Can business communication be thought of as a science?
Many people think that fantastic communicators have unnatural gifts, an innate mastery of a dark art that is so hard to master that it must be with them from birth. You know who I mean, those who command a room or craft stunning prose that transports us to another place.
In contrast, those with technical backgrounds are often told from a young age that they are no good at communication: they would be better off if they stuck to the sciences.
But, what if that were not entirely true?
It may surprise you that your analytical skills can be an advantage when preparing powerful business communication. Here are three ideas to help you make the most of your analytical brain when communicating:
- Think long and hard about your purpose and your audience before doing anything else
- Use your critical thinking skills to clarify your proposition
- Structure your story using a pattern
Let me explain more about each of these three here.
Think long and hard about your purpose and your audience before doing anything else
Before you put pen to paper, invest more than you normally do in understanding your audience. Think about who they are – think through who will make a decision, who will influence that decision and who else you need to consider. Also think about what keeps them up at night about your topic. How much do they know already and how much do they care about it? If you don’t know, find out.
The next step is to think equally deeply about your purpose and phrase it by finishing this sentence: As a result of this specific piece of communication, I want my audience to know think or do …. What?
As a CEO of a mid-sized manufacturing company (who originally trained as an engineer) said this week: “I spent more time thinking about where my audience was at than I have ever done before to make sure my presentation started at the right place for them, rather than just for me.
“In the actual meeting itself, we then spent about one hour out of three confirming we agreed on the starting point for the discussion. This meant that the rest of the time together was hugely productive and we were able to walk everyone through our presentation really easily and got the decisions that we needed to move forward.”
Use your critical thinking skills to clarify your proposition
Working bottom up to test that your proposition is valid is critical if you want to be confident that your proposition stacks up. Here are five steps to help you do that:
- Brainstorm your ideas onto a whiteboard
- Categorise them into groups, carefully assessing whether ideas really do belong together or not
- Look at each group and ask yourself: What do you want to tell your audience about this set of ideas?
- Articulate the highest-level message that emerges from that category in a single sentence
- Rinse and repeat as you go up the hierarchy until you get to the one, overarching thought – the ‘so what’ – and build your communication to convey and support that one, single idea.
Structure your story using a pattern
It may shock you to learn that there are a small number of commonly used patterns for effective business communication.
In spending a combined five plus decades between us (this too is shocking, we know!) helping consultants and other professionals clarify their thinking so they can communicate clearly, we have distilled what we think are the top seven patterns for day-to-day business communication. Here they are:
- Action Jackson for action plans
- Close the Gap for improvement recommendations
- Houston, We Have a Problem for explaining how to solve problems
- The Pitch for pitches and proposals
- To B or Not to B for explaining which option is best
- Traffic Light for updates
- Watch Out to counter emerging risks
You may be pleased to know that although there is plenty of room for artistry in using these patterns, it is not essential. Synthesis plus logic will lead to great clarity and great impact on their own.
Click here to download a chapter of our book describing the Action Jackson storyline pattern.
Keywords: critical thinking, leadership communication, pyramid principle, the so what strategy
PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY
I love what I do.
I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.
This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.
I leverage 25+ years' experience including
- learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
- being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
- helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
- seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
- watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue
My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.
Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.
Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com
(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.