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The Danger of Underestimating Communication Strategy

Michael Tanner, Managing Director, The Chasm Group, LLC

I remember myself at 12 or 13 years old thinking about how splendid it could be to be “the boss.” Like most kids my age, my life was filled with rules, teachers, parents and “older-folks” making decisions for me. Naturally, the idea of being in-control and telling others just what they ought to be doing sounded pretty great. As I got older, I held fast to that fantasy through a string of jobs working for a number of great managers, always knowing that as my career progressed things would obviously get easier when I was “in charge.”

Of course, as my life moved ahead and I got to be “in charge” of a few things, it never got easier. The decision-makers not only got tougher, but I discovered that I now had many of them at once to deal with. In fact, oodles of them: operating committees, cross-functional teams, business unit managers, the logo police, exec staff, the CTO, … and of course those pesky customers. Some decision-makers were now folks that I didn’t know were decision-makers; others claimed importance but never ever engaged in anything other than wreaking havoc in any decision-making process - and usually at the last minute by completely changing the ground-rules. While I still had just one “boss,” all of a sudden it seemed like there was an army of folks who could effectively say “no” at any time Getting a simple budget approved at this point in my life felt like getting a ratification to the constitution approved.

Of course, at every level of every management structure there are always bosses - from the manager of the entry-level employee to the Board’s Chairman; from the investors to their limited partners. But if you are like most managers, the bigger the decision the more broad-based support you need to gather for whatever you are attempting to do. Perhaps only one person or a small committee is needed to say “yes,” but there are many who can effectively say “no!” Consider that your capabilities, your plan and ideas represent only about 25% of getting what you want. It’s the ante to play the game. Your proof-points and execution represent another 25%. But I believe the last 50% is how effective you are at personally communicating. And no matter how much of a platitude it may sound, communications really is everything. When I am asked why business plans don’t get funded, or why execution fails, I believe that it is most often not about the plan itself but about the messenger and the communication process.

Here’s the problem: you have a ‘filter’ that you pass all of your communications through. That filter is based upon how you have learned to send and receive information during your life as well as on your personal communication skills. Each individual you need support from also has their own filter in which they strain what you tell them. More often than not, these filters are completely incompatible. There is no right or wrong in this. People are just genetically wired differently.

Unfortunately, each individual in a typical room full of decision-makers is also wired differently from you. Worse yet, they are incompatible with each-another in many cases. So when communication goes astray, it’s not so much that what is being said is incorrect as it is that the filters have just been badly misjudged.

Most people spend a huge amount of time trying to improve their presentations, tweak the look and feel and layout, massage the text on the page, change the grammar, etc, all in hopes of communicating more effectively. But many of these efforts end up going for naught because they are less than half the battle. The much bigger problem is to understand the ‘filters’ of those in the room who you are communicating with, and to set the stage for effective discussion before-hand as possible.

Although I can not prove this, from my experience the two most important filters that people carry around with them are:

a. The ‘can-do’ filter – the filter that looks for enthusiasm, abstract thinking, getting-to-the-point. Emotion.

b. The ‘did-do’ filter – the filter that looks for results, proof, detailed knowledge. Facts.

I knew an executive that regularly “wowed” people when he presented. He was great at appealing to emotion and was always uniformly perceived as someone with a “fire-in-the-belly.” He was charismatic, charming, a brilliant thinker who could process information on-the-fly faster than anyone I’ve ever met. His presentations were filled with flip-charts, white-boards, circles-and-arrows, and lots of good arm-motion and humor. He controlled the room with his presence. After a presentation I would regularly see people smiling enthusiastically while saying something like “…that was just great! We have to support this initiative. Now what the heck did he say...?”


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