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September 26th, 2009

Ten Steps to purposeful Communication

Communications professionals tell us that effective communication is more important than ever.

However, there are five pervasive myths about communication.

Putting them aside will make you a better leader.

Communications professionals and leadership experts tell us that effective communication is more important than ever. Yet, when I interviewed 30 senior managers in large, international companies about their communications practices, I made some surprising discoveries. They said management communication is deteriorating. And the deterioration is, in part, self-inflicted. What can be done? Stop making faulty assumptions about how communications works. Take a long-term, strategic approach to daily communication – treat all communication as a strategic campaign.

There are five management communications myths, which I describe below:

Myth 1: Words Contain Meaning

The notion that words “contain” one fixed meaning is wrong. People attach meanings to words. Meanings aren’t inherent in the words themselves. A word triggers meaning and, if it is concrete, sensory associations. There is no one fixed meaning.

A word and its connotations may differ. We hear the word “dog” and we may visualise a dog, hear its bark, or feel its fur. Abstract nouns like “strategy” or phrases exist only as ideas. They fail to spark sensory impressions, and they probably have different meanings to different people. Imagine the misunderstandings caused by this chain of corporate abstractions: “We are committed to establishing greater transparency and access to information, as well as providing information to all our stakeholders in a clear and open way.”

Eighty percent of the managers in my study said they worked hard at making their messages technically precise, accurate and true. But often, precise technical language increases the chance of misinterpretation. Why? Because experts know the widely accepted meanings of the words they use. But others don’t share those meanings. The more we know about a subject, the harder it becomes to understand what it’s like not to know what we know.

Myth 2: Information equals communication

Seventy-six per cent of the executives I interviewed seemed to confuse “information” with “communication.” For our purposes, information is data, facts, and business intelligence. Communication is when an executive transmits information, an idea or feelings to another person or group of people.

Communication is process with three parts: the sender, the symbols used to convey the message (usually words), and the receiver. There are auditory means of communicating (speaking and tone of voice), nonverbal, physical means (body language, sign language, paralanguage, touch, eye contact) and written means.

You can measure the effectiveness of your communication by the degree of similarity between the message sent and the message received. The challenge in communication is this: what you say usually isn’t what your audience hears. Physiological, environmental and psychological interference impedes and distorts the message. Yet many of us talk and write as if our messages arrive pristine in the minds of our audience – much like handing bricks from one person to another.

Myth 3: Communication is a product you can control

A business development director from a leading cement firm said: “We spent two years on our new Asia strategy, but the CEO worked on the slide deck one afternoon with the communications people, then he delivered the presentation once and emailed the slides to everyone… never mind that some employees in Africa have unreliable dial-up connections. He never checked if they got it; he just assumed everybody had heard his message the way he’s sent it and had bought in.”

Communication is not a physical commodity or product, like email, website or brochures. It’s not a matter of “getting the word out”. You can improve your control over communication, as we’ll see below, but even well planned and executed management communication is disorderly, complex and messy. Everything you say or do sends a message – your facial expression, your gait, your office décor, your tie, your social chit-chat. Even silence is perceived as a message. You cannot not communicate. It is the receiver who “communicates”. Your messages have a life of their own!

Myth 4: Good speakers are good communicators

The managers in my study could name “great presenters”, “engaging speakers” or “gifted storytellers”. Sixty-three per cent of the interviewees expressed varying degrees of distrust of “great” or “slick, professional speakers” or presenters. Skilled speakers, in their view, were not necessarily good communicators. Why? Good speakers “perform”. They don’t listen: “words go in one ear and out the other”. They are “more concerned with their own show” and “consumed by their own egos” (what one interviewee called the  “me, me, me bias”). They try to impress the audience with “dazzling messages”, instead of “listening” and “engaging”. The CEO of a Middle Eastern telecoms company said, “I don’t trust ‘good’ speakers. They strike me as dishonest and manipulative.”

