Leadership Miscommunications – the Seven Deadly Spins of Connecting with Employees

I didn’t bake sourdough bread, adopt a rescue dog, attempt a home reno or train for a marathon. Rethinking my playbook for leadership communications was my 2020-21 pandemic project.

Those revisions began after my boss shot down a tried and true tactics. She was looking for new ways to communicate. I pitched an old idea. She nixed that idea by pointing out obvious problems – problems that hadn’t been obvious to me while I rolled out the idea at two previous employers.

I was also looking at leadership comms from a new perspective. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t in a central PR team or working out of a president’s office. I spent my days closer than ever to the frontlines working alongside colleagues who weren’t in PR.

So I revisited my playbook for leadership communications, rethinking everything from social media, videos and podcasts to coffee chats and breakfast meetings, thought leadership, strategic planning, speechwriting and town halls.

I’ve summed up what PR pros like me say, what busy, weary and slightly cynical employees think and what leaders could do instead when it comes to communicating and connecting with folks on the frontlines.

Leadership Miscommunication draws on 28 years worth of some hits, more than a few misses and lots of lessons learned from dozens of senior leaders who I worked with and watched in action during tour stops at a non-profit, hospital, steelmaker, college and university.

I’ve pulled together a series of earlier posts that went up during the fall. Leadership Miscommunication is a free, no obligation download. I’m not trying to sell you anything. I don’t want your email address. And I’m not angling for a speaking gig or consulting work. This revised playbook, along with figuring out how to make a flipbook, were my pandemic projects.

Always happy to hear what you think I got right or wrong about leadership communications. And whether I should’ve spent the pandemic learning how to bake bread.

DOWNLOAD LEADERSHIP MISCOMMUNICATION HERE.

Review: Impromptu – Leading in the Moment by Judith Humphrey

impromptuThis review ran in the Jan. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Impromptu: Leading in the Moment

By Judith Humphrey

Wiley

$36

Something remarkable happened at work.

We went to a town hall meeting and a conversation broke out.

Here’s how it happened.

Senior leaders stepped out from behind the lectern, left the stage and went into the audience.

They didn’t have prepared remarks or PowerPoint slides. They hadn’t gone to a dress rehearsal and some had no idea they were about to be called on.

Senior leaders started off by giving spontaneous answers to real questions that staff had written on cue cards at the start of the town hall.

This in turn prompted other staff to put up their hands and ask even more questions.

The conversation continued for more than 90 minutes. The town hall ended with a round of applause. Senior leaders were grateful for the questions. Staff appreciated the authentic, candid, off the cuff answers.

The town hall was unlike any I had attended over my 25-year career with four organizations.

Judith Humphrey, author of Impromptu, says that leadership communications is undergoing a transformation. We’re moving from one-off formal speeches on the big stage to continuous impromptu speaking on smaller stages.

“More than ever, those who lead must find their authentic voice. Impromptu speaking provides a way to connect, inspire and lead in the 21st century world,” says Humphrey. “Scripted speeches, PowerPoint presentations, dog and pony shows, and marketing hype are being replaced by the conversations that leaders have every day with their followers. These conversations will change minds, hearts and organizations.”

Don’t confuse impromptu speaking with winging it. You won’t inspire others if you can’t stop talking and don’t make any sense.

You can mitigate this risk by using a four-part script template used by Humphrey’s leadership communications firm.

“Creating your script is an important aspect of impromptu speaking,” says Humphrey. “It will keep you from blathering on as so many people do. In every situation it’s important to collect your thoughts rather than spew out whatever comes in your head. With a clear and persuasive structure, you will influence and inspire your listeners. There is no more critical a skill for impromptu speaking than this ability to structure your thoughts.”

Humphrey’s template has you leading off with a grabber that connects you with your audience and builds rapport. “If you speak without reaching out to them and engaging them, it’s likely nobody will listen to you. Think of your grabber as a verbal handshake.”

