Turning good communicators into great ones

Why effective communication is essential to effective leadership – and ten steps to success.

Great communication is all about projecting confidence, clarity and authority.

Think of some of the most inspiring statesmen or business leaders of recent times.

From Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Winston Churchill, to Steve Jobs or even the Dalai Lama, they all have, or had, one thing in common: exceptional oratorical skills, able to combine a gift for masterful storytelling, a sense of passion and purpose and an ability to engage with and inspire confidence in their audiences.

Or, to put it a different way, imagine your company as a product on the shelves, and your communications as the instructions for how to use it.

There’s nothing more frustrating or disengaging than buying a piece of furniture or an electrical appliance only to get it home and be completely baffled by the instructions. The product may be excellent, but unless the communication about how it works is clear, simple and effective, the user experience becomes an overwhelmingly negative one.

Great communication is a powerful asset, and enhancing those skills should be on the agenda of every senior executive.

Because getting communications wrong can seriously damage your business…

Getting it wrong

Picture the scene. It is 9am in Abu Dhabi and the chief executive of a support-services business listed in London and Hong Kong gets up to give his keynote speech to an industry conference in the imposing Emirates Palace ballroom.

He uses a tightly crafted set of speaker notes. The messages are conveyed with clarity, the soundbites are delivered and the jokes even get a ripple of laughter.

After the speech, he fields questions from the audience. Relishing the relative freedom of talking without notes, he is caught off-guard and mentions plans to open an office in Saudi Arabia later this year; however, the licence application has yet to be signed off by the relevant authorities in Riyadh.

Fast forward 180 seconds and the headlines start to appear on Bloomberg announcing the expansion plans. The shares rise when the market opens, but subsequently retreat as an enterprising reporter discovers no application has been lodged.

If the offices in Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai were performing, the journalist concludes, would it really need to open in Saudi Arabia?

The market rapidly reverses the early gains and the shares finish the day eight per cent down. Meanwhile, staff are confused and disgruntled. Why were they not informed of these plans and what does it mean for them?

Not a great day. And, given the tone of the voicemail message left by the chairman on the CEO’s mobile, it looks set to get even worse.

Getting it right

Meanwhile, the newly appointed leader of the company’s principal rival, listed in Paris, stands up to give her first address to 500 people working in head office.

The news she has to break is not pretty. But she acknowledges the state the business is in, demands a new esprit de corps and is willing to take tough decisions. This goes down well because it is delivered with energy, passion and frankness.

She is pleased with the decision to stream the address live on the intranet and, more importantly, to open up an online message and comments board.

The all-staff email emphasises this development as much as her commentary, to demonstrate that the business wants to hear directly from its engaged employees.

The content of the subsequent comments may not all be upbeat, but the spirit of openness is universally well received.

The conference call to analysts two hours later goes equally well. The sheer amount of preparation that had been undertaken and the time spent rehearsing with her CFO ensures that they come across as a compelling team. The flash notes came out soon after, and the headlines, ‘New Hope’, ensure that the shares tick up 3 per cent on her opening day.

She had always felt that the chairman was a charmer, but she is delighted to receive his text message congratulating her on getting through the day.

The best communicator had the best day.

Developing your leaders: the benefits

You will run a better business. Existing and prospective clients will want to spend more time and money with you; suppliers will be more responsive to changes in the terms of your business, enabling you to boost margins; investors will respond more positively to a coherent strategy, delivered with authenticity and belief; and employees will be more productive.

Collectively, your senior executives will be a focal point of an organisation that is genuinely based on trust and transparency. Shareholders are more likely to say yes.

Effective communication with investors — both existing and prospective — will help you to reduce the cost of capital.

New finance will be forthcoming to complete the investments and transactions you want, and the investors will support the new long-term incentive plan you want to implement for senior management.

You will have more time for other critical leadership issues. Communicating strategy clearly will reduce the time you spend dealing with those who just ‘do not get it’ and minimise the amount of time wasted on pointless exercises.

