Disintermediate. Recontextualize. Envisioneer. You’ve got to give business executives one thing: They love their jargon.
Clinging to their buzzwords like Leo DiCaprio to a life raft, there are managers out there who seem to enjoy a squirt of dopamine every time they use a verb like architect (yes, as a verb!) or interface. Throw in some adjectives like constructivist, interdisciplinary, metacognitive or inquiry-centered, and then tack them on to nouns like bandwidth, convergence and methodologies and you’re well on your way to a minor stroke as you try to process the message lurking behind all the lingo. “You mean we should triangulate meaning-centered cohorts?” you ask in vain, “Or focus more on synthesizing technology-enhanced convergence?”
Communication doesn’t have to be -- or shouldn’t be -- this hard. And the more you get to communicate with the big bosses in the boardroom and C-suite, you’ll learn something rather refreshing; They hate the blustering.
Surprised? Don’t be. There's much more power and clarity in simple communication. And the economic impact is surprisingly quantifiable. The University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business put a magnifying lens on ineffective communications in U.S. Hospitals in a 2010 study, measuring a titanic loss of $12 Billion annually to the U.S. Healthcare system, attributed in large measure to poor and inefficient communication among doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers. A single 500-bed hospital, according to the research, suffers losses of over $4 million annually due to various communication inefficiencies.
Similarly abysmal statistics can be found via a quick Google search in other industry sectors too. In a 2008 article for Training Journal I mentioned the publication of a white paper commissioned by employment assessment specialist Cognisco, titled, “$37 Billion: Counting the Cost of Employee Misunderstanding”. In a nutshell, the study involving U.S. and UK companies put the damage at an annual $37 Billion -- see the title -- to "actions taken by employees who have misunderstood or misinterpreted -- or were misinformed about or lack confidence in their understanding of -- company policies, business processes, job function or a combination of the three."
Communicating really shouldn’t be this tricky, but it’s no secret why so many of us feel a need to boast and bluster and obfuscate. Most up-and-coming business professionals assume that if they don't lace a speech, meeting, or memo with at least a few high-minded phrases or words, people will think they’re lacking brainpower.
Here's a little experiment that might change your mind -- especially if one considers that the purpose of good communication is to convey a memorable message. Here are examples of the same thing said two different ways. See which ones sticks better to your intellectual wall:
A) The vicissitudes of our earthly existence are disproportionately distributed.
B) Life is not fair.
A) A mutually-shared understanding of the zeitgeist produces a commonality of analytical outlook.
B) It takes one, to know one.
A) It is inadvisable to reject the totality of something if there is possible value in a component part.
B) Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
If you answered A to all of the above, you might want to settle in to your cubicle for the long haul, because only leaders who know how to speak plain English get tapped for corner office status. That said, if you answered B, you get the picture: If your substance is as bright as your language is clear, you’re potentially heading for greatness.
Mind you, I'm not advocating a style of communication that consists solely of adages, song titles or grandpa’s favorite metaphor. But it's interesting to note how simple phrases convey a wealth of information without getting bogged down by verbal baggage -- baggage which is often nothing more than a not-so-subtle advertisement of one's intelligence.
Or is that “intelligence” actually insecurity?
One of America's most successful businessmen was former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. In a 1989 interview with the Harvard Business Review he explained the difference:"For a large organization to be effective, it must be simple. For a large organization to be simple, its people must have self-confidence and intellectual self-assurance. Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planning books and busy slides filled with everything they’ve known since childhood. Real leaders don’t need clutter. People must have the self-confidence to be clear, precise, to be sure that every person in their organization -- highest to lowest -- understands what the business is trying to achieve. But it’s not easy. You can’t believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that if they’re simple, people will think they’re simpleminded. In reality, of course, it’s just the reverse. Clear, tough-minded people are the most simple."
Jack didn't just talk the talk; he walked the walk. He cut out layers of unnecessary management which he insisted hid a company's "weaknesses" and "mediocrity." He eliminated groups and sectors within the company he called "communications filters." He subjected his remaining managers to what he called the "exposure of leadership." Every aspect of his management style was dedicated to one over-riding idea: simplifying communication.
Simplifying your communication
So how simple and straightforward can one be and still emerge as an effective communicator? In “Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO” (McGraw-Hill 2009) I tell the story of such a communicator in the late trial lawyer Moe Levine: “Nations tells the story of the late Moe Levine, giving a summation of a case to such devastating effect that the result was the award of one of the largest verdicts in the history of the state of New York. Levine represented a man who had lost both arms in an accident. When the trial came to a close, everyone present, from the defendants to the judge to the counsel for the defense and the members of the jury, anticipated a long summation from Levine about the travails of a life with no arms. However, he surprised. His concluding argument lasted no longer than a minute or two. Here’s what he said, paraphrased by Mr. Levine, as reported by Howard Nations:
"Your Honor, eminent counsel for defense, ladies and gentleman of the jury: as you know, about an hour ago we broke for lunch. And I saw the bailiff came and took you all as a group to have lunch in the jury-room. And then I saw the defense attorney, Mr. Horowitz, and his client decided to go to lunch. So, I turned to my client, Harold, and said why you don’t and I go to lunch together, and we went across the street to that little restaurant and had lunch."
He then took a significant pause before resuming.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I just had lunch with my client. He has no arms. He eats like a dog! Thank you very much.”
Simple. Powerful. Effective.
To deliver that kind of rhetorical punch, you need to go back to basics; to read stuff that goes beyond obtuse financial reports or the obfuscating transcript from the latest analyst call.
Read fiction. Or screenplays -- with lots of dialogue. Read it all out loud and let your mouth and brain get used to speaking simply and powerfully without the complex lingo of your specialty.
To make your mark and have an impact, whether you’re a litigator, a senior executive or a grad school drop-out, find ways to simplify your message, give your audience some context, and make it all mean something to the people you’re speaking to.
They’ll thank you with the most powerful gift a rising executive can ask for: Action!