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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Advisory - The 3 communication rules holding your business back

CEO Advisory

The 3 communication rules holding your business back

Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg

In 1973, Xerox developed the first PC — the Alto, complete with a mouse, graphical display, icons, ethernet networking, and scalable type. So why do we still think of Xerox as ‘the photocopier people’ rather than the birthplace of modern computing?

Because they failed to commercialise their new product, allowing Apple and IBM to swoop in and launch the digital age.

The failure was largely due to the isolation of the Alto team from senior management and other departments. Because they weren’t talking to other teams, they couldn’t see the commercial potential that their colleagues could have told them about. They were unable to get buy-in from budget-holders to take it further and were either unwilling or unaware of the need to get patent protection for their ground-breaking innovations.

Great ideas don’t always float to the surface. And there’s no guarantee they’ll be acted on and developed if they do.

If you want to build an enduringly successful business, you need a team that’s capable of converting their insights and ideas into action – helping ideas like the Alto reach and convince those who can act on them.

Unfortunately communicating well is difficult and most of us are not very good at it – even at the highest levels of business.

Look at a company’s board reports and you’ll see what we mean. Supposedly the most important documents a business produces, informing its most important discussions by its brightest minds, they are often so full of noise that finding the vital signals in them is next to impossible.

The same problem often pervades the wider organization, with layer upon layer of reporting creating a thick fog from the executive committee downwards. No wonder that poor communication is described as the “silent killer of big companies”.

The reason? It turns out that most of us have the wrong idea about what makes good communication. The conventions we learned at school and that are reinforced at work are getting in our way.

So let’s swap these dud conventions with some new rules that work. Here are a handful to get you started.

  1. Put your bottom line up front
    Introduction, analysis, conclusion. Setup, development, punchline. Throughout our lives, we’re taught to deliver key messages and sum everything up at the end of our work.

    But vital information needs to be shouted from the rooftop, not hidden in the haystack. Putting the bottom line at the bottom only makes sense if the reader stays with you long enough to get that far and doesn’t get lost along the way.

    To help your reader lock onto your key messages, put your bottom line up front. Start with a punchy, pithy summary that directly answers the questions that you know are on your reader’s mind.

    Give the ‘in a nutshell’ answer to these questions first and treat each one like an elevator pitch to a bored 15-year-old. If you only had 10 seconds to explain what you think and why they should care, what would you say?

    Then go into the detail. Unpack each of your questions layer by layer until you’re sure your audience has followed your thinking and understands why you drew the conclusions you shared at the start.

  2. Write like a human
    When we sit down to write something important, something comes over us. We stop communicating normally and start trying to sound clever and authoritative.

    It’s only natural. If you want others to take you and your topic seriously, you need to sound smart, right?

    Wrong. To get your message across, you need to use short, simple words and sentences.

    Over 70 years ago, writer Rudolf Flesch figured out that long sentences and multi-syllable words place extra strain on our working memory, making your writing hard to process. And countless studies across countries and cultures, from Princeton to the University of Tokyo, have found that if you ask someone to score the intelligence of an author based on a passage of text, the authors who use shorter words and sentences come out on top. Shorter, simpler writing makes you sound smarter.

    It also helps to use the first person, breaking the cardinal rule of using “I” or “we”. This is what great communicators like Barack Obama and Warren Buffett do to infuse their work with personality and intimacy. People feel they are speaking directly to them.

    It also encourages you to own your message, displaying the accountability that is crucial for getting others to back you and your ideas. If colleagues sense you’re dodging responsibility (for example, by saying, “Sales targets were missed,” rather than, “We missed our sales targets”), they’re much less likely to give you the support, resources, or promotion you need.

  3. Use questions to drive insight (not data)
    These days, there’s no shortage of data within easy reach. But rather than helping us find and then illuminate the insights that matter, it’s blinding us. And it’s giving us the false sense of security that, by using data lots, we’re using the right data or using it well.

    Questions drive insights, not data. So, you should only use data if it helps to answer a question that matters. If you’re not clear what question your data is answering, then don’t include it. When you do, make clear what you can learn from it and remember that less is often more.

    We saw the value of this when we worked with the board of a FTSE 100 consumer services business. To the bafflement of the rest of the board, one senior director seemed fixated on dissecting granular profitability data for their 1,000 service lines. He requested reams of statistics, charts, and graphics for each meeting, bloating the board pack to unreadable proportions.

    We were curious: what question was he trying to answer? After a frank conversation, it turned out there were three:
    – Are we increasing the capacity of our most profitable service lines?
    – Are we reducing our exposure to our least profitable ones?
    – Where we are not, is there a good reason?

    All very sensible. Each question had the potential to stimulate the vital conversations the board needed to have about how the business was using its resources in a highly competitive and cost-conscious industry. But by not being explicit about them, he overwhelmed colleagues with details that obscured the answers and led their discussions down rabbit holes.

Fortunately, once we’d cleared the air, the fix was simple. A simple chart on half a side of A4 replaced 35 pages of spreadsheets in answer to his first two questions, and half a page of narrative from management answered the third.

In just one sheet of A4, that FTSE 100’s executive team gave their director exactly what he needed. They probably saved themselves an awful lot of time too.

But, more importantly, they were forced to grapple with difficult questions that everyone agreed were worth the effort.

By bucking convention, they avoided drowning in unnecessary detail and complexity. And, armed with some new rules, they were able to channel their collective brainpower into understanding and overcoming their business’s biggest challenges.


Written by Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Advisory - The 3 communication rules holding your business back
Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg
Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg are the co-authors of ‘Collective Intelligence: How to build a business that’s smarter than you’. They are co-CEOs of Board Intelligence, a leading provider of business reporting software which supports more than 3,000 organisations and 40,000 leaders to unleash board performance and collective intelligence.


Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg are opinion columnists for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow Jennifer Sundberg on LinkedIn and Pippa Begg on LinkedIn here.