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HR Magazine: Management Tools

By Suzanne Bates  10/1/2007
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HR Magazine: October 2007Vol. 52, No. 10

Speak To Inspire

Set aside time to reflect and write a vision for your team before speaking to your employees.

Communicating vision and values is essential to driving business results. Leaders, by definition, cannot do the work of the enterprise; they can only communicate what needs to be done, inspire trust and motivate others to execute the plans.

Many leaders are able to articulate vision, achieve buy-in and move the enterprise forward through effective communication. Others fail to get their message out and to inspire people to act, even though they are intelligent, analytical and decisive leaders.

Why don't more leaders have this skill of effective communication? There are several reasons. Few business schools teach the techniques. Few companies devote significant resources to it. Companies evaluate high-potential leaders on management and leadership criteria that do not emphasize communication. Even if communication is mentioned in the professional development plan, the organization may have few resources to tap, and there may be resistance from the individual to devote time and energy to communication when there are numerous business priorities.

The result is that executives often don't "discover" they need to speak well until they arrive at a high level in the organization. They may give PowerPoint presentations on routine topics, but those presentations are meant to inform, not exude the passion or describe the vision to get people moving ahead.

What Is a Vision?

There is actually nothing mystical about a vision. It is a picture of what could (and should) be. Great leaders talk about what could be big ideas. Nobody wants to do something small. When you talk about big ideas, people get excited and want to be part of whatever you are doing.

The hallmark of a big idea is it gets people excited. When you speak, people see it. They're inspired. It's vivid and exciting. They remember it, repeat it and start organizing their activities around it. Most people under your supervision are overwhelmed by all the things they do each day. Helping them see what you see and understand their part in making it happen allows them to make choices and set priorities that drive business results.

Where do you begin when you want to develop and articulate a vision? It can be helpful to think of the process in these four steps:

Observe. To determine a vision, you must become an astute observer of your world. You have to immerse yourself in watching, listening and wondering. You pay attention, ask questions, probe, discuss and gather information.

Reflect. Reflecting on your observations is the next step to clear communication. Consider what you've seen and heard, analyze and interpret the information, and evaluate what you know. Doing this sets you apart as a leader. People in your organization look to leaders to decode what is happening and then to communicate a course of action.

During reflection, you should come up with stories and examples that form the vision and clarify values. These stories enable you to speak authentically from your own wisdom and experience.

Write. Because we live in a fast-paced world, where there is little time for writing and reflecting, many people want to skip this step. It is a mistake. When you write down these reflections, you come up with the authentic ideas and material that enable you to speak effectively. Speaking off the cuff is also an important skill, but when developing and articulating a vision, writing it down is a critical step in the process.

Speak. If you have followed the process, speaking and communicating the vision is a natural outcome. Ideas are clarified, flushed out, developed and ready for prime time. The leader is far more powerful and effective as a speaker -- whether it be in front of a large audience or with a small group of team members -- because the leader will be saying exactly what he or she means, and the words will resonate.

The activities of reflecting, writing and practicing a speech are not usually on a leader's schedule, but they should be. A powerful vision, well-articulated, attracts people to an organization, motivates people to take action toward progress and drives business results.

Making the Message Stick

Once you"ve engaged in this four-step process and you have a clear message, it's time to consider how to make it stick.

The delivery of the message has to be memorable, and this is where creativity comes in. Creative writing is easier than you may think. If you don't think of yourself as particularly imaginative when it comes to writing and speaking, find someone who can help you. Identify a talented presentation coach, an inspired colleague who speaks or writes well, a mentor with a flair for the right words at the right time, or a resourceful friend who will brainstorm with you. Ask that person to work with you and push you to make the message great.

The result of just one brainstorming session with the right partner can be amazing. I'll never forget one client who was struggling with a dry presentation on a five-year plan. A pillar of the plan was to get the rest of the organization to see his department as a go-to resource within the company. "So what does that mean?" I asked. "I want everyone in this company to call us when they need us," he answered. That led to a word association game involving books and movies. And then it came to us. The iconic comedy film "Ghostbusters" with Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray -- and the unforgettable phrase "Who you gonna call?"

It was the perfect message, and even more powerful because it had huge potential for laughs. Humor is one of the best ways to make a message stick. A few weeks later, the divisionwide meeting launched with a big-screen movie clip from "Ghostbusters." It was a hit. People were heard singing the theme song in the hallway weeks after the meeting. That's what I call a creative and "sticky" message.

Speaking About Vision

Vision is a boring word because it sounds like homework. A talk about the business vision can send people running for the exits. It does not have to be that way. One simple way to inject interest is to paint word pictures. For example, the newly hired director of a museum that was still in the design phase pitched the capital campaign goals to prospective donors by speaking in theory, causing their eyes to glaze over. However, a member of the museum's board of directors had a different approach. He entertained listeners with visions of cool exhibits they wanted to bring to the museum, such as the convergence of cars, fashions and art in Paris circa 1940. Which one of them do you believe was able to get donors to write big checks?

If you would like to be the kind of leader who stirs passion and gets results, it is always most effective to take a truly creative approach. There are no rules. You are not bound to read PowerPoint slides or to use the same old format you have used in the past or that always has been used at your organization. It takes more than business acumen to make things happen in your organization. You have to genuinely connect with all of your key audiences. Don't underestimate the importance of the innovative approach to driving your message home.

Making Time To Be Great

We are all busy working long hours, and many rising executives tell me they don't have the time to invest in learning to do this well. However, the best leaders make time. I once worked with the vice president of a bank who claimed she didn't have time to be strategic. After we looked over her calendar, rescheduled meetings and delegated some not-so-important activities, time was no longer the biggest issue. Sheepishly, she admitted she had never even spent 15 minutes of quiet time in her office to think, analyze and write about her vision, and subsequently had never presented anything like that to her team.

In high-performance companies, you can't get away with that for long. Jay, a new vice president, learned this right after he was promoted. His boss explained that the next big step from manager to leader required him to articulate the values and behaviors that he believed would drive the success of the organization. The boss said, "Jay, I want to know what it means to work in a Jay-organization."

If you are not sure where to look for assistance in developing these skills, ask around. There are good resources out there. Once you have located a coach, program or course, go to your boss or sponsor and make your case. Connect communication skills to business goals. Then, once you have persuaded the company to invest in you, invest yourself in the process. Commit to being great. The reward is in knowing you have the power to make things happen.

Suzanne Bates is president of Bates Communications, a management consulting firm that helps business leaders and executives articulate their vision and values. She is also author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (McGraw-Hill). She can be reached at

Suzanne Bates is president of Bates Communications, a management consulting firm that helps business leaders and executives articulate their vision and values. She is also author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (McGraw-Hill). She can be reached at

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