What Communication “is”:
Talking. Listening. Influencing. Painting a picture. Motivating. Captivating. Engaging. Leading.
Communication is leadership; it’s all the parts of a management job that cannot be done from behind a desk.
How to identify a good Communicator:
Usually, when we think of great communicators, we think of confident communicators. Be careful: there are plenty of confident blowhards and whack jobs out there.
From a leadership perspective, a great communicator is someone who understands that delivering a single message to 100 people is vastly different from ensuring 100 people all leave having heard a single message, and who can adjust his/her message achieve the latter. The primary thing that separates a great communicator from a great leader is direction.
How to develop your Communications skills:
Many of us have heard about the how the content of a message is as little as 7% of a communication, and how body language and tone of voice together make up the remaining 93%. What many of us don’t consider is that a communication event rarely happens in a bubble where the only elements being considered are voice, physicality, and content. Normally, a communication event is pregnant with all those other interactions that preceded it.
You know… the baggage.
In other words, that body language/tone of voice/content study only applies to conversations where you are meeting the person for the first time. With people you already know, some percentage of the communication has already occurred before anyone even says “hello.” (Ever cringe at the sight of a number on caller ID? That’s an example of communication happening before “hello.”)
If you want to communicate better, you need to minimize emotional baggage so that each one of your communications comes through clean and clear. If the last four people to be called into your office were all terminated, the it won’t matter how perfectly you manage your tone of voice and body posture for person #5, because person #5 is waiting for the axe to fall from the moment he gets summoned to your office.
To be a better communicator, you need to take responsibility for every aspect of your communications, including the broader context in which they occur.
That broader context has four elements you should be attending to: direction, frequency, content, and channel. As a leader, all four of these aspects impact how people receive your message—in addition to tone, body language, and content—and from my experience, I would say that these four are bigger than those in-the-moment tactics, because they establish the perspective through which body language and tone are interpreted.
Direction: Top down or bottom up? Fair? Bilateral for some but not others? The direction of your communications signals whether you are broadcasting or conversing.
Frequency: Important things get repeated more often than non-important items. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not signaling the importance of the message. If you’re repeating yourself too often without giving your audience a chance to absorb the original message, you’re harping. And most likely, you’re annoying.
Content: The content of the message starts before the actual message. It starts with the context. Two people can deliver the exact same message to greatly different effects. Why? Because their messages are pregnant with different things. A good communicator understands how his/her message is being interpreted and massages the content according to the filter being applied to it. This isn’t manipulation… it’s more like adjusting the tint on a TV.
Channel: You can say, “I want this to be a dialogue” all you want, but if you’re standing at a dais in front of an audience of 500 people when you say it, then no one will believe you. Similarly, you may tell someone that you have some quick feedback for them on a project, but if instead of a quick email you put your notes into a formal memo and copy the VP, rest assured they will take interpret your “feedback” as a formal reprimand and will feel sandbagged. The channel needs to match the intention.
Getting communications right requires a lot more than watching your tone of voice and body language. You need to pay attention to the broader context!
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.