You can’t lead if you can’t communicate.
Do you craft strong correspondence through your emails?
Are you able to successfully inform, influence, and inspire with your spoken words?
Can you write in a clear and compelling way?
A core leadership skill is communication. Moreover, leaders are sense makers for their organizations, which requires artful communication.
Leaders communicate perspective, guiding people to understand who they are as an organization, what they do, and why they do it. Leaders communicate context to help others understand their current situation, the broader environment, and to create a clear path forward for the team. They also issue guidance and communicate needs.
Bottom line: you can’t lead if you can’t communicate.
Effective communication begins with how we structure and organize our messages. Great communication shapes how others receive it, understand it, and ultimately respond to it – both emotionally and through action. Our points must be clear, concise, and organized.
While the first step is to recognize that effective communication is important, it’s a whole other (and arguably more challenging) step to explore explicit strategies to help us construct effective communication.
So, below are three strategies to help organize your communication as a leader. These aim to enable you to be a better sense maker for others, giving them the clarity and context to act to create significant impacts. I believe you can adopt these strategies and mold them to meet your particular organizational needs as well as your unique style as a leader.
3 Strategies for Improved Leader Communication
1. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)
Common in military correspondence, the bottom line up front (BLUF) serves as a headline for your message. It serves to frame people’s understanding for the details of the message that follows and then equips them with the most important information they need to know.
You can use this in any form of communication, written or verbal, and for nearly any purpose. Consider a few examples:
- Providing your boss an update on a project: “The Brown Project is on schedule. We are 86% complete with the network transformation and still expect to be complete by 13 December.”
- Sharing a plan for change of an organizational process: “Our departments are not sufficiently synchronized, and we continue to see siloed and even duplicate efforts between them. We need to better integrate the departments to maintain shared awareness. We will begin a new bi-weekly department synchronization meeting.”
- Leader issuing guidance at a staff meeting: “With the completion of the CLE project, our branch has a new set of priorities, which follow. These priorities include new assigned tasks to each team to start acting on.”
A BLUF not only provides clarity, but it also instills confidence in your audience. It shows them you are in control and have ownership of the issue or topic. It sets the tone for the rest of the message.
Consider using a BLUF in your future messages. In emails, it may be appropriate (but not always necessary) to write out “BLUF: …” When speaking, use the BLUF as your strong opening statement. Keep it short, just a couple sentences; the fewer the better.
2. Build Macro to Micro
Those we lead often do not have the same visibility as we do of what occurs at echelons above them or across the broader environment that affect their work. Leaders, as communicators and sense makers, have the responsibility to keep their people informed of what is going on around them, why it’s occurring, why it matters, and what the team is doing (or needs to do) about it.
But it is all too easy to be burdened with the “tyranny of knowledge” (being intimately knowledgeable on a topic and subconsciously assuming others share that same level of awareness) and spew out an incoherent, unorganized string of comments, thinking we are successfully informing our people.
Our messages of context (informing others what is going on) need to be structured and organized well to actually help other people clearly understand. A great way to do that is to organize our comments starting from the most macro level of what’s going on and transition level-by-level down to the most micro, which are the impacts and actions of your specific team. Going from macro to micro helps your people understand first what is going on, then see the “so what” of current circumstances, and ultimately receive the “now what” of actions to be taken by them and their immediate team.
Here is an example of what a macro-to-micro message can look like, using a teacher helping her students understand why learning math is important:
- “We are in an information and knowledge-based society, where repetitive, low cognitive tasks are being outsourced to technology.” (Most macro – understanding the broad environment we are operating in)
- “Thus, as a functioning, productive, successful, and value-added member of our society, you need to have effective logical and critical thinking skills.” (One step down of the macro understanding – why we are in school)
- “Math, just like the algebra we are learning this year and the statistics you will learn next year, is one of the best ways to develop those thinking skills. And like any skill or habit development, it requires repetition.” (Down further – why math)
- “So, no, you may never use the Pythagorean Theorem as an adult. But teaching you this mathematical process is a means to develop your logical and critical thinking skills, not to make you an expert in the Pythagorean Theorem. This process is a means to an end; it is not actually about this specific model at all.” (Transitioning from macro to micro)
- “Now, let’s turn to page 47 in your textbooks and practice problems 8 to 11 to further develop our logical and critical thinking.” (Most micro – our current task in response to our environment)
Using this style can easily become a sort of story, which triggers people’s emotional investment and piques their interest in more compelling ways. Macro-to-micro helps you organize your message, helps people build context one layer at a time from big to small, and dials them into their immediate situation to know what is going on and why. Through this approach, we are better positioned to compel others to transition from mere compliance to eliciting commitment, simply by how we organize our communication.
3. Sort Points into Buckets
What if we are not communicating context, but issuing much more specific and tactical guidance? What if we need to share detailed information for collective awareness across the team? I once had a senior leader (my boss’s boss) who had recently moved into his position, and he wanted to issue an initial set of instructions to the different staff sections (300-person staff). His emailed instructions were not well organized – tasks were not collated by who they were being assigned to but listed in a random order that did not make sense to readers. The instructions were poorly formatted, making the email hard to read. And there were little contextual details that supported the tasks. Bottom line was that the email was hard to read, hard to understand, and hard to determine what to do in response to it.
How we sort our message and guidance helps our audience receive, understand, and respond more effectively…and efficiently. So, when you have information or guidance to share, spend time organizing the points into major buckets.
Think of it as a system of document folders on your desktop. What is the parent folder about? Within that heading folder, how do you organize all the documents (points you’re making) within? I imagine it is likely into sub-folders. If so, what sub-folders are you creating, what are they based on, and how many sub-folders do you need?
Think of your guidance-based communication the same way. What am I trying to communicate here? How do I organize it into “folders” to make it easier to read and understood? And, finally, what is the right number of “sub-folders” for this message? More sub-folders are, arguably, not better. Consider keeping your message within three to five folders. If you can’t, maybe relook at the complexity of your message and assess if it needs to be broken down more.
Example: I recently oversaw a week long out-of-state staff training trip for my organization. I was responsible for our team’s (about 130 people) travel, lodging, and schedule. To keep everyone informed of those things, their tasks, and the concept of the trip, I shared weekly event email updates, their tasks to complete, and what to expect at the destination as we built up to the trip. So, I structured my email into four “sub-folders” or buckets along these categories. I created a bold, large font heading for each bucket and listed all tasks and notes in bullet form under them.
- “What you need to do before we depart”
- “Departure information and what you need to do on the day we leave”
- “Lodging and rental cars”
- “About the training and schedule”
This structure helped people organize their understanding of the trip and be clear on what they needed to do and when.
You can easily adapt this model when issuing guidance or information, whether it be via email, other written mediums, or verbally.
Leaders are communicators. Effective leader communication increases efficiency – it reduces confusion and others’ effort needed to process the information. Effective communication increases clarity – everyone is on the same page. It increases confidence – in the leader, in the situation, and in the plan.
These three strategies can help you construct more effective, compelling, clear, and concise communication over any platform. I hope they can serve you well.
We will follow this piece up with a few important considerations to keep in mind as you construct your messages and shape how you deliver them. These considerations apply to any means of communication and to all three strategies above. We look forward to sharing that second part to our leader communication argument next.
Lead, and communicate, well.
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