Communication Challenges of the Future
A look at some of the common mistakes leaders make in strategic communication and few tried-and-true principles that business leaders can master to stay competitive and deliver high performance communication.
“Senior executives and policy makers have especially short attention spans. Their brains run so fast, if you don’t finish a sentence within seconds, they’ve already moved on.”
“When we speak in a resourceful state, despite all distractions and challenges, we have a sense of presence, a confidence and energy about what we are doing.”
In today’s economy, most jobs that are lost don’t go overseas. They go to a microchip. No one knows how to best handle this race against machines, but communication skills will be vital to maintain human relevance. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the best jobs in the future will be “STEMpathy” jobs—jobs that blend STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, math) with empathy and the ability to engage others.
But as communication decides economic survival, more and more people are tuning out. Research shows that, internationally, more than half of our communications unfold before disengaged listeners. As we speak, our audience thinks of dinner and emails.
The digital age has turned us into ruthless curators. Drowning in data, we see content and decide within seconds “Is there something here for me?” If not, we click and move on. Senior executives and policy makers have especially short attention spans. Their brains run so fast, if you don’t finish a sentence within seconds, they’ve already moved on.
On a larger scale, when a company strategy fails, it is rarely because of the value of the idea. Most often, it is due to poor communication. Organizations may invest vast resources – often thousands of hours and dollars – developing goals, strategies, and metrics, only to overlook the importance of a parallel communication strategy. Too often information is just sent out with slides, manuals or materials, flat in tone and bloated with information, with the assumption that everyone gets it. The problem is, they don’t.
Consider your organization or team: Have you really developed a communication strategy? Have you created a story? Have you prepared for the conversations, the style, the tough questions that you are going to be asked, the key messaging? If the answer is no, you may be sabotaging your own best efforts.
So how can today’s business leaders face these communication challenges?
In the age of distraction, we must ask what is the role of the spoken word, and how can we make interpersonal events meaningful? How do we hold attention and move the listener?
In the age of technology, we must ask how do we inspire people to keep pushing innovation? How do we keep the human touch relevant as we facilitate obsolescence?
And in the age of cynicism, we must ask how can we truly inspire people? How do we help staff believe in a meaningful mission, creating narratives that lift people to aspire to something higher?
All leaders have a unique gift. It is the gift of foresight and ideas, the ability to inspire and move others. Every time we speak is an opportunity to impart that gift—to create clarity where there is confusion, to create excitement where there is dullness, to instil boldness of spirit when teams have lost confidence.
To harness this gift and persuade audiences into action, we can rely on the following three elements of high performance communication.
Content that is relevant and concise.
All too often, leaders take relevance for granted. But people don’t listen just because of your rank or position. They listen because they are self-interested.
Before you send out a message, ask yourself: What am I offering that meets the listeners’ needs? How am I improving their condition? You establish this relevance in the first 30 seconds of interaction, opening up pathways in the brain where listeners see that you have their interests at heart and think, “This person understands me. I am interested.”
As for concision, the first reason why people stop paying attention is, well—we just talk too much. Unsure of ourselves, we are looping and using too many words. As attention spans shrink, we can no longer improvise at the listeners’ expense. Second, we are unsure of the listener. Did they really get it? Best to make sure and hammer the point home. Finally, we lack time—and the discipline—to refine our message. As the French philosopher Pascal noted famously, “This letter is longer than usual, because I didn’t have time to make it short.” In conclusion: Be brief.
A delivery that builds trust
Research suggests that, all too often, content is trumped by the sound and tone of our voice, the look in our eyes, and the expression on our face. In short: the delivery. We make decisions within seconds about whether we trust the speaker. Much of it relies on delivery—the way he or she uses body, voice and eyes. With the ubiquity of video on the internet, delivery now counts more than ever, as listener expectations are higher.
There are three principles to follow: congruence, generosity, and curiosity. Congruence is how we determine if someone is telling the truth. When body language doesn’t match the words of the message, we don’t trust the speaker. Shakespeare was right when he wrote: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Otherwise, your team won’t believe you.
Generosity is about opening up, about aiming to give something to the listener, instead of holding back, on our guard. This openness shows in a relaxed, erect posture, a steady breath and warm voice, and in the expansiveness of our gestures.
Curiosity is the willingness to pay attention to the listener’s condition. Most people decide after a few sentences whether you’re speaking for their benefit or yours. Read the room, and be curious about how your ideas are received. Never take approval for granted, and be willing to adjust.
A positive, resourceful state
The quality that ultimately drives our performance, the single most important element that determines the experience of the listener, is our state. State is our psychological, emotional, and spiritual condition when we are communicating—and it’s the element most people overlook.
Often in high-stakes situations, just when we need to be at our best, we become hostage to our emotions, overtaken by fear, anger or frustration. Any performance, no matter how well-prepared, will be diminished by such a state.
But when we speak in a resourceful state, despite all distractions and challenges, we have a sense of presence, a confidence and energy about what we are doing. Inspirational performers—the dancers, actors and athletes who bring themselves to a peak performance state—not only get over their nerves, but they harness the power of their emotions. High performers develop strategies to manage their state, directing their mind-set and energy to meet the challenges of the situation. This way, they consistently reach levels of flow.
Communication is no longer about just information. Your brand as a leader, and as an organization, is determined by the sum total of the experiences you create, both intellectually and emotionally. As technology moves data faster than the human voice, we need to rediscover what sets us apart: the ability to inspire, to turn insight into language we share. What better way to meet the challenges of the future than to revitalize our human strengths, because no one is inspired by a microchip!