Effective communicators listen to the audience. They choose the right medium (channel), position their message in the context of the audience (adapt it to their knowledge and needs) and express their thoughts clearly and concisely in language the audience understands.

The interviewees said they don’t expect perfection. Effective communicators are “authentic” and “credible”, even if they are relatively unskilled or unpolished. Good communication is not a conquest; it is an act of surrender.

Myth 5: Emotions have no place in business communication

The executives described large international companies as cultures of facts, figures and information. The predominant rhetoric was said to be rational argument. Communication focuses on the visible and measurable and appeals to the cognitive skills involved in thinking, analysing and drawing conclusions. Participants suggested that since the multi-media (PowerPoint) presentation has been added to the managerial communication palette, large company communication can be characterised as “successive unemotional PowerPoint presentations, overused to the point of overdose…or comatose!”

Ninety three per cent of the managers in my study prefer communication that appeals to the emotions, with storytelling, blogging or podcasting, for example. Emotion, it was believed, raises the conversation or communication to what one interviewee called “a higher level of engagement”. A Global HR manager with a clinical psychology background stated, “Stories, or min-cases that engage people’s emotions and powers of visualisation, move them. People are hard-wired to feel more for people or other living beings, than for abstractions.”

Participants saw a connection between powerful messaging, learning and emotions. They suggested that messages “stick” better if emotions are combined with reason. Sadly, the managers in my study hesitate to break the conventions of rationality by using emotions to gain persuasive effects. God forbid they be branded as “uncontrolled”, overly emotional, “loose cannons”, or “storytellers”.

Beat the Five Myths

Don’t fall victim to these myths. Make every communication purposeful. Craft a personal long-term strategic communication plan. There is no one best way. Every communication context is unique. The following ten steps, my research shows, can help.

Ten Steps to Purposeful Communication

1.     Take stock
2.     Attend to your Audience
3.     Express your purpose
4.     Manage your messages
5.     Build credibility
6.     Seek surprise
7.     Ready, aim, send
8.     Keep it simple
9.     Tell the truth
10.     Make a plan

1. Take Stock

How well do you communicate? Find out. A senior marketing manager at DOW Chemical suggested that his C-Suite colleagues run their latest PowerPoint presentation by a focus group! Try it. Ask a group of trusted professional colleagues to rate your communications skills. Find out if your messages are getting across. Practice important presentations in front of your toughest audience.

Take stock of your communication skills

  • What key communication strengths do you believe have fuelled your success and effectiveness so far?
  • What do you know about your weaknesses and limitations? List the areas where you know you are least effective and/or most vulnerable.
  • What are your under-developed communication talents?
  • What potential capabilities and interests do you believe you possess, but have not yet expressed and made real? Speech-making, blogging? Podcasting?

2. Attend to your audience

You don’t communicate; your audience does. Once they receive your messages, they “re-create” them. So, you better attend to them well. For managers, the most common audiences are employees (including potential and temporary employees, contractors, unions, board members), marketing communications (suppliers, customers, retailers, consumers and competitors) and so-called “corporate affairs” stakeholders (local authorities, global authorities, opinion makers, local and global media, trade media, professional organisations, local neighbors and financers).

According to the mangers in the study, their employees are most likely to want clarity about your recommended path of action. They expect the action steps to “make sense” in their context. They want to be able to take in what you’re saying, in whatever form, quickly and easily. From managers they expect a clear progression of ideas or logic, symbols or narrative that puts your message I context. They want their managers to motivate them. They want to have faith in the validity of the material; in other words, they want to have faith in you. They demand absolutely convincing or compelling support, whether that takes the form of a powerful argument or a memorable story.

Analyse your communication stakeholders

  • Who is my audience (hierarchy, group dynamics, relationship, diversity)?
  • Am I communicating with one person, a small group or a large group, a huge audience? How does the size of the group affect my communication choices?
  • What do they know about the subject?
  • What do they need from me and why?
  • What are they concerned about (professional and personal agenda)?
  • What’s in it for them personally? What do they gain from following my advice?
  • How will they receive my message? Will they believe it? Will they want to believe it?
  • What can I expect from them?

