In Brevity, Business, Leadership, Podcast

Four Ways to Ensure Your Message is Understood … the First Time

We’ve all been there. On a conference call, at a sales conference, in a meeting in which someone is communicating a new sales pitch or a new product, or explaining a new corporate initiative or a major change in company leadership. The meeting ends, and some people seem to understand what to do next, while others shrug their shoulders and resume their day as if nothing has changed.

When communicating, “better late than never,” definitely does not apply. In fact, it is costly and dangerous when leaders do not realize that their message is unclear. There always is a price to pay for miscommunication and misunderstandings.

If sales projections depend upon people understanding a new pitch or a new product, and half the audience is unsure of the message or unable to disseminate it properly, it’s a big problem. If a new investor relations message is muddled, your company image may take a hit. If you are vague and unclear when delivering a performance review, there is little hope for performance improvement.

Why does this happen?

First, nearly everyone believes that they are being clear. It simply does not occur to most people that they do not communicate their own message effectively. After all, they spend days or weeks preparing a message, and it is easier to blame inattentive or distracted listeners when that message is lost in translation. Fact: Just because you know your subject does not mean that you delivered a message that moves people.

Second, most listeners may not even realize they don’t understand what’s being said or simply will not ask for clarification. They’ll leave the meeting or the conference call with a vague feeling of “what was that all about?” They may even ask their colleagues, “what are we supposed to do now?” and — like the childhood game of “Telephone” in which the original message is relayed from person to person — the message is distorted a bit more with each new telling.

What happens next is the opposite of what you desire: Your listeners go back to doing exactly what they were doing before, in exactly the way they were doing it before. They are busy, resistant to change, and there is little chance that anyone will ask for a deeper understanding of the information you presented. You assume they understand, but your message did not get through. You pay the price for imprecise, unclear, muddled communication.

Deliver a Message That Gets Results

So, how do you know when you’ve delivered a message that resonates … a message that will produce the action you desire? How can you be certain that your listeners understand your message and directives as well as you do?

Here are four practical things you can do to ensure you’ve delivered a concise, powerful message.

  1. Avoid TMI (too much information). The more critical your message, the more concise it must be. A 50-slide deck presented to a room full of people dilutes your message, decreases its urgency, and eliminates ownership of follow-up items. Instead, have a series of shorter meetings — each with a single topic — and include only the people who need to understand that single topic.
  2. Once is not enough. There is an old marketing adage called the “Rule of Seven” that says a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action. The number “seven” is not written in stone, but the concept is true for any situation in which you are communicating change. Stick to a single message and repeat it liberally.
  3. KISS (Keep It Super Simple). Any lazy presenter or speaker can produce a 50- or 60-slide PowerPoint deck. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to whittle your message down to its its core and present 5-8 memorable slides. It forces you to understand and communicate only the bare essentials. And there is a great chance that your listeners will understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate.
  4. Be like Napoleon Bonaparte. In a post titled Napoleon’s Corporal, Derek Wheeler explains how the French emperor would communicate a battle plan to military personnel. After all of the generals left the room, Napoleon would ask his corporal (one of the lowest-ranking people in the room) if he understood the battle plan. If the corporal could explain the plan, Napoleon would move forward with it. If the corporal could not explain it, Napoleon would scrap it and start again. Make sure that at least one person in your group of listeners truly understands what you’re trying to communicate (maybe even preview your message with that person ahead of time). If you’ve lost them, your message won’t be disseminated properly.

When you communicate your message effectively, and when your story is straight and easy to follow, your plan can be executed the right way the first time. Your listeners have a clear understanding of how this change affects them, and they are able to act upon it. You save time and money, and the successful outcomes will begin to build.

For more information about the price you pay for miscommunication, check out my recent podcast, “Aim Small, Miss Small,” in which I expose my own inability to hit the mark.

About the author: Joe McCormack is on a mission to help progressive organizations master concise communication. Joe works with Fortune 500 companies and elite special operations units, is the founder of The Brief Lab and author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less. Follow us on Twitter @TheBriefLab

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