Speaking Up: More Impact with Less Stress — 2

First published on the Empathic Enterprise blog

The Benefits of Striving for Clarity

In this discussion I continue to explore an aspect of business empathy that is of interest to many of my clients: top-level executive communication. My goal is to offer practical suggestions that sharpen communication and build credibility at all levels of an organization. In this post I provide two more tips for greater impact and lower stress when speaking up at work.

Organizing Your Thoughts: The Inverted Pyramid

This is about addressing the most important points first. In a novel or film we generally expect the climax or ‘the big reveal’ to come at the end, in the final chapter or the last scene. But in business interventions — meetings, presentations, conversations — it is often best to get to the critical points sooner rather than later.

I majored in journalism in university, studying to be a newspaper reporter. And the first thing they taught in reporting class was the inverted or ‘upside-down’ pyramid: put the most important information at the top of the story, in the lede. Then add detail as you move down through the story. This design is intended to draw the reader further into the story, but even if the reader goes no further than the first paragraph, at least we are assured that he or she has read the most important information.

Following that reasoning, a cardinal sin in journalism is to ‘bury the lede’: to put the most important information low in the story, where people may not read it. How does this help us when speaking in a meeting or presentation? It reminds us to address the most important things first, and then the second most-important and so on.

Time is limited and we’ve already determined that most listeners have limited attention spans and memories. So if we want to maximize our impact we need to get to the point. We are building a methodology here, step by step: make clarity your priority. Organize into two or three key points. And it is usually best to start with what is most important… don’t bury the lede!

‘Fly like an eagle, but be ready to dive’

Finally, for this colorful suggestion I tip my hat to my former colleague Peter. He was once asked by an aspiring young management consultant, ‘How do I brief a CEO? What is the right approach with a senior leader?’ And Peter’s pithy answer was the phrase above: ‘Fly like an eagle, but be ready to dive.’ What was he trying to say?

His point was that CEOs and other ‘bosses’ will almost always want to start with the ‘big picture’, the ‘helicopter view’. They are at the top of their organizations and accustomed to taking that perspective much of the time, so the briefer or presenter must be ready to ‘fly like an eagle’ to provide the high-level perspective. But at any moment that CEO may become very interested in specifics, so the briefer must also be prepared to ‘dive’ into the details.

For me the insight here is to begin with the big picture and not get immersed in details. That way, if time runs out and you have to cut your remarks or presentation short, you have made the key points and are simply omitting detail. This may be another reason our aforementioned ‘star’ doesn’t get stressed out: she knows the key points she needs to make, whether she has twenty minutes or two. If her time gets cut or the computer goes dark, she knows that she can omit the detail and focus on the big picture. She is prepared for any eventuality.

Final Thoughts

There are many courses out there that can help you be a better speaker or presenter. My perspective here is a bit different: I assume that you are already a fine speaker, and I offer four suggestions to make you even more effective at the elite level. Here they are: Make clarity your first priority. Distill your message into key points. Start with what is most important. And begin with the high-level while being prepared to dive.