3. Express Your Purpose

Here’s the first commandment of all management communication: “it’s all about persuasion”. Whether you are writing an email, chatting with a member of your team or giving a major presentation, you are probably trying to persuade the audience to act. When you first practice this step, write your purpose. Or say it out loud. The purpose of this communication is … Conscious expression will help you discover what you are really trying to say. Be aware of the many ways you can persuade people and practice them consciously. Your audience as your jury: you want them to find in your favour.

Articulate your purpose

  • What is my main, overriding purpose?
  • What would I like to change? How do I want to move people to act?
  • What should my audience do after my communication?
  • What immediate results do I want to spark?
  • What is my last sentence? Go for an appeal, or a statement of next steps.

4. Manage your messages

The managers I interviewed talked much about “messaging”. One said she tried to have a “teachable point of view”. This isn’t surprising. There has been much talk among experts about the importance of communication in leadership. But 87 per cent admitted that they did not treat messaging as an ongoing campaign to hone and repeat their messages. My experience suggests that you need to be able to deliver your messages immediately, at any time, in any professional setting. You should always be ready with your messages. What messages should you be managing? The managers in my study spend most of their communication time and energy on messages that fall into five groups:

1.    Corporate culture: how we do things around here
2.    Financial results: here’s how we’re doing and here’s what it means to you
3.    Organisation structure and hierarchy: who’s responsible for what
4.    Time management: how we should be spending our time
5.    Your sense of your job: what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and what it means for you

Messages you must manage

  • Do you understand your company’s strategy and can you communicate the company’s business proposition(s) to any employee?
  • What needs to happen today so that we can get where we want to go?
  • Where is there confusion in my company, division, team, etc.?
  • What vague belief or notion can I clarify or debunk today?
  • What have I not communicated completely or clearly?
  • What kinds of things are people taking for granted?
  • What is the single most important message I need to communicate (and to whom) right now? Why?

Once you figure out which messages you need to send, you have to craft each one for maximum effect. Virtually all the executives I interviewed purported to work hard to structure their communications. Three worked hard for consistency in their non-verbal “hidden messages” (tone of voice, attire, grooming, “look and feel” of their office space, energy level, degree of outward enthusiasm or equanimity). Many used principles of logical structure, argument (deductive and inductive), mind mapping, “storylining” and storyboarding and storytelling they had learned as consultants or in their MBA and other management development programs. Regardless of the tools or frameworks they used to shape their written and oral communication, their remarks fell into ten characteristics of well-structured messages.

5. Build credibility

Building your credibility entails using a style that fits the occasion and naturally fits you, finding your passion and being authentic. There are at least five recognised styles of communication. Each is appropriate in varying circumstances. If you’re facing a crisis, such as a fire on the shop floor, telling people is critical. However, when you want to involve people and engage support, then a consulting or co-creating approach will be far more effective. The executives stated that, although co-creation is the most effective way to persuade people, sometimes you just have to tell, sell, test or play a consulting role (listen and then offer a solution).

To communicate effectively, you need to use every one of these styles, depending on the circumstances. The key here is to be aware of your options and consciously choose the most appropriate style for your desired effect.

Research has shown that to persuade people you need to invest your heart, head and feelings. Credibility (or “believability”) is a mater of inner conviction, or an extremely rare talent at faking sincerity! Why? The effect you have on people is at least as important as what you actually say. Good content does not always win the day. Rhetorical perfection is not in demand. Communicate as though you are communicating with your best friends. Insert “I” statements, express your feelings about the message.

Messages that people remember are unexpected, concrete, well argued or, for stories, well told, memorable and appeal to their emotions. Not every message is worth obsessing over and not every message needs emotion – like the regular updates from the HR department – but when your message needs a long half-life, use emotions.

