Thinking strategically and communicating effectively are critical skills for executive success. Effective communication, or how to frame and present information and insights in a clear and compelling manner (both written and verbal), is a competency that aspiring managers seek to master early in their careers. Strategic thinking, required when facing complicated or sophisticated problems whose answers may resist standard knowledge-based analysis, is a decidedly more elusive capability. (You will regularly find debates in business school classrooms and consulting firms about whether strategy can be taught. I think it can be—I’ve never been a fan of smoke and mirrors.)
However, if we combine these two competencies, we come up with an executive skill that is equally important but less often called out: the ability to “communicate strategically.” Unlike strategy and communications individually, “strategic communication” seems rarely to be taught in business schools or executive training programs.
Interestingly enough, schools prior to the 20th century, and going well back to the Middle Ages and Classical periods did teach “strategic communication.” In fact, it was at the core of their curricula. The discipline was called Rhetoric, which was seen as an indispensable skill for leaders of any kind, from military and political leaders to civil servants and clergy. In those older curricula, Rhetoric was also strongly tied to Ethics: a painful irony these days since “rhetoric” is now a term mostly used disparagingly of shifty politicians.
So what is strategic communication? The ability to communicate strategically goes beyond merely delivering the right information in written or oral form without your audience falling asleep. Rather, strategic communication unites an understanding of your audience with a clear plan for how they will internalize what you are saying and then take action on it.
In the modern workplace, examples of poor strategic communication are often easier to find than good ones: “She hasn’t made a compelling case—she’s too lost in the weeds.” “He doesn’t have strong boardroom presence.” “I see her as a technical expert but not a trusted business partner.” “He’s smart, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get people on board with his ideas.”
In spending the last 20+ years coaching and advising senior executives and boards, I have deduced some essential insights for strategic communication. Following are a few you might try:
1. Start with the Opportunity. Clearly lay out the benefits for the most important stakeholders: the customer, the company, and the shareholders. Your audience wants to hear “the punch-line,” not how you got there.
2. Review the Options—Briefly. Lay out different possible approaches or actions at a high level, but be careful not to go into too much detail: doing so risks losing the audience or taking you off track. Presenting a brief but pointed executive-level summary of the possible paths creates confidence and credibility.
3. Present the Recommendation Pointedly. Offer the best answer, solution, or path of action at a level of detail appropriate for the audience. If it’s a senior management team, stay out of the technical details; if it’s the senior team of the finance or technology organization, present the salient facts with an eye toward the factors relevant to them. Whenever possible, demonstrate that the research has been done to validate the recommendation without showing the research in detail—unless asked to do so.
4. Lay Out the Long-Term Plan—Concisely. Remember that strategy, after all, is not a goal; rather, it’s a plan for how to achieve that goal. Without going into exhaustive detail, present the plan in a way that shows you have thought through how to execute to bring the opportunity to fruition. Again, conciseness is important here, especially for senior-level audiences. Often a visual such as a “roadmap” with key milestones and timing is a powerful aid.
5. Do the Math. Business strategies are only useful if they create profits, benefits, or competitive advantages. Show that you have done the financial analysis and make a clear case for the costs as well as the benefits. The best strategies are not just elegant, they are implementable and impactful. (Way too many consultants’ reports never actually get put into play.)
6. Solicit Feedback. Prior to arriving at your answer, you will have done exhaustive research and analysis. If you’ve followed the steps above, you’ve resisted the temptation to get all of that work into your presentation! Now, in asking for questions and fostering dialogue, you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge and mastery of the subject matter while also ensuring that your audience has had its needs met. If you keep the first five steps brief and to the point, you’ll have set the table for dialogue and debate, which is when your audience will move from mere listeners to collaborators and advocates.
The guidelines above work well for formal presentations, but these ideas are equally useful in informal conversation, or when thinking about how best to chime in during a meeting, or to write a more compelling memo or e-mail. While these tips are simple ones, they do reflect some of the timeless wisdom from those Rhetoric classes most of us never had a chance to take.
Refining your “strategic communications” is a great way to enhance perceptions of your executive presence. For most of us, developing executive presence a lifelong journey—embrace it as one and strive always to get better. Even older executives and seasoned board members occasionally point to peers who are “much better than I am at getting a point across and influencing people.” We can all get better, always.
Special thanks to my friend Kevin Leddy for a series of conversations, many years ago, that helped me think about strategic communication in an entirely different way.
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