You then deliver your key message. A good message is limited to one idea that’s communicated in a single, short sentence. Your message should engage the hearts and minds of your audience, carry your convictions and be positive.

You then make a compelling case for your key message with a handful of reinforcing proof points. “Stating your message is rarely sufficient. You need evidence that encourages listeners to buy into that point of view. So after presenting what you believe, share why you believe it.”

The script ends with you making a call to action to your audience. Be explicit. What do you want them to start, stop or continue doing?  Like the grabber at the start of the script, your call to action needs to engage your audience. “It gives legs to your message by transforming an idea into actionable steps. In doing so, it makes your script an act of motivational leadership.”

Humphrey shows how we can use her script templates to effectively communicate in a host of situations, from meetings, job interviews, toasts and tributes to elevator pitches, question and answer sessions and speeches.

“Few skills are more important today for leaders and aspiring leaders than the ability to speak well in impromptu situations,” says Humphrey. “The day when executives could deliver the big speech and then retreat to their offices is long gone. Constant, spontaneous interactions with colleagues, senior executives, clients and stakeholders has become the norm. The new world of leadership is full of conversation, collaboration and charisma. Make the most of these opportunities.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: The Inspiration Code – How The Best Leaders Energize People Every Day by Kristi Hedges

inspiration codeThis review first ran in the Sept. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Inspiration Code: How The Best Leaders Energize People Every Day

By Kristi Hedges

American Management Association

$35.95

We won’t find inspiration in a corporate video where our leader seems to have been kidnapped to an undisclosed location and forced to read a list of demands while in a state of severe sleep deprivation.

Equally uninspiring is the mandatory and tightly scripted all-staff town hall where our leader inflicts death by PowerPoint with ruthless efficiency and then dares anyone to ask a question.

What will inspire us to work harder and do better is a leader who knows how to have conversations that count.

“If we want to have inspired companies, then we need inspirational leaders,” says Kristi Hedges, leadership coach and author of The Inspiration Code. “And that involves being the kind of leader who communicates in a way that creates the conditions for inspiration in others. It’s about making the right connection and letting the inspiration take off from there.”

Leaders create these conditions by being present, personal, passionate and purposeful in their conversations.

A leader’s present when she’s focused on the person in front of her. She’s not distracted or visibly stressed. She listens more than she talks. She gives the impression that there’s no one else she’d rather be with and nowhere else she’s rather be. “For leaders, presence is a blinking red light that signifies importance. Being fully present at key times has a motivational impact. When a leader actually pays real attention to us, it feels great. We feel special. The capacity to inspire is heightened.”

Authenticity also plays a key role in building connections. “Your listener looks to you first to see how much you care and this is what shapes how much he will care,” says Hedges. “If you want to move behavior or shape thinking, you need to get personal and stay personal. We’re not inspired by fakes, frauds, blowhards, blusterers or even those who play it too close to the vest. We need to see the real deal.”

Along with being present and getting personal, leaders need to be passionate if they want an inspired effort from us. “People who are passionate enthusiasts for what they do create passion in others. Passion is optimistic, exciting, bold and captivating. Passion has a fiery drive to it, propelling forward momentum. People with passion show conviction. We know where they stand. They get things done.”

And finally, inspiring leaders have purposeful conversations. We need to be reminded that our day-to-day work contributes to the continued success of our organization.  “When we feel as though we’re running in circles, or spiraling downward, work is somewhere between boring and soul crushing. We’re counting the hours (or if nearing retirement, years) until we’re free.”

What a leader does will be as important as what they say. Hedges says a leader must show and model what it means to be a purpose-driven leader and live a purpose-driven life. “If others can’t see the purpose that ignites you, then they won’t likely be convinced that you can inspire anyone else. When it comes to purpose, you’ve got to wear it to share it.”

As Hedges reminds us, no one goes home after work and says they had a great day because they were influenced. Bull all of us would love to say that we were inspired.