Questions to yourself

  • What does this theme or message mean to me? Can I speak about it personally?
  • How or why does the theme really matter to me?
  • What really fascinates me about this theme?
  • Is there something about this theme that really concerns, bothers or angers me?
  • What is the most important aspect for me? What is “closest to my heart”?
  • Have I had any personal experience that could support or illustrate this communication?
  • How can I add emotional “I” messages to express my feelings, without overstepping the bounds of our corporate culture etiquette? (“This really matters to me…” “I’m proud of this…” “I’m optimistic…” “This gives me cause for concern…” etc.)

6. Seek surprise

Your material may be easily at hand – the weekly update, quarterly results, a marketing report, or a strategy document. But don’t fall into the trap of sending the documents as an attachment or, if you’re speaking, reading off a spreadsheet or a block of text on a slide. You need to create messages about the material that “stick” in people’s minds. To get that stickiness, you may need an astounding fact, a moving statistic, a motivational story or a powerful symbol or metaphor.

One executive in my study recounted using a story about Tiger Woods to demonstrate why, despite continuing profits, the company now had to respond to changing markets with innovative products. He talked often about Woods re-learning his stroke when he was already, some thought, at the top of his game. But Woods, ever the perfectionist, wanted to improved his swing even further, despite the drop in his performance during his “re-tooling”. Effective communicators make their points to wide, non-expert audiences with symbols and metaphors they know will resonate.

Memorable, convincing material

  • Where will I get the material for all my communication? Especially presentations?
  • What material do I need to support my most important messages, themes or arguments?
  • How will I illustrate my points? (Examples: personal experience, metaphors and symbols drawn from a world outside business your audience is likely to appreciate).
  • How can you visualise your message? What simple and powerful images, charts of graphs can you use?

7. Ready, aim, send

As many managers learned in Business Communication 101, or it’s MBA equivalent,  “communication channels” refer to all the opportunities you have for establishing communication. A channel can be internal or external (media, for example), but it also be personal meetings, emails, memos, notice boards, conferences, trade shows, talks in the company parking lot, presentations, and so on.

You need to choose the channels that will boost the impact of your messages and you need to make sure you utilise the full potential of the chosen channel. All channels have pluses and minuses. Face to face, according to the managers I interviewed, potentially has the most impact. Make sure that your channel choices complement each other. Combining channels may have a greater effect than relying on one medium alone (such as email or one meeting). Whatever channel you choose, be sure that your message will reach your target group. Remember, too, that some channels are perceived as less trustworthy than others. As one Chief Communication Officer noted, “If your channel is perceived as untrustworthy, your message will also be perceived as untrustworthy.” Although you cannot control communication, you can try to align your messages with your channels. Prepare to send your messages by aiming them at the right audience, choose the best possible channel and supporting channels, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.


  • Which channels will work best for the audience and the purpose?
  • Could I use different channels to support and complement each other?
  • Which is my leading channel for this communication, and which are my supporting channels?

8. Keep it simple

Ninety percent of the managers stated that simplicity is hard, time-consuming work. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously wrote: “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I do not have the time to make it short.” Effective communicators are masters of simplicity. They have a knack for identifying the central “core” elements of their messages. Recall Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. Or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”.

Many effective communicators use stories to convey their ideas in simple, memorable form. Stories inspire and motivate, engage, connect, help hearers visualise, have strong figurative power and have the quality of “stickiness” (concrete and easy to remember). Stories make ideas more concrete, often engage the visual sense, frequently tap into the emotions and often encapsulate complex ideas in a simple, memorable fashion. The emotional power of storytelling is seen to be its highest value.

9. Tell the truth

Telling the truth often means the end of a relationship, and telling the truth about what you think, what happened or what matters often, seems so brutal that we avoid it. Few people want to say the truth, and few want to hear it. There are doubtless many reasons for this, but the consequence is that many managers send “coded” messages. The CEO says, “We’re a team!” Or the project manager says, “We’re on time and under budget”. These messages are confusing because they are imprecise and seem to have a halo of deceit.

