If there’s a business topic that’s been studied, written about and discussed more than “leadership” I cannot imagine what it would be. Books, blogs and videos on leadership are churned out like dime store novels. Though they may have different takes, angles, perspectives and formulas for leadership success, there is one quality almost universally cited as important to highly effective leadership: communication.
Taking things a step further, leadership communication is usually discussed in terms of how to define an organizational vision, or craft and articulate messages, or become a compelling speaker. To be sure, these are aspects of communication to one degree or another. Less often discussed…much less…is an aspect that goes beyond being merely important; it’s essential to effective leadership: listening. And it’s an attribute of which there seems to be a diminishing supply.
Maybe that’s because when it comes to communicating today, there are an abundance of platforms from which we can, and do, share our thoughts, opinions, plans and activities, no matter how mundane. We do so under a vain assumption that people are as anxious to listen to us as we are to talk to them. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a little, but not much.
When it comes to effective leadership, one’s ability…and willingness…to listen should be considered at least as important as one’s ability to talk. Therein lies a critical distinction between leaders with position and leaders with influence. And herein lie four measures against which to assess your own “listening quotient.”
What’s your “airtime”? Or put another way, how much time do you spend talking compared to listening? Would your response to that question line up with the answers of others if they were asked the same question about you? Effective leaders are more interested in listening to what others have to say than what they themselves have to say. They know one learns more by listening than by talking.
Are you more inclined to make statements or ask questions? This is arguably the single-most revealing indicator of one’s listening quotient. We’ve all been around people who are either talking, or waiting to talk. They are all too willing to grace us with their thoughts and opinions, but rarely express a genuine interest in, much less listen to, anyone else’s.
Do you seek perspective or just information? By virtue of their position, leaders are decision makers. The best decisions are made with information, yes, but more importantly with the opinions and perspectives of others. The best leaders freely acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. But they do know the questions to ask to get the answers they need to make sound decisions. Listening leaders solicit the input of others, which not only contributes to gaining potentially critical insights, but also fosters creation of a team that is engaged and “all in.”
Do you listen to understand, or to counter and criticize? One sure way to shut off the flow of information and perspective is to immediately counter anything that doesn’t line up with what you want to hear, were expecting to hear, or which isn’t consistent with your preconceived notions. That’s not to say leaders shouldn’t challenge opinions, perspectives and recommendations of others. They should. But challenging an opinion or premise is a different thing than countering and criticizing it. Challenge is usually revealed in follow up questions that convey interest and curiosity leading to constructive, and instructive, dialogue. Counter and criticism are more often revealed in a dismissive statement that conveys disinterest and cuts off dialogue.
The adage that we are endowed with two ears and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion is wise counsel in polite society. But it’s much more when it comes to becoming an effective communicator and a successful leader. It’s a means through which knowledge is gained, influence is granted and organizations are strengthened.
Thanks for listening.
Richard McKeown is a communications consultant, coach and trainer who delivers media training, presentation training, executive communications coaching, and conference keynote and breakout session programs. firstname.lastname@example.org
Not too long ago, I came across a study (http://socialtimes.com/attention-spans-have-dropped-from-12-minutes-to-5-seconds-how-social-media-is-ruining-our-minds-infographic_b86479) that maintains that the attention span of adults has decreased in the last decade from 12 minutes to five minutes. According to the study, and as one might expect, the proliferation of social media is cited as the primary culprit. The study made some startling observations, going so far as to suggest that technology and social media are channging the way our brains work, create hormonal imbalances, stress and a whole host of symptoms that are changing the way we perceive and process information. None of which, I might add, sound too good.
One can easily bemoan the study’s findings, but it is difficult to argue with them beyond perhaps questioning the extent to which attention spans have shrunk. But that would be quibbling at the margins. The point of the study is spot on. Indeed, we live and work in a bullet-point world. And it has implications for those seeking to communicate with others, not only in the social realm, but especially in the professional business environment. If attention spans are indeed down to five minutes, the way we develop and deliver messages in presentations, forums, meetings, etc., has to take that reality into consideration if we are to be successful.
How, then, can one be a successful communicator in a world that talks and thinks in bullet-points? Let me offer three steps for the business communicator. (I would offer more, but that would require more than five minutes of your attention.)
The technology around which we order our lives in the 21st Century did not start the trend toward abbreviated attention spans and messages. Its forefather the television did that. In the 1968 presidential campaign the average television news “sound bite” was more than 40 seconds. By 1996, it was less than 10 seconds on average.
Does all this mean that no presentation or discussion can be more than five minutes? Of course not. The point is to develop tools and techniques that will allow you maintain the audience’s attention and expand audience the length of time they will stay with you in mind and body.
Most every organization public or private, business or non-profit from time to time has an opportunity to interact with the media. It might involve seeking positive media coverage. Or responding to media inquiries about some aspect of the organization. Or, it may be because a crisis involving the organization has generated public concern and media interest.
In the latter case, how an organization communicates can define…or redefine…it for years to come. In the past few years alone, we have seen how prestigious organizations have had their images impacted to significant degrees by how they communicated in their crises. When an organization experiences a crisis, it is often defined by the public-at-large in one of two ways: as “victim” or “villain.” For example,
Virginia Tech = Victim. Penn State = Villain.
Tylenol = Victim. BP = Villain.
Whether in a crisis or not, whether victim or villain, there are ten “Pearls of Media Wisdom” to keep in mind when communicating with the media and defining your message. Here they are:
Always tell the truth. (That doesn’t mean you have to “spill your guts.”)
Until issues of safety and security are assured, little else matters to the public.
Media can’t print or broadcast what you don’t say.
If you have to eat crow, do it early and in big bites.
Speak in sentences, not paragraphs.
The more you say, the more you “stray.” (Stay on message!)
Craft your message by writing the headline you’d like to see; the sound bite you’d like to hear.
People understand impact and outcome better than process.
If your explanation takes longer than their accusation, you’re in some serious trouble.
People don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.
Anyone serving as a spokesman should keep these “Pearls of Media Wisdom” in mind when communicating with the media. They are especially valuable in crisis communications. For more information on media training and preparing your organization for communicating effectively through the media, contact Richard@RichardMcKeown, or at (501) 425-8357.
Phone: (501) 425-8357
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Bryant, AR 72089
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