When asking people to describe the qualities of great leaders or managers I know many of the words have changed over the last decade or so.
Synonyms for quality, improvement, care, strategy, and delivery come and go but one constant is the need for someone to be a great ‘communicator’. What does that mean to you?
I don’t really have the education to qualify as a proper pedant. I’m a lover of the slightly nasty John Rentoul and his pedants’ corner. I helpfully correct people’s grammar, syntax and use of language (a trait for which all pedants are beloved) and have my own list of irritations. Misuse of language distracts me. The misdirected meanings: ‘it’s not you it’s me’, which of course always means: ‘it’s not me it’s you’. Or, ‘it might just be me’ which invariably again means, ‘it’s you’. ‘I might be being thick…’ almost always means, ‘I’m not, but you are’ and similarly: ‘with respect’ means anything but. There’s a much longer list but I risk looking picky.
But mostly it’s because I love clever, elegant and persuasive use of language and get frustrated by people who use language clumsily. I get frustrated at myself for not being able to communicate in the way I want, when I can’t capture the tone, intent or meaning of what I am trying so hard to say. I love people who can tell stories that paint pictures in my head, induce emotion or create empathy. I can be captured by tone, rhythms, poetry. The harsh truth is I can be more beguiled by arguments which I disagree with but are told beautifully, than I can by hearing something which I enthusiastically agree with told with no passion, no heart, no sense and no humour. I don’t think I am alone? I am impressed by great communicators so much I often miss what it is they are communicating.
I have spent many, many hours listening to great talking heads. I am constantly reminded of how powerful the difference created by those who can speak well and those that can’t – irrespective of the message. Communication is so much more than speaking of course, but includes it. Whether the message is being delivered to one person or a thousand, the ability of the person speaking to touch an emotion, make a connection or stimulate a reaction is crucial.
That doesn’t need a great orator, or someone who has a fabulous command of elegant English, or a classical education and an amazing vocabulary. My experience tells me it is about conveying meaning and speaking with integrity. We can use language as much to exclude as include and I know that sometimes my responses to the way people use language does more to close down communication as it does to open it up. Being distracted by the use of language can often mean you overlook the message or more crushingly, undermine the speaker entirely. We are served better when we look to what is being communicated than focus on how it is being communicated. Saying you want someone to be a great communicator ignores the role you have in that – we are not passive recipients of communication, we are a central part of the dance.
Communication is a way to share a thought, an idea or a message; to generate ideas, to create reason and meaning – to explore options. The purpose should drive the mode of communication. The intent should be what is judged, not the way in which the communication is delivered. The danger is that our love of great speakers becomes like our love of the heroic leader – entranced by the vehicle not the purpose.
These musings come on the week of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. It will be rightly celebrated for its elegance and style. A hugely important speech, by an exceptional human being, at a time that caught what was in people’s hearts. They were ready to hear what he had to say. In comparison to the speech by William Wilberforce calling for abolition some few hundred years before it is impassioned. Despite some similar intent, Martin Luther King’s speech was a beautiful call to arms, to reassure, to contain, to excite, to share a vision of a future that was so compelling it made that future more achievable. I think it is interesting watching the speech, you can see how much he responds to the reaction he gets – the speech isn’t just him, it is everyone that day in Washington singing along with him.
But to galvanise change, to enthuse those around you, to create a vision for a future, to motivate, congratulate, celebrate and reward doesn’t require all of us to be exquisite orators. Or even really great communicators with the pedants’ attention to detail and convention in language. For me, really great communicators are simply those who can make a connection with the people around them, because they are talking about a shared purpose, a common passion and a positive intent to make something better.
So one element of great communication – know what message you want to convey, know the purpose of your communication, understand what you want those around you to feel and focus on intent, not on style. What is great communication for you?