Managers who avoid the truth may be communicating short-term. But the truth will out. On YouTube. Or in a blog. Once you earn the reputation of being disingenuous, every future message is questioned. Without truth, no trust can develop. This does not have to hurt. Telling the truth is a matter of knowing your audience well enough to know the best to hold the truth out to them. And remember to distinguish among the truths of any communication: your truth, the audience truth, the truth of situation and the moral truth.

10. Make a plan

Think of your personal communication plan as your roadmap; you know where you want to go, but you need a route to get there. The plan is your communication route. It forces you to think long-term.


Why bother with all this work? You’ll clarify your management goals and objectives. Become more aware of your communication strengths, weakness and challenges.  Craft an evaluation strategy that gathers the feedback. Implement more effective communication approaches. Choose the communications you will engage in so you aren’t pulled in umpteen directions. Identify whom you need to reach, what you want them to know, and how you will reach them. Gain the influence you need by listening better. In short: communicate better. Can you afford to do anything less?

About the Author

Gordon Adler

Dr. Gordon Adler is Managing Director of Adler Way, a leadership and strategic communications and case writing company. Founded in 2006, Adler Way  helps international organizations and individuals meet their communications challenges. Dr. Adler is an expert in strategic, corporate and leadership communications, managerial storytelling, development program design, and writing for business and management. He is a sought-after speaker, coach, consultant, teacher and facilitator.

    * Adler Way works with corporate universities and business schools to design and write customized case studies

    * Adler Way runs leadership communications sessions for companies, corporate universities and business schools. These include follow-up one-on-one and small-group coaching.

    * Adler Way helps managers learn to use storytelling for high-performance communication, whether in crafting their key messages, making speeches or presentations.

    * Recent Adler Way projects and workshops: writing a series of cases for in-company development and recruiting programs, creating an integrated strategic communications plan, crafting a sustainable company story, strategic messaging, corporate storytelling, effective presentations, writing for clarity and impact, managing virtual teams, using social media to improve internal and external communication.

Current corporate clients include Avenir Suisse, APM Terminals, Barry Callebaut, Credit Suisse and Credit Suisse Business School, Deutsche Bank, Holcim, Praesta Consulting, Swarovski, Tetra Pak and  Vasco Data Security. Business School clients include Glion Graduate School, IMD, St. Gallen Management Institute and ZfU International Business School. Private clients include a number of management professors and senior managers.

Dr. Adler has edited more than one thousand cases studies, trained in more than 50 case writing workshops five-hundred faculty members, research associates and senior managers in the art of case writing and case teaching. He has written more than 50 in-company case studies, as well as three best-selling case studies for the Harvard Business Review. He has co-authored two business books: Winning at Service: Lessons from Service Leaders and Sharing Wisdom, Building Values: Letters from Family Business Owners to Their Successors. Most recently, he contributed a chapter called The CCO: Chief Communications Officer—Shaping Stakeholder Perceptions to the forthcoming edited collection, IMD on the Executive Challenge.  His article, The Art of Messaging, recently appeared in ALPHA, a Swiss Management Weekly. Ten Steps to Purposeful CommunicationLeadership Communication (working title), is under revision. recently appeared in European Business Forum (EBF).

Before starting Adler Way, Dr. Adler was Director PR & Communications at IMD (International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland) and part-time leadership communications professor. Dr. Adler also served as IMD's Senior Writer and Manager of Special Projects, focusing on communications, writing and “intellectual midwifery.” He worked with IMD faculty and business publishers to produce IMD cases studies, management articles and books.

Dr. Adler has been a professional ski racer, Director of a Ski Racing Academy (USA), Director of an international school, Professor of Communications and Human Resources Management at the University of Massachusetts (USA/Switzerland), teacher, freelance business writer and communications coach and consultant.

Dr. Adler has a BA degree from Harvard University, an MA from the Boston University Honors Writing & Literature Program, credits toward an MBA in Managerial Accounting, City University, Zürich, and a Doctorate in Business Administration (Strategic and Corporate Communications) from the University of South Australia.



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