What do humans fear the most? Numerous studies report that the fear of public speaking is the top ranked phobia. Fear of death comes next at number two. These findings led the comedian Jerry Seinfeld to famously observe, “That means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
It’s one thing to be afraid of speaking in public. It’s another thing to speak and do it skillfully. Unfortunately, leaders who communicate well are few and far between. Research from Ketchum Communications finds only 31% of employees believe their leaders communicate effectively.
Poor communication comes with a high cost. A study by Fierce, Inc. found that 86% of employees cite ineffective communication or lack of collaboration as the main source of workplace failures. An HR magazine study found that employees who report routinely receiving confusing or unclear directions waste an average of 40 minutes of productivity every day.
Whether it’s face to face, zoom, phone, text or email, sending a message is just the tip of the communication iceberg. Great leaders know that the goal of communication isn’t merely to share information. It’s to create mutual understanding that inspires action. Gilbert Amelio, CEO of National Semiconductor Corp. says, “If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.”
Creating clarity and inspiring action doesn’t happen by chance. Poor leaders communication by default. Great leaders communication by design. They intentionally apply four critical skills to be effective.
You can use apply these four skills as well. Think of them as the keys to PREP yourself for success.
Key 1: Plan
Mediocre leaders begin their planning by thinking through their agenda. They ask themselves, “What’s my priority? What do I want to say? How much detail am I going to get into?” The focus is on me.
Great leaders begin their planning by thinking through their audience’s agenda. They ask themselves, “What’s important to them? What do they know? What don’t they know? What are their concerns? What support are they seeking?” The focus is on them.
If you want to be an effective communicator, shifting your mindset from a me-focus to a them-focus is essential. It demonstrates your skill at communication empathy—showing people you understand them and care how they feel. Theodore Roosevelt captured this concept well when he said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Start by building your agenda from their perspective, rather than your own.
Key 2: Rehearse
Communication is a performing art. It boils down to what you say and how you say it. The first time you say anything, it’s a rough draft. Rehearse means re-hear: Literally speaking the words out loud. Rehearsal helps connect your brain cells of your concepts to the brain cells of your words to the brain cells of your lips, tongue and teeth (or your fingers, if you’re writing).
It’s common for many leaders to just visually review their ideas/outline once, before they let them fly in their meeting/presentation/email. It’s the equivalent of unleashing an untamed dragon in a crowded room: A recipe for disaster.
The more you rehearse out loud and/or edit your writing, the stronger the neural connections get between concept, word and mouth. The stronger the connections, the more competent and confident you become.
Key 3: Engage
Want to put people to sleep? Talk at them. Great communicators don’t talk at people. They talk with them.
The most precious resource in today’s world is attention. Communicating in monologue drains attention. Interaction fuels attention and engagement.
There are countless ways to create interaction. The only limit is your creativity. For example, you can use polls, ask questions, play videos, use humor, create breakouts, ask powerful questions, facilitate dialogue, and so much more.
High engagement creates delight. Delight is essential to fostering a culture of positivity. A positive culture is a prerequisite to creating a high-performing work environment.
Key 4: Paint
Many communicators are subject matter experts (SMEs) compared to their audience. But a trap many SMEs fall into is to drown the audience in data. There’s a reason that we say “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The human brain thinks in images, not words. 75% of the brain’s sensory neurons are devoted to the visual sense. Creating understanding means helping others see what you see.
If people are wired to naturally think visually, why not speak in the brain’s native tongue? Great communicators harness the power visual thinking, or what author Todd Cherches calls VisuaLeadership. This means using visual models, visual metaphors, analogies, and storytelling. The more vividly you paint the picture of your vision, the easier it is for others to see and to follow.
No matter what industry you work in, you’re in the people business. That means you’re in the communication business. James Humes, a speechwriter for the five US Presidents, wrote “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” If you want to shift your leadership to a whole new level, be sure to PREP your communication. Your audience will thank you.