What We've Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate

If we were left bleeding in a ditch like Cool Hand Luke, and were succinctly notified, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate," we might all get a little better at communicating.

There's nothing like a painful lesson but, usually, that doesn't happen. Most often, when communication breaks down, nothing happens. There is no message, just missage.

Hitting the mark, getting through, clearing the clutter and getting got – that's the business of a leader. Conversations are the business of a leader. And developing the skill of artful conversations – whether selling, communicating a strategy, or dealing with a customer service issue – is a lifetime's work.

In her book The Chocolate Conversation, my partner Rose Fass reveals lessons from her lifetime's work, showing the ingredients of these conversations and the recipe to make them more effective. Chocolate conversations are conversations where one side is talking and the other side is nodding, and where both sides believe that they understand each other when, in fact, someone always is left bleeding in a ditch.

In our work – which touches CEOs in F50 companies, leaders of transformation initiatives, as well as struggling visionaries and entrepreneurs – we see three common mistakes that prevent leaders from having effective conversations.

Conversation Mistake #1: Not Facing into Reality

Stop me if you've seen this movie before. A company faces bankruptcy and all hope appears to be lost. Up stands their courageous leader, who says, "We will grow. We will turn this company around." Sounds nice, right? Wrong.

Inspiring words can be effective, but not when frontline employees see the writing on the wall. They are facing tough deadlines and tougher customers and have no patience for false encouragement. To them, rousing words are more harmful than they are helpful.

Leaders who balance optimism with a keen eye for the concerns of their employees will maintain positivity without coming across as unrealistic. Upset this balance, and you can expect trust, productivity and business to wane rapidly.

Conversation Mistake #2: Episodic Communication

What happens when a chain of command breaks down? Like a game of telephone, messages become distorted, and suddenly the message coming from the top is entirely different than the message received by the bottom.

This phenomenon, which we like to call the cascade, is crucial in the business world. From the CEO to the frontline employee, PowerPoint-fueled messages are communicated episodically, that is, differently, at each level of the company. The message's original context never reaches the employees for whom it is most important. If this sounds counterproductive, you're following along well.

Leaders can fix this issue using message discipline. By repeating and referencing what is relevant to achieving a company's goals, leaders put forth a constant stream of relevant guidance. The game of telephone will end, episodic communication will dry up, and operations will be able to run at their best.

Conversation Mistake #3: Communicating Without a Goal

How often does your communication achieve its intended impact? Or, even more simply, what is your intended impact? If your answers to these questions are unclear, you likely are communicating without a goal, creating a gap between the needs of your clients and the services your employees provide them with.

This can be remedied by cleaning up your topic list, the starting point for most communication in business. If your list is geared to the communicator instead of the receiver, how can you expect your client to feel like they're your number-one priority? You can fix this by getting clear on your goal. Most likely, you want to frame (or reframe) the way people see the world, move them to action, or both. When you define this goal, and think about what the audience wants, you will close the intention-impact gap.

Climb out of the communication ditch.

Though it is unlikely that any of us will take Cool Hand Luke's (painful) path to better communication, the lessons learned here are the same. When leaders communicate unrealistically, episodically, or without a goal, a disconnect develops between senior executives, employees and clients. Such failures to communicate destroy trust and end relationships, leaving company leaders wondering where their business has disappeared to. Only when leaders define their goals clearly and get all their employees behind their initiatives, will they be able to climb their way out of their metaphorical ditch.

Related post: 6 Presentation Styles

Guest contributor Gavin McMahon is a PowerPoint obsessive. He's a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group, and blogs about PowerPoint, communication, infographics and message discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can tweet to him @powerfulpoint.