Bad Habits: Common Leadership Communication Mistakes and How to Overcome Them

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If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times: a leader’s effectiveness hinges on the way he or she communicates with employees, customers, investors, and community stakeholders. A business’s leaders are its figureheads, shaping its reputation and setting its cultural tone. And they do that in the way they communicate. When they do it well, the entire organization reaps the rewards. When they do it poorly, company morale, community perception, and the bottom line all suffer.

Of course, when it comes to honing communication skills, there are so many pieces to focus on that the task can get overwhelming. We spoke with two of Quantified’s experts, executive communication coach Liz Guthridge and our VP of accounts and operations, Melanie Meador, about the most common communication mistakes they see leaders making—and how to fix them.

Not Listening

The most important thing speakers can do—no matter how many people they’re addressing or in what format—is understand their audiences.

“People don’t necessarily care what’s in it for you,” says Meador, “but they do care what’s in it for themselves. Know your audience, and think about how your message could impact them.”

A key component of knowing your audience is being able to listen. Before an internal presentation, listen to the team’s concerns. During a one-on-one conversation, listen to what the other person is saying, and adjust accordingly. When we talk about listening, we’re not just talking about the words—our audiences give us feedback in the form of facial expressions, body language, and gestures, just like we use those nonverbal signals to support our own messages.

And listening doesn’t just mean hearing the words or noticing the looks on an audience’s faces. It means really, actively listening and interpreting what you’re hearing and seeing.

“It’s critical to listen to what a person says to the point that you can say it back in their words,” says Meador. “If you don’t understand it, don’t skip over it. Stop, and really listen to what they’re saying. They will feel heard, and you may get a new idea.”

Undermining Themselves

Meador has seen many CEOs who have great delivery skills, but whose overuse of tentative language makes the audience a little skeptical. And Guthridge agrees:

“If you use tentative and vague language, your listeners won’t have much confidence in the messages they’re hearing. For example, many leaders prefer to give big ballpark estimates or even skip stating numbers, rather than refer to specific dollar amounts or numbers. They also prefer using hedging language, which makes them sound wishy washy.”

And confidence is about more than language. “If you don’t exude confidence in your words, you can make matters worse if you look ill at ease while delivering,” says Guthridge. “If your eyes dart or to go to the floor, or if you pace or just look uncomfortable, you’ll compound your problem.”

To come across as confident, both Meador and Guthridge recommend using crisp, concrete language with specific, quantitative examples. As for delivery, warm up your voice before you talk, look your audience in the eye, and own the floor.

Overlooking the Importance of Personal Interactions

In today’s digital-first world, the temptation can be to send an e-mail or post a message in Slack when you’ve got something important to share. And in many cases, that works just fine. But when leaders rely on digital channels for complex, difficult, or important messages, things can get lost in translation. Whether a friendly reminder comes off as brusque, an urgent request reads like no big deal, or unclear instructions lead to lost time and resources, the two-dimensional nature of these text-only formats can lead to countless problems.

So, Meador says, take the opportunity for in-person conversations as often as possible. “Pick up the phone, or walk over to somebody’s desk. Nothing replaces a personal touch. It’s hard to know how people will receive e-mail or slack. It always helps to present yourself in person.”

Assuming Credibility

Unless you’ve got the notoriety of someone like Mark Zuckerberg, your impressive title won’t be enough to convince your listeners you know what you’re talking about.

“Leaders often make things worse for themselves by speaking in glittering generalities,” says Guthridge. “You need to convince them that you’re a credible source.”

To do this, she says, talk about your relevant experiences, and take responsibility for your knowledge and actions. But don’t stop there. Leaders can really build credibility by citing other sources. “Some leaders think that sharing examples from other people will dilute their credibility. But it’s the opposite. By referencing what other people have done as well as sharing facts and figures from research studies, you come across as more knowledgeable and credible.”

Taking Message Clarity for Granted

Often, when we’ve got a simple message to deliver, we take its clarity for granted. But without some careful attention to organization, that simple message can turn into a muddled mess.

To avoid this problem, Guthridge suggests giving your audience clear signals and “road signs,” and organizing your concepts in a way that is easy to track:

“For example, break your talk into three chapters, and refer to each chapter when you start and complete it. Or to use another analogy, sew your content together with a “golden thread” that integrates it and provides congruence to your entire talk. This helps your listeners in two ways: First, they can better follow your talk in the moment, which improves their perception of you and your talk. Second, because the content is coherent, it’s easier for the brain to organize and store, which improves them being able to recall your message later.”

Winging It

Finally, Meador says that, too often, leaders forget that every interaction is an opportunity. They come to the table (or the stage or the water cooler) with nothing more than a vague idea of what they’re going to say, and certainly no sense of the best way to say it. But this lack of preparation leads to nothing more than miscommunications and lost opportunities.

As you know, practice makes better. And even if you’re headed into a one-on-one conversation, though you may not need formal rehearsal, a little planning will go a long way. “Think about what you’re going to say to help—and also get help from—whoever you’re talking to,” says Meador. “Be thoughtful about the words you use, and don’t overlook the importance of each interaction.”