It’s been a whirlwind trip to San Antonio for the SACUBO Annual Meeting. The team behind the conference has been fantastic, as to be expected. Now that events have started to wind down, I’ve had a chance to reflect on our Communication session I led with Greg Lovins, and would like to offer a few key take-aways to consider as you make your way back to work this week.
With nearly 150 people in the room, there was clearly enthusiasm around this topic. The weight around one particular question was striking, though: how do you communicate bad news?
Short answer: deliver the brutal facts balanced against a positive view of the future.
We drilled down into detail on this one, but I think the focus on tactics comes as a disservice to a deeper mission. Communication is a tool. Our ability to communicate complex information clearly is often directly linked to the direction of our organizations. As business officers, it is our responsibility to own our message, and to understand the impact of its delivery through the choices made by others as a result. Our mandate is one of participation: share the tough insights with leadership, but be ready to share positive solutions and recommendations, too.
Don’t forget: You’re a Storyteller.
When you’re communicating something — whether it’s spoken, written, presented, briefed, or brown-bagged — you need to start thinking about your story. A story has a beginning, middle and end, and crafting your stories in this way helps your audience digest it. We’re wired for stories, us humans. I took a few minutes to read the Three Little Pigs. How many times have you heard this story? And still, how many of you really wanted to know how it turned out at the end?
Big caveat: with adults, remember to start with your key message. When communicating complex news, holding the punchline till the end can frustrate your most important audiences.
Cut the Jargon.
Greg has such a wonderful way of talking to this point. He calls jargon techie talk, and I think the diminutive works so well here. Jargon separates us. It divides us. It can minimize others work in false favor of our own. Jargon isolates.
People love simplicity. As Greg says, do your part to stamp out jargon, even in your own departments, and you’ll go far toward changing the culture of communication across the institution for the better.
When you get back to work, while your SACUBO experience is still fresh, pull out presentation that you’re going to be delivering sometime soon. Read through it with the following three simple questions in mind:
- What’s the key message
- Who’s the audience I’m trying to serve?
- What impact do I want to make when they’re finished with this story?
The third question is the zinger. It highlights the trap we’ve all fallen into from time to time. As business officers, we often hope the data will speak for itself, without any call for change. And yet, we don’t have to look far to see the cries for change around us.
I’m reminded of a wonderful passage in the film The American President. The president is having a difficult conversation with his deputy around the lies in the media, and the president’s preference to remain silent in the face of false accusations. Then the deputy, played by Michael J. Fox, delivers this line:
People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
As business officers, we have the obligation and opportunity to not only take active ownership of our message, but to get out in front of it and ask for change.
I played the following example of an exceptional speech from the unlikeliest of sources given the SACUBO audience: Ashton Kucher at the Teen Choice Awards last year. I include it here for those who might like to share.