Complete Communicator: Framing the conversation
By Jay Sullivan
Leaders in burgeoning practices have multiple stakeholders to satisfy on a daily basis. Leaders shift their focus constantly from incoming client emails, to the discussion with their partners about allocating resources, to reviewing the work of mid-level associates, to speaking to the new class of incoming associates. When communicating in these settings, usually with little time to prepare, how can you feel comfortable with both your content and delivery and convey your message with confidence?
Here’s a suggestion for how to frame every important conversation. We all communicate more effectively when we focus less on ourselves and more on our audience. Consider how the audience is taking in the information. To have maximum impact, first provide context, then a clear message, then an agenda.
Providing context means telling an audience how to hear what they are about to hear. The context usually provides no specific information about the facts at hand; that info comes in a moment. The context prepares the audience both emotionally and intellectually for the message the speaker is about to share. If you are about to update a client on an ongoing matter, don’t jump right in with, “We need to file a response brief,” or “We’re still waiting on signature pages from the other side.” Instead, start by giving them a sense of where this conversation is heading. Remember, they are just coming off of another call about a different topic. They’re as busy as you are. Ease them into the conversation with context. Context for an update usually falls into one of three buckets:
- Everything is on track.
- We’ve just hit a roadblock.
- I’ve got good news and bad news.
The context doesn’t necessarily include specifics, but instead prepares the listener for what’s about to come.
If you’ve been tasked to solve a problem, your context choices are likely:
- We’re narrowing our options.
- We’ve got a solution!
- We have two options, and they’re both bad.
If you are running the meeting, prepare your attendees for how it is likely to go.
- This should be quick today. We only have a few updates.
- Get comfortable. We have a lot to cover today.
- We’re all going to need to remain open to new ideas today. We need to brainstorm some solutions.
Starting with context sets the overall tone for the meeting.
Once the speaker has set the tone, she should get to the main point. Your firm has many titles for leaders. Managing Partner. Executive Committee Member. CMO. Practice Group Lead. No law firm has someone designated as “Mystery Novelist.” Don’t save the big reveal until the end. Remember – it’s all about the needs of the audience. People process information more easily if they know where the conversation is headed. Speakers build their case for their recommendation as they share an agenda and go through the content. But their audience will hear all of that information more clearly if they know the end goal.
Speakers are also far more likely to feel confident going into the meeting if they’ve reflected on and determined with clarity what they want the audience to take away. Always ask yourself, “If they only remember one thing, what do I want them to know?” That’s your message.
Messages should be short. Use simple language, focus on the needs of the audience, and be repeatable. Frequently, the people we are talking to are not the final decision-makers. They need to convey our message to someone else, or we will not have any impact. They can only do so if the message is short and easy to repeat.
Some people provide their audience with lots of information with the hope that the audience will figure out the key message. That doesn’t work well. If a speaker doesn’t provide a clear message, each audience member will hear something different since we all listen through our own filters. Instead, give listeners a clear, pithy statement of what needs to happen. “It’s time to settle this matter.” “We need more due diligence.” “Expanding our Labor practice is essential.”
Reinforce the message in two ways. First, don’t just announce the message. Tell your audience that this is the message. Don’t be afraid to tell them, “The most important thing for you to know today is that we need to settle this case now.” Second, try to repeat the message at least three times during the meeting to drive home your point. Punctuate all areas of content with your message. “….and that’s why it’s so important that we do more due diligence.” By reinforcing your key message, you’re more likely to have the desired impact.
Once you’ve set the stage and delivered a key, clear message, tell the audience what’s about to happen. By laying out an agenda, you’re telling people, “I’m going to make this easy for you. I’m going to guide you through all of this content.” That sense of direction and thoughtfulness provides more confidence to your listeners and positions you as a leader.
Think of what broad buckets the information falls into. Nothing kills a meeting faster than a speaker announcing, “I’ve got 15 quick things to go over.” Figure out how to group content in a way that makes it easier for the audience to hear it.
In short, if you want to communicate more clearly and effectively when juggling multiple roles in any given hour, start the discussion by sharing context to prep the audience, deliver a clear message to improve the audience’s retention of your ideas, and provide an agenda so the audience can stay with you while you share your substance.
Jay Sullivan is a former practicing attorney and the former managing partner at Exec/Comm. LLC, a communications consulting firm. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is the author of “Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work & Beyond,” and “The New Nimble: Leading in the Age of Change.”