by Diana Thomas and Stacey Boyle, coauthors of “Be More Strategic in Business: How to Win Through Stronger Leadership and Smarter Decisions“
Have you been told that you need to be more strategic? Do you get good results at work but find that you’re spinning your wheels, unable to achieve your goals? If you’re anything like us when we’ve been on the receiving end of such feedback, you’ve probably thought, “What does that even mean!?”
When someone tells you that you need to “be more strategic,” what they want is to ensure what you are doing is driving corporate strategic goals and adding real value to the organization. You need to get results that matter, and then you need to share those results with the business in an enticing way.
But what if you feel like you’re winning and know you’re making an impact on the business? Looking and acting strategic is just as important as cultivating your strategic mindset. Communication style is one of the biggest things we see tripping people up. Maybe you’re prone to rambling, give information without context, or don’t frame your arguments in a compelling narrative.
Fear not. We have seven steps to get you communicating like a pro.
1. Know yourself.
Take an honest assessment of your personality, tendencies, and the areas you know you shine. If you’re an introvert, you may tend toward thinking things through before speaking up, which means you run the risk of not jumping in soon enough. If you’re an extrovert, you probably like to think out loud and tend to say too much. By knowing your own habits, you can work on determining the right time to join a discussion, as well as how to organize what you have to say.
2. Know your audience.
Who is your audience, and where are they coming from in the context of whatever topic you’re discussing? Think about how you communicate in your personal life. If someone asks how your weekend was, your answer is going to vary based on whether the asker is your mother, your coworker, your close friend, or your doctor. You might convey the same information to all four audiences, but even if you do, the way you present the story will vary widely. In business, you need to know what your audience cares about with respect to the topic at hand. What does he or she hope to get out of the conversation? Which details will be significant to whom? Why should he or she care about this topic?
3. Communicate with intention.
When you go into an interaction, have a clear objective. Sometimes this is obvious: I want to sell my services or gain approval for my budget. But even casual conversations can be intentional. If you find yourself in the elevator with your CEO, take advantage of that uninterrupted time with him or her! Instead of talking about how busy you are (which makes you look unfocused and tactical), mention great things that are happening or results you’re excited about. Discussing results shows that you are focused on the right things.
4. Give the headlines.
As you work on communicating with intention, you quickly figure out what you want to get across. Now you need to think about how to get it across in the most effective way. Begin by giving the WIIFM — what’s in it for me — or in this case, for your audience. If you were a reporter coming up with a headline for your story, what would get the most clicks? Give the important finding first and let them ask how you got there.
5. Put the person before the message.
Listen to your audience, acknowledge you’ve heard what they are saying, and let them know you’ll do something about it. The stronger the relationship you have with somebody, the more forgiving they’re likely to be when you make mistakes or have to deliver bad news. Even when that isn’t possible, do what you can to develop rapport and show empathy.
6. Listen with the intent to hear.
One of the most critical keys to communicating effectively in any relationship is listening to hear. Strategic leaders do not just listen and say, “Yeah, yeah, I got it,” or “No questions from me.” They listen to what is being said and paraphrase what they’ve heard, asking questions until they sense mutual understanding. They don’t start jumping to solutions. As others communicate with you, listen for potential obstacles and unexploited risks, as well as indications that people don’t understand the goal or purpose of what they’re doing. Listen for potential opportunities you hadn’t thought of, too. Intent listening will help you determine if you are on the same page or whether there are flaws that need to be corrected.
7. Tune in to feedback and body language.
Once you share the headline and get into your presentation or discussion, look at the body language and facial expressions of the people you’re speaking to. Are they glazing over or looking distracted? That indicates that you’re giving too much detail and need to let them ask some probing questions, or that you didn’t lead with the right information. If you talk too much, you don’t give them a chance to engage with you or even react to what you’re saying. If you know who your audience is and that the information you’re sharing is right for them, you can give headlines in a way that engages them and cover your topic succinctly and logically. Be interactive. Don’t give too much information at one time. Make sure they’ve grasped what you’ve said by reading their body language and asking questions.
These principles apply whether it’s a quick, one-on-one conversation or a big, formal presentation. You always want to come across in a positive, can-do manner. By communicating in this way, you will be able to show your strategic leadership abilities. Looking for more? Check out our book, “Be More Strategic in Business: How to Win Through Stronger Leadership and Smarter Decisions“ where we present six factors for strategic leadership that will help you win through stronger leadership and smarter decisions.
Diana Thomas, MBA, is an executive coach and past vice president of training, learning, and development for McDonald’s USA. Stacey Boyle, Ph.D., is Chief People Planning for Smarter People Planning, a consultancy that helps some of the world’s best companies answer their business questions about investments in people. Their new book is “Be More Strategic in Business: How to Win Through Stronger Leadership and Smarter Decisions“.