Not long ago I went to lunch with my nine-year-old daughter at her school. If you have never eaten in this environment, it is entertaining.
Besides the fact that I am nervous that I will get called to the principal's office, an elementary school cafeteria makes an adult feel way out of place! It is such an odd feeling to be stared at like you are a giant by kids with peanut butter and jelly all over their faces. And they do not talk to you, they just stare, with their mouths hanging open, for a long time!
One characteristic of those cafeterias is that they get loud. Little kids have big voices! When I was in school teachers would quiet us down by standing in the middle of the room and yelling, "Quiet!" Half of us went silent out of fear, half never even heard the teacher.
My girls' school has a brilliant method to do this. When it got loud in the room I noticed that classical piano music started to play. The kids immediately got quiet. It was amazing. As soon as they hear that melody they automatically go silent. No teacher screaming, no harsh discipline, no one was angry. Without saying a word, these kids know what is being communicated and they respond.
I have been communicating to people for almost twenty years. In this time I have employed various styles of attempting to get my point across. Sadly I have often been like the teachers in my old cafeteria desperately yelling at people instead of speaking in a manner they can understand. During this time I have learned a handful of principles to help guide me. I now have four filters I run my communication through to make sure it is as effective as the music at my girls' school instead of as painful as a screaming teacher. My filters are taken from this quote:
"There are four essential elements to good communication. The right message to the right party in the right way at the right time." - Dr. Mark Rutland
You have a message to communicate. If you speak to people around a table during a meeting or from a stage for a presentation, you need people to listen. Do not let your voice be dismissed due to a poor approach. Take a few minutes to consider these four filters for the messages you want to convey.
Is this the right message?
Leaders communicate so many things that it can be difficult to keep up. Top level leaders focus on only communicating things that matter most. One struggle I see leaders make as their organization grows is determining which messages really matter. Knowing the right message increases your value without you having to increase your volume.
When you lead an area or department you have multiple plates spinning. Each one of them needs attention and is important to you. As you communicate down the line to your team, they need to know everything because everything matters to them too. However, when communicating up to larger groups or superiors, you need to learn to whittle down to what is relevant to them. Of the five projects you are working on, only one may be pertinent. Do not force feed all five. Make that one come alive instead. The ability to determine what is most valuable to your organization sets upper level leaders apart from everyone else.
Am I talking to the right party?
Not everyone needs to know everything. This is difficult to absorb for some. In the spirit of fairness we want to include every person in the organization in every conversation. That is small thinking. Not everyone needs to be in every meeting.
The more detailed the information you need to convey, the smaller the crowd needs to be. You do not need to communicate the details of your company finances to five hundred people, those details are for a smaller group. Otherwise you will create more confusion than clarity. Also, when you have sweeping information for a larger group, do not expect everyone to get it the first time. If you get frustrated when people ask questions two weeks later after you unveil a major change, then you are just going to be frustrated. Some people need to process. Give them permission to. Know your crowd and craft your message for it.
What is the right way to say this?
Time is of the essence and leaders feel it. Therefore, we often rush to facts first. In our minds the faster we get to the point the better. In our haste to communicate what we know is most important, we default to saying things in a style that suits us and is not tailored to the people we are speaking to.
The majority of your efforts as a communicator should be on "how" you convey your information. Before you give your message or tackle a tough issue, you need to package it in a way that opens people up. In larger settings, tell a story that hooks people and makes your information relevant. Use a current event as a bridge to why our message matters. Emotionally pull people in by exposing an injustice in the world and how what you have to say can help. Simply ask people how they are doing to break tension prior to a tough conversation. How you say what you say matters as much as what you say.
Is this the right time?
People do not feel urgency for your message, they feel urgency about their life. The issues they face every day are top of mind for them. Leaders stay aware of what is happening in people's lives. Leaders read rooms. Then, they adjust their approach accordingly to ensure their message is connects. Your job is not to force urgency, it is to create it.
In the ministry space we communicate messages every Sunday. We know that every Sunday is not created equal. Therefore, we give messages in seasons of the year when people are most open to receive it. For example, what are people feeling in January? They have made resolutions and want to make their lives better. Therefore, we communicate messages about finding purpose, gettting out of debt or how to have a better life. That month would be a bad time to start an eight week series on selflessness or launch a giving emphasis. Bad timing robs good messages.
These questions serve as great filters for you as you prepare your message. Do not rush into say things or you end up rambling empty words. Take time to process through these thoughts. I believe your communication will draw people in rather than seeming like a frantic person competing for attention in a loud room. And if this does not help you, let me know, maybe I can get my hands on that music from my girls' school for you!