Words Matter

By Johnny Johnson of TowerStone Leadership Centre

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Is it such a terrible thing to say this to your employees: “We are not running a charity here!”?

Here’s the thing: from their perspective, yes, it’s a terrible thing to say.

At least that’s what I heard recently when I was facilitating a focus group that was evaluating employee engagement communications at an enterprise. This line was quoted to me as an example of a leader being disrespectful.

As Marty Neumeier writes in his excellent book The Brand Flip: ‘Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what THEY say it is’. To paraphrase: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what THEY hear’.

Another example: I was in a meeting where an older white guy, pitching to two younger, black women said: “We will dumb it down for you.” Well, that was that.

Words matter.

Communication doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it can be learnt. Way back Socrates tried to teach it, and the ancient Greek words he used are as relevant today as they were then: telos;topos; logos; ethos; pathos and kronos.

Telos highlights the purpose of your communication – the why. And it’s worth quoting what Helio Garcia writes in his book The Power of Communication: “Communication is merely the continuation of business by other means. The goal of communication is not to communicate, but to accomplish some tangible business goal.”Garcia’s message is clear: if there isn’t a good business reason to communicate, don’t add to the clutter.

Topos is about framing your communication, creating context, which in turn assists understanding. It might be obvious to you why something needs to be done, but it may not be obvious to the receiver.

The best way to have topos / context is to have a properly articulated and communicated brand strategy with a formal brand expression: promise, purpose, vision, mission, values. If these are already in place, understood and owned – in other words, if you are talking to brand ambassadors – communication is going to be easier and quicker.

Your brand promise makes it clear to everyone what commitment you are making to your customer; purpose is the fundamental reason why you are in business beyond making money; vision is a bold picture of the future everyone is working towards; mission is a precis of the strategy that will get you there; and values and the behaviours that support these are how you as a team go about things.

Without these in place, context is just about impossible to create – if you have to do it every time you want to communicate it is going to be inefficient, confusing and, frankly, boring.

Logos is the reasoning contained in your communication; it substantiates what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. Most leaders get part of this right: the instruction; but ‘because I say so’, isn’t enough, it needs to include: ‘because if we do this, then this will happen, and this is why that is a good thing’.

Ethos is about onboarding your audience, ensuring they buy-in because your own enthusiasm is infectious. But there is a rider here: be authentic. There is so much b***s*** about that people’s sensitivity to it is acute.

Pathos is about making it personal to them – why it’s important for them to buy-in and ultimately to move from words to action because, to quote Garcia again: “The only reason to communicate is to change something – to provoke a reaction’.

And kronos requires you to think about your timing: when is the best time to get the message across. Also, how much time do you need to give to getting the message across so that it is properly understood.

Thinking through what you are going to say and when you are going to say it and being authentic is not enough if you don’t recall why you have one mouth and two ears. Your communication can’t be one-way – you have to engage your audience by giving them the space to ask for explanation and, possibly more important, give their opinion and even vent their frustration. If you don’t, they will stop listening.

You’re probably thinking that that’s a lot to think about before saying something, but it’s the same as riding a bicycle: learn, practice and it gets so easy it just happens.

And it also helps to have an employee engagement communication plan in place as a reference point. If there is a properly planned and strategically aligned stream of communication flowing on established, effective platforms, then tapping into this is relatively easy.

Where words do get difficult is language. As Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” It’s going to be mighty challenging to learn eleven official languages, especially to be authentic in all of them, but you can try to understand the idiom by trying to understand your audience, by trying to see what you are saying from their point of view.

So, if you say: “We are not running a charity here!” then, from their point of view, they are hearing: “I’m paying you for doing nothing, and if this doesn’t change, you’re fired.”

* Johnny Johnson is a brand and communications strategist at TowerStone Leadership Centre, whose vision focuses on empowering leaders to build a values-driven culture for sustainable success. His role is to define their clients’ brand promise and find ways of helping leaders engage with employees in such a way that they are committed brand ambassadors. Visit www.towerstone-global.com

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