Join John Ullmen for an in-depth discussion in this video Communicate to replicate, part of Executive Leadership.
If people can't remember and repeat what you say, it's as if you never said it, so keep it simple. As an executive, many people with different experiences, perspectives, and goals will hear what you say directly or indirectly. You need your communication to travel accurately when retold from person to person, across boundaries and levels in the organization. Legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch, knowing how important this is from decades of experience said, "Managers create complexity; "leaders create simplicity." A key limiting factor for rising leaders, is speaking too much in the language of their functional specialty.
Engineering, finance, technical language, even business jargon. Insecure managers try to sound smart. Welch went on to say, "They muddle things "with pointless complexity and detail. "They inspire no one." But simple isn't easy. The famous French mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote to a friend, "I'm sorry for the long letter "I didn't have time to write a short one." Simple isn't just being concise. It's saying what matters most, memorably, briefly.
That's crucial if you want your communication to scale. One, for people with different perspectives to understand it similarly. And two, for people who hear you directly, to remember and repeat it accurately to others who don't. There's a boundary imposed by how our brains work. Large numbers of people can't accurately remember and repeat large amounts of information. "Excess fails; simple scales." Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was asked why everyone at Starbucks smiled.
And he said, "We only hire people that smile." It's almost impossible to forget that answer. So here's a guideline, what's the number one thing you want them to remember and repeat? The one thing you need them to recall even if they forget everything else? Make it impossible for them not to get it. Akio Morita, co-chairman of Sony in the late 1970's, challenged engineers to create a portable tape player so he could listen to his beloved opera music when he travelled. He use a small block of wood to show them the target size.
Simple, specific, concrete, memorable, repeatable. It led to the groundbreaking, enormously popular, and influential Sony Walkman. Similarly, Steve Jobs challenged his engineers to create a smartphone without a keyboard. And he kept repeating like a mantra, "Buttons are tyranny!" They couldn't forget nor keep from repeating that vivid, memorable, energizing way to make his point that a touch-based user interface allowed incredible flexibility for programmers, versus programmers being tied down to physical buttons.
Here's another point, check on key takeaways. At the end of discussions and meetings, ask people what they thought were the main points. Let them say it in their words. That's how you know what they actually heard and remember. They can't repeat what they didn't hear accurately, or what they don't remember. Discuss and redirect if you need to do so. Relatedly, a helpful practice I've seen executives use when wrapping up lengthy meetings such as off-site planning meetings is to leave time at the very end to pose this question, "When you get back "to your team, what are you going to say "are the key takeaways from this offsite?" Then they discuss until everyone is aligned and can repeat the same message across levels in the organization.
That technique draws on the broader theme. Executive leaders need to consider how their message will be passed along by people with diverse perspectives over stretches of time to other people who weren't there. You need to communicate to replicate. Simple isn't easy but it is essential. Remember, "Excess fails, simple scales."
Lynda.com is a PMI Registered Education Provider. This course qualifies for professional development units (PDUs). To view the activity and PDU details for this course, click here.
The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.
- The four disciplines of executive leadership
- Thinking strategically
- Creating shared purpose
- Inspiring confidence—even under pressure
- Motivating and communicating
- Establishing priorities and focus
- Leading change
- Developing yourself