The Complexity of Business Communication

Gabrielle Dolan - Leadership

We may well be over-complicating the language of leadership and business. Poor communication leads to confusion, mixed-messages and a lack of buy-in from our employees.

After attending the Future of Leadership – Workplace Culture conference in Brisbane last week I have been reflecting on the content from some of the speakers. Gabrielle Dolan, in particular, caught my imagination. Not only because she is a very compelling and funny speaker but also because her key points seem so intuitively right. Reduce complex language and jargon. Communicate messages that people understand – tailor to you audience. Be comfortable and confident in your own style. Use stories to embed the key messages. They are all very useful tips that can make a sustained difference to how your teams perform.

CoachStation: Communication Complexity in Business - Gabrielle Dolan

Gabrielle Dolan: The Future of Leadership Conference, Bris, Sept 2015

One of the ways we can step into real leadership is to move away from corporate jargon and be prepared to share personal stories. Every time we use corporate jargon we disconnect and isolate people as opposed to personal stories that connect and engage people. (1)

Many of us are guilty of over-using words, especially in business. I have done it. Many people I work with and for make the same mistake.
The opportunity to provide clarity, context and appropriate levels of transparency is key to us getting what we want as leaders. Yet, it seems we go out of our way on occasion to confuse the message. Gabrielle is a passionate and effective speaker who focuses on communication and story-telling.

For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. (2)

The connections and depth that can be achieved through effective story-telling is a compelling reason to focus on message delivery in a way that people understand and remember. These points are reinforced in a recent article written by Gabrielle published in The Age newspaper:

TWO CEOs went walking in the woods and came across an attacking grizzly bear. One stops to put on a pair of runners. The other asks: “Why are you doing that, we can’t outrun a grizzly!”  The reply: “I only need to outrun you, not the bear.”
This story explains competitive advantage in a nutshell. Would you remember this tomorrow? Could you repeat it in a month’s time? Most importantly, does it help you understand competitive advantage?
Compare Michael Porter’s competitive advantage definition: “Competitive advantage, sustainable or not, exists when a company makes economic rents, that is, their earnings exceed their costs (including cost of capital).” Is change communication in your organisation more like the first example or the second? Unfortunately, most organisations are closer to the second example.
This explains why research indicates that a large number of organisational change attempts either fail outright or fail to reap significant return on their investment. Last year, Human Synergistics International analysed 41 Australian and New Zealand companies that attempted organisational transformation.
While most of the companies surveyed showed some improvement, only six of the 41 achieved change so significant it could be termed transformation.
Common features of these organisations included:
■  The critical leadership role in ensuring the organisation’s mission, purpose and values were understood.
■  The importance of effective internal communication.
■  The organisation’s willingness and ability to learn, grow and proactively manage change.
The HSI research highlights organisational storytelling as an effective tool in the success of these critical factors. Organisational storytelling is storytelling with a business purpose. (3)

The opportunity to embed core messages that are remembered and embraced with greater clarity and depth is a lesson in communication that leaders should heed. Issues with ineffective or poor communication continue to be put forward as one of the main reasons employees are frustrated with leaders.
In my experience, most people want to feel a deeper connection to what they do, why it matters and an understanding of the contribution they make.

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us that they’ve experienced. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events? It’s quite simple. If we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, certain parts in the brain get activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.
When we are being told a story, though, things change dramatically…not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too. If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active.  A story can put your whole brain to work.
And yet, it gets better: When we tell stories to others that have helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize. A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think.
We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. (2)

Storytelling is one component of effective communication for leaders. But, there are other relevant themes to hone also. I wrote previously that one of the challenges of leadership and communication in general, is understanding the level of detail required relative to each situation. Depending on the need, it can be necessary to discuss in-depth the content for a piece of work; what role someone else is to play in the task; seek input into potential solutions and other relevant details.
Knowing how much detail is going to add value; using language that is easily understood, contextual and not detract from the message or subsequent actions can be the difference between a successful outcome or not. Effective communication is not simply telling an employee. The message must not only be delivered but also understood. How often do leaders become frustrated with a team member who “just doesn’t get it, no matter how many times they have been told?” It may well be worth looking in the mirror to see if the what, how and why are clear and what else can be done to get the message across.
Appropriate context and content based on what is required in each situation is important when influencing and leading. One of the risks is that you as the leader, either do not seek enough input from others and/or confuse the situation as a result of giving too much information. Make your communication clear and memorable.

Using personal stories takes courage because real leadership takes courage.
My advice is to feel the fear and do it anyway…it will be worth the trip. (1)

Too much or too little detail or a lack of clarity and understanding for each role, position and person within your team is unlikely to add value to meeting goals and objectives. The risk of employee dissatisfaction, turnover and a lack of engagement is often the result. Enabling your team to provide input into their roles and that of their broader team is critical.
As a leader, ensure that clarity exists to the most appropriate degree possible. Develop skills in story-telling and influence differently. This does not remove all risk or solve all issues however effective communication that is understood by your team members is a key piece of the leadership puzzle.
(1 ) Do You Have The Courage To Step Into Real Leadership? – Gabrielle Dolan
(2) The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains – Leo Wildrich
(3) Getting The Story Right Is Compelling For Change Success – Gabrielle Dolan, The Age