You will be able to focus on exploiting more business opportunities, resolving problems quickly, inspiring your staff and cultivating the next generation of management leaders.

Ten steps to success

  1. Nurture your head of communications

The quality of the relationship between the chief executive and the head of communications has never been so important. It should be built on mutual respect, trust and the ability to be as frank as necessary to win the hearts and minds of all key audiences.

When was the last time you, as the leader of your organisation, sat down and guided your head of communications through the strategy and KPIs of your business? When was the last time you listened to an unvarnished assessment about your own communication performances in recent months?

The top leaders do not hire acolytes; they absorb the feedback needed to relentlessly move forward.

  1. Health-check your message development

Your organisation would never launch a new product or service without truly understanding what its distinguishing features are. Yet so often leaders give speeches, presentations and interviews – both to internal and external audiences – with little real sense of what is unique about their operation.

hing features and ensure that they are fed into your key messages.

  1. Put communications on the agenda

When your senior executives – the people who are operationally running your organisation on a day-to-day basis – come together, however often that may be, ensure that communication is always on the agenda.

The senior members of your team must understand that it is integral to the successful development of the operation and there is a need for everyone to be actively engaged and involved.

That might mean focusing on the development of your brand and ensuring that these key lieutenants understand the core values underpinning the business.

  1. Get expert help

It is not weak to seek out help to polish your skills and become the best you can be – far from it. All top performers, from athletes to actors, have coaches.

The best communicators do, too: a communications coach can help improve your performance in many ways, from presenting internally to speaking externally or engaging with the media and investors.

  1. Use video messages

Film remains the most emotive and evocative way of connecting with any audience. Capturing your strategy on a quarterly basis and delivering it is extremely effective if executed well.

That means being direct and engaging and explaining things as they really are. But it’s not just about the words; presentation is key, too. Music will play a part, and graphics can reinforce core messages.

Plus the great thing about using video is your ability to measure exactly how many people are watching and even which bits are most popular.

  1. Talk to your people

Make the time for a monthly meeting with 10 employees from all levels of your organisation. Go in ready to listen to what they have to say – it will be illuminating – and always follow up on any actions promised.

You can guarantee that those 10 people will tell dozens of others what you are like and what was agreed. It will go towards building your reputation for being accessible and responsive and will contribute to an effective internal communications programme.

  1. Make your annual report accessible

When your annual report is published, make the effort to ensure that it is also edited for internal consumption.

That might mean providing a glossary to help members of the team to get their heads around parts they do not understand, or getting finance to run some sessions to explain what the balance sheet and cashflow statements actually mean. Remember: great communication is all about projecting confidence, clarity and authority, so always be as clear as possible.

Your annual report is a great opportunity to help the business to understand its objectives and strategy and to align the interests of all internal and external stakeholders.

  1. Make your intranet work for you

The best intranets are multifaceted. They are an information source, but they also capture the strategy and spirit of the organisation, engaging and inspiring members of the team to contribute to its development.

Leaders need to interact on this platform, too, and should be provided with the resources to understand the intranet’s potential and analyse its effectiveness.

  1. Provide effective communications coaching to your country managers

Demonstrating an ability to grow in emerging international markets is particularly appealing to investors, so country managers carry a great responsibility. Providing them with the necessary support and training to deliver is a solid investment: these are people who represent the organisation while having, say, breakfast with a politician or regulator, lunch with a prospective client or dinner with a reporter.

Think of country managers as mini-CEOs — global ambassadors operating at a local level — who will benefit enormously from having the same communications support as you do.

  1. Make an impact with thought leadership

When your organisation truly understands its distinguishing features, there is a strong argument for investing in reaffirming these to key audiences.

Truly effective thought leadership is rare, and the exceptional pieces are those that resonate for years to come. Set yourself the target of producing one piece per year that really excites the industry and demonstrates the intellectual firepower of your operation.

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Richard Rivlin


I am fascinated by the art and science behind how to get effective responses to the work our clients do. And I’m as ambitious for our future as I was when we set sail on 11th March 2002.

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