Hedges shows leaders how to improve the odds of that happening with proven strategies for  being more present, personal, passionate and purposeful in their conversations.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Book review: Speaking as a Leader

An edited version of this review ran in the April 9 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Speaking as a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak

By Judith Humphrey

John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd.

$27.95

I went to a conference in Washington last month to learn how to write better speeches.

As an added bonus, I got a two-day master class in how to give a great speech. The conference featured keynotes by three seasoned speechwriters who proved they’re as good on the podium as they are with a pen (kudos to Mark Schumann, Justina Chen and Terry Edmonds — the first African American to serve as a presidential speechwriter).

All three made an immediate and sustained connection with the audience. They were absolutely passionate about the craft of speechwriting. Their speeches were well-rehearsed conversations that didn’t feel scripted or staged. They told stories and shared lessons learned with a healthy mix of self-deprecating humour.

Just as impressive is what these speakers didn’t do.  They didn’t inflict death by PowerPoint. They didn’t bore us and bury us in a data dump. They didn’t limit themselves to telling us what they knew. They told with us what they believed.

And perhaps most important of all, they knew they were on stage as much to inspire as to inform.

In short, these keynote speakers communicated like leaders.

“The most effective leaders use every speaking opportunity to influence and inspire,” says author Judith Humphrey, who’s also the founder and president of an executive communications firm. “They make every formal speech, presentation, phone call, or elevator conversation a leadership opportunity. They realize that their power lies less in any title they hold than in their ability to move others. They realize that the true task of a leader is to create believers.”

Great leaders stick to a script, says Humphrey.  That script leads off with an introduction that includes a grabber, subject, message and structural statement. 

To grab the attention of your audience, share a story, quote or interesting fact or stat. Then state the subject. What do you want to talk about?  The message spells out where you stand on the topic in a single, simple sentence.  The introduction closes with a structural statement that previews how you’ll make your case and prove your point.

The introduction is followed by the body of your script.  Here’s where you set out your arguments. You can run through three key points. Talk about the challenge and then offer your solution. Look at the present and preview what the future could hold.

The leader’s script ends with a two-part conclusion. You restate your message and then issue a call to action. What do you want people to do next?

Humphrey says the script will help transform your audience into followers, and your speaking into an act of leadership.

Along with sticking to a script, great leaders speak with conviction. They’re passionate, authentic, courageous and honest in their communications.  They use small and simple words to sell big ideas.

Great leaders look to the positive, focusing on solutions rather than problems. “Negatives bring people down, rather than lifting them up. If you want to lead when you speak, stay on the high ground.”

Great leaders listen physically, mentally and emotionally to secure a lifeline to their audience. “You must understand precisely what concerns and motivates your listeners or they will never follow you. You must get inside the minds of your audience and shape what you say so that it reaches them.”

Great leaders don’t paste jokes onto the front end of their communications. “Great speeches, presentations and meeting comments are not dull. They are enlivened with wit, quotations and anecdotes. But they do not rely on canned humour or tired jokes.” Count on at least someone in the audience taking offense or not getting your humour. And few of us have the comedic timing to pull off a joke.

Great leaders also recognize that they’re the best visual. They want their audience to watch and listen without distraction. The danger with PowerPoint – even when it’s a handful of slick slides with killer graphics – is that you divide your audience’s attention. Minds can wander and never return.

“When speakers use visuals, they create competition for the audience’s attention. The audience must divide its focus looking at the visual and listening to you. Your visuals get star billing; what you are saying finishes a distant second in the audience’s mind.”

Humphrey’s point was underscored at the speechwriters’ conference. One of the presenters talked about the wonders of using video in speeches. But technical snafus derailed the video-heavy presentation, rattled the speaker and lost the audience. While that’s all I can remember from that session, I have no trouble recalling the big ideas, inspiring words and passion from the trio of keynote speakers who showed how it’s done.

@jayrobb works in Hamilton and dreams of living in Georgetown.