How Great Leaders Communicate | Wbactive

In the age of knowledge, ideas are the basis of success in almost all areas. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t convince anyone to follow your vision, your influence and impact will be greatly diminished. And that’s why communication is no longer considered a “soft skill” among the world’s top business leaders. Leaders who make it to the top don’t just pay lip service to the importance of effective communication. Instead, they study the arts in all of its forms—writing, speaking, presenting—and constantly strive to improve those skills.

For example, when Jeff Bezos was building Amazon, he placed great emphasis on writing skills. In the summer of 2004, he surprised his leadership team and banned PowerPoint. He replaced slides with “narratively structured memos” that contained titles and full sentences with verbs and nouns.

Bezos is not alone among top executives. “You can’t invest too much in communication skills — written and spoken,” says former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who now sits on Amazon’s board of directors. “If you can’t simplify a message and communicate it persuasively, believe me, you can’t get the masses to follow you.”

During my research for The Bezos draft, I’ve found a number of common tactics that top leaders use when communicating with their teams. Here are four to try:

1. Use short words to talk about difficult things.

Long, complicated sentences make written ideas difficult to understand – they exhaust the mind and require more concentration. You will get more fans if you replace long words and sentences with short ones.

“If it is important to you to be believed to be credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do,” writes Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics Think fast and slow. He argues that persuasive speakers and writers do whatever they can to reduce “cognitive load.”

Software tools like Grammarly assess writing quality by generating a numerical readability score. The score assigns a grade level to the writing of samples. For example, a document written for a person with at least eight years of schooling (the average 13-year-old in the US) is considered “very easy to read”. That doesn’t mean your writing sounds like it was written by an eighth grader. It simply means that your polished arguments are easy to understand — and easy-to-understand ideas are more persuasive.

Since writing is a skill, you can sharpen it with practice. Bezos improved as a writer over time. His first Amazon shareholder letter in 1997 was registered at the tenth grade level (comparable to the New York Times). Over the next ten years, 85% of his letters were written for the eighth or ninth grade.

For example, in 2007, Bezos explained the benefits of Amazon’s newly launched Kindle in a paragraph a seventh grader could understand:

If you come across a word you don’t know, you can easily look it up. You can search your books. Your margin notes and underlining are stored server-side in the “cloud” where they cannot be lost. Kindle automatically keeps your place in each of the books you’re reading. If your eyes are tired, you can change the font size. Our vision for Kindle is that every book ever printed in any language will be available in less than 60 seconds.

Bezos chose short words to talk about difficult things. When you make things easy, don’t dumb down the content. You outsmart the competition.

2. Choose sticky metaphors to support key concepts.

A metaphor is a powerful tool that compares abstract ideas with familiar concepts. Metaphors take people on a journey without ever leaving their seats. Chris Hadfield, a famous Canadian astronaut, is a talented public speaker and TED Talks star who harnessed the power of metaphor to describe an incredible event:

Six seconds before launch, this beast suddenly begins to roar like a dragon breathing fire. You’re like a little leaf in a hurricane… When these engines ignite, you feel like you’re in the jaws of a giant dog shaking you and physically hitting you with force.

Roaring beasts, leaves in a hurricane, a dog’s jaws – these are all concrete ideas to describe an event few of us will ever witness.

In business, metaphors are shorthand ways to communicate complex information in short, memorable sentences. Warren Buffett understands the power of metaphor. If you follow business news or follow the stock market, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “moats and castles,” attributed to companies that dominate an industry that is difficult for competitors to enter. Buffett popularized this phrase at a Berkshire Hathaway meeting in 1995 when he said, “The most important thing we do is find a company with a wide and enduring moat that protects an excellent economic castle with an honest lord, who is responsible for the lock.”

The lock metaphor is a succinct abbreviation, a vivid explanation for a complex system of data and information that Buffett and his team use to evaluate potential investments.

When you bring up a new or abstract idea, your audience automatically searches for something familiar to understand. Introduce a novel metaphor and hit it to the point.

3. Humanize data to create value.

The trick to reducing cognitive load and making each data point interesting is to humanize it by putting the number in perspective. Showing them PowerPoint slides with statistics and charts only adds cognitive weight and saps their mental energy.

Every time you introduce numbers, take the extra step to make them engaging, memorable, and ultimately compelling.

For example, scientists expect that by 2025, humans will be producing 175 zettabytes of data annually, or one trillion gigabytes. It’s just too big a number for most people to worry about. But what if I said if you could store 175 zettabytes of data on DVDs, the platters would circle the earth 222 times? It’s still a big number, but the description is more appealing because it paints a vivid picture in your mind’s eye.

Famed astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson once told me that the secret to science communication is “to put the concept in familiar territory.” In other words, turn data into language only humans can understand.

One of Tyson’s famous examples of humanizing data occurred in 1997 when NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft to explore Saturn. Skeptics questioned the $3 billion price tag, so Tyson appeared on television talk shows to educate the public about the benefits of the mission. But first he had to cope with the price shock, so he dug out a data comparison from his rhetorical toolbox. He explained that the $3 billion would be spread over eight years. He added that Americans spend more on lip balm each year than NASA would spend on the mission over that period.

To demonstrate the value of your idea, humanize data and make it relevant to your audience.

4. Make mission your mantra to align teams.

In 1957, large parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota lost power due to a power outage. Earl Bakken, a medical equipment repairman who works in his garage, saw an opportunity to innovate in the field. So he built the first battery-powered pacemaker that worked even in the event of a power failure.

In that moment, Bakken’s life took on a purpose beyond just fixing things. His mission was to “relieve pain, restore health, and prolong life.”

Bakken passed away in 2018, more than 50 years after Medtronic was founded. Since then the company has changed a lot. Its 90,000 associates work in 150 countries and its therapies touch the lives of two patients every second. But while much has changed, one thing has stayed the same: Medtronic employees are driven by the same six words that inspired Bakken: Ease Pain, Restore Health, Extend Life.

Bakken was a repeater-in-chief who always kept the company’s mission at the forefront. Just before Bakken died at the age of 94, he recorded a video for staff. He reiterated the company’s mission and made a request: “I ask you to live by it every day.”

A mission statement hidden in a drawer and largely forgotten does little to align teams toward a common goal. John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that most executives undercommunicate their vision by a factor of 10. “Transformation is impossible unless hundreds or thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices,” Kotter writes.

Transformational leaders communicate excessively. They repeat the mission so many times that it becomes a mantra. A mantra is a statement or slogan that gains strength when repeated. Over-communication amplifies its effect. Your mission should be the focus. Put your business purpose in the spotlight across all communication channels: memos, emails, presentations, social media and marketing collateral. If your mission stands for something, stand up for it.

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Anything worth achieving takes the work of a team, a group of people passionately committed to the passionate pursuit of a dream, a shared vision. While some teams follow leaders empowered by title alone, the most successful teams follow leaders because they are inspired to.

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