Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

The Secret to Effective Communication: Being Heard is not Enough

Communication is underrated and vastly misunderstood.

The larger the audience, the more cliched and tiresome our communication becomes. Worse still, we seem less wary of the impact of our words when we write for larger groups.

Corporations tend to be the worst offenders in this category especially when they get tied down in their inane press releases and top-down missives. The problem is even more acute during trying times, when a CEO needs to rally his troops behind a common cause.

I give you, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella’s recent missive around the organization’s future direction.

Rather than poke holes in Nadella’s tired cliches, I’d like to share the secret sauce on how anyone can communicate efficiently to large groups of people.

And there’s no better story to illustrate this than Steve Jobs’ trial-by-fire return to Apple at Macworld 1997 when this had happened.

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There was something dramatic, almost Shakespearean, about Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. A humbler, self-deprecating leader, whose second act was laser focused on first getting Apple out of the red. To do that Jobs would have to rally his troops, inspire them, yet give them a dose of real talk; a delicate balance he pulled off with style at Macworld 1997. Here’s the secret sauce to doing that.

1997-macworld1

1. Be Upfront

Always, be honest with your troops – both internally and externally. This doesn’t mean you have to share all but you’ve to find ways to address the elephant in the room. And once you do, the ultimate segue would be to find a way to inspire confidence and hope amidst the burning embers.

Jobs gets into it right away, highlighting the three complaints leveled against Apple and how he sees it:

“Apple’s not as relevant as it used to be everywhere, but in some incredibly important market segments, it’s extraordinarily relevant.”

“Apple’s executing wonderfully on many of the wrong things!”

“Rather than anarchy, people can’t wait to fall in line behind a good strategy. There just hasn’t been one.”

He agrees with the accusation, does not gloss over the facts, but spins it in a way that inspires confidence. It’s his own way of saying “It’s not you, it’s us” which goes down well with the audience. A lot of executives seem to forget they are talking to a bunch of rational, smart folks and try to ignore the obvious sword hanging in the air. They avoid the elephant in the room, and lose their trust. Lose their trust and you lose your audience.

Every time you write, visualize a skeptic you’re trying to persuade. Convert her and you’ve won them all. