ISSN 1834-4933. Published by Geoff Kelly, Kelly Strategic Influence
Wisdom to lead minds:
“My language was meant to be transparent and clear. You have to reach people in
their soul so that they internalize your message. Too many messages are just
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric
Why our emperors are wearing no clothes
Why are business and Government so often failing to cut through to people on issues that matter? After all, both deal in matters that deeply impact all individuals, families and communities.
The commanding heights of Government hammer out ideas and decisions that shape people's health choices, security, financial choices and the health of their natural environment. And business develops and delivers products and services that provide people's most basic needs and their most fanciful wants. These are fertile grounds with rich content to engage the attention of even the most distracted citizens.
Yet time and again leaders of both sectors lament their frustration that most people don't trust them, don't understand them and often don't even listen to them.
This month Michael Chaney, one of Australia's most accomplished business leaders and head of the Business Council of Australia, added his voice. He expressed his frustration with “…the difficulty of having any voice heard in a complex society, when there are thousands of voices daily with messages.” He added that since popular views affect political decisions, business needs to get through to the general population on matters of public debate and policy.
There are three levels these leaders need to address to meet this problem.
First, you can see one answer from a quick look at CEO messages in their annual reports. Empty-headed language almost devoid of meaning citing “opportunities,” “challenges”, “innovative customer solutions,” “strategic imperatives,” and other abstractions that defy the reader to form a concrete meaning.
Invariably these are salted heavily with self-references such as “we,” “I,” “our,” “your Board,” or the company and executive names and titles. Typical is this line from the front cover of a major oil company's Corporate Citizenship Report – “We believe that the greatest contribution we can make to the communities in which we operate is to do our job well.” That's three “we” and one “our” in the first 22 words – leaving their audience in no doubt where their attention lies. But this is no exception for this report or for most business and Government reports, websites and other communication.
These worlds are populated by junk language that those who write it and those whom it represents no longer see. Sloppy language, jargon, self-references, meaningless abstractions prevail. How can even such basic communication skills have slipped so far even at the top levels of business and Government?
Second, when you critically evaluate the language they use, you will see a deeper problem. They are so caught up in their own viewpoint that they are blind to what their audience knows or thinks. Most show no evidence that they even remotely understand the people they are communicating with. No understanding of who they are, what they are experiencing, ambitions they seek, problems they must overcome or even the most basic demographics.
If you are simply information dumping, then you will be most comfortable with the (mostly delusional) assumption that your audience knows what you know and cares about what you care about. However, to communicate, to connect, to share real meaning with others takes empathy with and knowledge of your intended audience.
That means seeing firsthand, engaging in two-way conversations, deep listening, and even sharing experiences. Then framing what you want to say from their perspective. Interest them enough to engage with your ideas, open to the possibility of understanding, agreeing or even acting in your support.
Of course some will object that they need to communicate with everyone, or many broad groups, and this means they must appeal to the average or middle ground audience member.
Andrew Hockley, the Victorian Government's top communicator, gave a superb answer to this when presenting to a Melbourne business breakfast.
He said that his audience was the people of Victoria. After telling people that he was originally a statistician, he reeled off several statistics about the average Victorian, including education, number of children, and income. Then he paused before revealing his final statistic – “The average Victorian has one testicle.” After collectively inhaling breath, the audience got it. There is no average Victorian, or any other average target audience. Average hits no-one, so always focus.
The third level is even more fundamental. That is considering and answering how business and Government leaders can master the art of the novelist and story teller in showing rather than telling. What can they do or show that will allow their audiences to decide for themselves what the leaders would otherwise have said? Because what people decide for themselves has far more impact on their thoughts and actions than what anyone might say to them. We will explore this further in a future edition.
So where do we look for our role models. Here are some quick suggestions.
To see what a leader with something meaningful to say to his shareholders, read Warren Buffet's CEO letter in the 2005 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report. Then see what Bill Gates and Microsoft are saying about Microsoft's Unlimited Potential programme to try to bring digital world opportunities to Earth's five billion citizens who have so far missed out. And follow almost anything that Richard Branson says and does. All three show a willingness to understand their audience, connect with them meaningfully, and convince people through action that supports their communication.
This year influential US Republican Party pollster and political adviser Frank Luntz published his book “Words that Work.” The book's subtitle and main theme bear reflection by all corporate and Government leaders and communicators who want to influence their audiences:
“It's not what you say, it's what people hear.”
More next month...
Geoff Kelly works with leaders who are frustrated that others don't fully support their ideas and strategies. He mainly works with corporate leaders around the world, but also leaders in Government and Not for Profit. He is also a popular speaker on this and related subjects. See www.kellystrategicinfluence.com.au, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +613 9678 9218 for more information
© 2006 Geoff Kelly All rights reserved.
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