Friday, November 21, 2014

Leadership Development: Business Writing and Communication

This post is part of a series on leadership development.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am currently taking part in a Leadership Development Program at Franklin University. The major part of this program includes attending weekly presentations by local experts on a variety of leadership topics, and this month we heard from Tom McClain, faculty member in College of Arts Sciences and TechnologyTom has had a great deal of experience over several decades as a leader in industry. I worked with him for a few years and know him to be an excellent communicator and a man of integrity. His presentation was titled Communications Best Practices - Key Writing and Presentation Skills. I will share some of my notes from his presentation below.

Tom McClain, faculty member at Franklin University, presenting on effective business writing and communication.
Big Trends in Industry
Tom began his presentation by sharing some of the major trends that are affecting how we lead and communicate as leaders. He believes that these trends include the following:
  • Change and unpredictability both nationally and internationally. Change is constant in our modern, global society and will certainly continue.
  • Alliance and partnerships. Organizations are increasingly partnering with others.
  • Social media, infotainment. Content is created socially, is pervasive, and often entertainment-focused.
  • Patience and civility. This continues to be an important characteristic for leaders, particularly in their communication.
  • Value and cost of higher education. Higher education's value is sometimes questioned, and its const certainly continues to rise.
10 Guideposts for Rising Leaders
Tom outlined 10 Guideposts for rising leaders. These were particularly useful:
  1. Know the organizations history and accomplishments. This informs who we are.
  2. Know that the organization itself often assume the styles of their leaders. This means that leaders have great power over how the organization, particularly in how they communicate and manage the people they lead.
  3. Understand your community. Who do you serve? Who do you work with? Who do you compete with. 
  4. Resist the "walled off" syndrome. Go to and visit regularly with others in the organization, particularly at multiple levels. Be close to the people you lead.
  5. Know your organization's communication networks. This includes both formal and informal networks. 
  6. Know your business writing and presentation skills. If you can become better than average in both of these, you will have much greater power to influence.
  7. Effectively use social media technology. These tools will yield great capacity to communicate and influence.
  8. Develop media relations strengths. Know how to work with and communicate to the media. 
  9. Learn the art of the "executive speech." You will likely need to speak in a variety of places, so be prepared to speak to many different audiences.
  10. Avoid goofy business lingo fads. (I recommend watching Weird Al's  music video Mission Statement).

Writing Skills
Tom gave a series of really key tips for writing effectively. These included the following:
  • Know your audience! Tailor to their needs.
  • What is the core message? Make it succinct and easy to understand. 
  • Work on making your product inviting to read. Avoid long paragraphs.
  • Avoid filler words or phrases (now then, etc., so).
  • Choose a suitable design and stick to it. 
  • Master your own design and work it! (I liked this advice - it implies developing your own style and approach. Very encouraging.)
  • Revise and rewrite! Iteration is critical. Let things sit for a while, review them, and revise. 
  • Dont overwrite or overstate. Avoid big proclamations. 
  • Research is the foundation of good business writing. Base what you say on research.
  • Culture can shape your delivery - think of the culture you are writing to.
  • Read credible publications. This will help influence how you write.
  • Deadlines are useful - they force you to produce and you get better at producing under pressure over time.
  • Get feedback from others on your writing.

Presentation Skills
Here are some of the tips Tom gave on presentation effectiveness:
  • Know your audience. 
  • Know your subject really well. Do the research and be sure you are ready.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare!!! This is the most important step, in my opinion.
  • Know the venue. What is the setup? What is the time of the day? Make sure you are prepared for how it is arranged and also for things to go wrong.
  • Approach with care. Be prepared, and spend as much time as you would a written document. 
  • Warm your moth and your body up so that you are ready when the bell rings. As you warm up, start slowly and do more as you approach go time.
  • Make eye contact with your audience and speak clearly.
  • Decide whether or not to use visuals. Technical issues can easily occur, so be very careful about relying on technology. 
  • Break up your presentation - don't spray with information. Weave in stories, facts, and figures to break things up and engage interest.
Structure
Tom mentioned that structure is particularly important. He recommended the following general sequence:
  1. Opening statement - catch their attention and set the tone and theme of the talk.
  2. Positioning - frame what you will talk about.
  3. Main Message - Use the FEAR approach in presenting your information: facts, analogies, examples, references. 
  4. Conclusion - a short summary and a positive end.
I thought it was a timely presentation, and Tom McClain is the classic leader. Solid and poised, I am always impressed with his depth of knowledge and reflective, thoughtful manner.

30 Seconds of Reflection
After each of our LDP meetings, we are asked to reflect for thirty seconds on impressions and ideas we have had. Here was what I wrote: "The most critical message today was that great leaders possess both writing and presentation abilities. I believe I am reasonably strong in each of these areas, and I am working hard to refine and improve them both. I am working to make my presentations less "academic report" and more engaging and meaningful. I also want to make my writing more flexible and engaging. It still has a "boring academic" feel, which makes sense."
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