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How to Improve Leaders' Communication Skills

Are poor communications skills holding you back? Experts share their advice.

A group of people are silhouetted in front of a white background.

​As a leader, you might be an expert in your field. Maybe you have a degree or two. You might even have many innovative ideas that could help solidify your company’s future. 

But if you can’t convey those ideas in a meaningful way to your employees and clients, your influence will be limited.

“The ability to communicate with clarity and purpose is the key to personal and professional success,” says G. Riley Mills, co-founder of Pinnacle Performance Co. in Chicago and author of The Bullseye Principle (Wiley, 2018).

Effective leaders must be able to inspire, motivate and persuade those around them to achieve organizational goals. However, leaders often fail to devote as much time to developing their communication skills as they do to honing other business skills, experts say.

Communication failures can be costly for organizations, causing wasted time and effort, low morale, reduced productivity, and a loss of trust and credibility, according to Dean Brenner, president of The Latimer Group in Wallingford, Conn., which provides executive coaching.

Here’s some advice from communication experts:

Know your audience. One of the most common communication mistakes that leaders make is failing to tailor their message to fit their specific audience, says Chris Westfall, a communication coach and author of Leadership Language (Wiley, 2018). 

To be effective, leaders must make a connection with their audience, whether it’s employees or clients.

“The strongest message always starts with what your listener is thinking. You have to understand the challenges and concerns of your team,” Westfall says. 

“You need to start by connecting to where your team is if you want to create real influence,” he says. “Browbeating doesn’t capture the hearts and minds of employees.”

Whether speaking to a group or an individual, leaders can help make a connection by using “you” rather than “I.” For example, say, “Have you ever noticed … ” instead of “This is the way I see it.”

“Ultimately, the best leader serves the needs of the team, just as the team serves the leader,” he says.

Mills coaches leaders to ask team members and clients, “What do you need? How can I help?”

Create meaning. Twenty years ago, the smartest person in the room at work was the one who had gathered more and better information than anyone else. 

“Today, the smartest person in the room ... is the one who can simplify all the things that are going on and create a path through the complexity and toward a simpler solution,” Brenner says.

Many leaders spend a significant amount of time creating slides containing all kinds of data but don’t put those numbers in context. They need to explain what the numbers mean for each specific group that they address.

“The real mistake is to assume that everybody cares about the nitty-gritty of the data as much as you do,” Brenner says. “What you have to realize is everybody’s listening to what you’re saying and thinking in their heads about how they can apply it to what they’re doing.”

Effective leaders find a way to make their message relevant to what their employees are working on, he adds.

Become a better listener. A huge barrier to good communication is poor listening skills.

But learning to be a better listener can be challenging in a world filled with electronic distractions. And listening skills usually aren’t recognized or rewarded within organizations, Brenner says. 

“We tend to promote people because they’re decisive and do things proactively,” he says. 

When coaching executives to improve their listening skills, Brenner advises them to:

  • Respect the situation by choosing to ignore the 
  • distractions.
  • Retain the information by engaging in a conversation or taking notes.
  • Review what they’ve heard. If a colleague is in the meeting, compare what was heard. “We all listen through different filters,” he says.

Too often, people listen just enough to confirm what they already know or to defend their own position. Instead, they should be listening to discover what they haven’t heard before. Is there an opposing viewpoint that might be beneficial?

“Discovery is the listening that leads to innovation,” Westfall says. “Effective leaders know they have to gather information before they can make an informed decision.”

Prepare properly. When leaders at large companies are scheduled to give a presentation, their first step is often to search for an existing slide deck on the topic, Mills says. 

“They think they’re saving time, but I would argue they’re adding time,” he says. “Think about what you want to say first. Who is your audience? What do they care about?”

Mills encourages leaders to focus on their objective as they craft their talk. Choose a strong, one-word verb to guide you. Do you want to excite audience members? Challenge them? Reassure them? “Most leaders go into it to inform, and there’s no emotional connection,” he says.

Practice makes perfect, but few executives perform trial runs, according to Darlene Price, an executive coach and author of Well Said! (Amacom, 2012). In fact, her surveys show that fewer than 5 percent of 5,000 business leaders who have attended her workshops said at the outset that they practice their presentations aloud or conduct a dress rehearsal.

“Most of the time, leaders deliver a rehearsal to their audience, and that’s just a huge mistake because they’re not putting their best foot forward,” says Price, noting that many mistakenly believe they’re already good at public speaking. 

Mills, a former actor, says he hears many CEOs say, “I’ll just wing it. I don’t like to be tied down.” But their message can get lost if they ramble or misspeak. 

He coaches executives to prepare by using the three phases that actors use: 

  • The read-through, which is often stilted and awkward because they’re not yet familiar with the content.
  • The stumble-through, when they add physical movement as they learn their lines.
  • The dress rehearsal, when they wear the clothes that they’ll present in; use the slides, projector and microphones; and get comfortable in the setting. 

Price reminds business leaders that 93 percent of communication’s impact comes from nonverbal cues, including body language and tone of voice. Without a rehearsal, leaders may unintentionally send mixed messages. They may be concentrating to remember their talking points, but their audience might see their furrowed brow or clenched hands and worry that the company’s situation is far worse than it is, she says.

When leaders strengthen their communication skills, they boost their “executive presence,” Price adds. 

“A leader’s No. 1 job is to inspire,” she says. “That’s really why leaders need to work on communication skills—so they can inspire and motivate, and ultimately lead people in the desired direction.”   

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.


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