder clear communication, that makes the exact point we wish to make, is so hard.
As a manager, almost everything you do ends up requiring some form of communication, either oral or written. And when it’s important — feedback to your subordinates, critical instructions, convincing you boss of something — you want to get the communication just right. I believe, over time, the harder you work at your communication skills — including a few training courses where you can role-play and see yourself in action — the better you get. But not long ago I came across a book with an irresistable title and a clever orange cover, that offers some helpful ideas you can put into practice at once.
The book — “Made to Stick”– written by authors Chip and Dan Heath, explores the fundamental characteristics of ideas that stay with us over time. We all have our favorites — L’Oreal’s “because I’m worth it”, Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing“, “where’s the beef“ — and the Heath brothers make a compelling case that six qualities are the key ingredients of such mentally sticky ideas. If you’re interested, I will leave you to explore all six qualities on your own — you can link directly to the book on Amazon from the reading list on my web site — but for managers, I believe four of the six qualities are worth mentioning here as especially relevant to your frequent critical communications.
According to Chip and Dan Heath, ideas that stick are characterized by:
Simplicity — Find the “core of the idea” and state it in simple, succinct, compact terms.
Concreteness — Avoid abstract ideas. Use language that conveys your ideas in ways that are easy to remember. According to Heaths, “if you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete…..most of the time, concreteness boils down to specific people doing specific things” (P.104).
Credibility — Messages are most likely to stick when your credentials as the source of the message and the message itself are believable. According to Chip and Dan, unless you have external authority to back you up, sticky messages usually have to “vouch for themselves” (P.137).
Emotional Impact — Messages and ideas that stick are those we care about for some reason or in some way; we can relate to them on an emotional level, see how they impact us, or understand what is in them for us.
Idle conversation is one thing. But when it comes to making an important point as a manager, there is no substitute for forethought and preparation. No matter how articulate you may be, “winging it” lessens the chance that any of the above qualities of messages that stick will emerge. The best communicators and managers understand that a little rehearsal always makes their actual performance better.