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How to communicate like you mean it

Tony Jaques talks about the use of few focused words at the time of crisis as the key to effective communication

Knowing what to say in a crisis is never easy. While some leaders manage crises with skill and empathy, many fall into the trap of saying the wrong thing…  or saying too much.
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The first challenge is credibility. CEOs and other senior executives often cling to a firm belief that what they say is heard and believed. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests this is a case of woefully misplaced confidence. 

The Edelman Trust Barometer in 2022, for example, showed that only 49 per cent of a global public survey think CEOs are very credible, and 63 per cent suspect business leaders purposely say things they know are false or misleading, only marginally better than journalists and government leaders.

The other challenge is knowing when to stop. Too often managers seem to be labouring under what communication expert Joseph McCormack called the belief that "by over explaining we can prove how smart we are."

Brevity, he advised, is an essential communication skill in an age where the people you are talking to are overwhelmed by the volume of words. Indeed, a four-year study into why CEOs get fired found that one of the four top reasons was "too much talk and not enough action."

When a crisis strikes, people basically want to know three key things: what happened, what you are going to do about it, and that you care. The rest can come later. It seems simple but is not always easy to deliver.

Take the case of the reputational crisis at the Bureau of Meteorology late last year following the "rebrand that wasn’t" and subsequent accusations of a toxic work environment. After days of virtual silence from the top, the Bureau posted an unattributed statement on its website, which promised to address "a number of inaccurate statements" made about the organisation.

Unfortunately, the statement failed to identify, let alone address, any such inaccuracies. Instead, it devoted more than 700 words largely to boastfully defend the Bureau’s unchallenged record in providing accurate forecasts and warnings. It read more like a mission statement, and the word "sorry" didn’t make it through the editing process.

The resulting lengthy online post was a case study of saying too much and communicating too little. Perhaps they might have benefited from the "one page memo" approach championed by Procter & Gamble since the 1970s.

In any crisis, emotions are typically running high, which compromises people’s ability to take in and comprehend messages. So words need to be few and focused. People are seeking information, assurance, and action, not corporate jargon and platitudes.

Moreover, it has nothing to do with the supposedly reduced attention span in the current generation. The much-repeated myth that the average attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to eight seconds since the year 2000 has been thoroughly debunked. 

Indeed, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – written more than 400 years ago – Polonius declared that "brevity is the soul of wit," and that’s still good advice for managers today. and politicians too.

US President Calvin Coolidge was known as "Silent Cal" for never using two words where one would suffice. He once wrote: "The words of a President have enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately."

There is one politician who clearly took Coolidge’s reputation to heart and produced the world’s shortest media statement.

In 2015, then Opposition Infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese responded to news of the retirement of Max Moore-Wilson, Chairman of the Sydney Airport Corporation, with whom he had a long-running feud over a second Sydney airport. Albanese’s statement contained just one word – "Good". 

It was an unequivocal reminder that you don’t need to use a lot of words to make your meaning very clear.

Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is Director of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes.

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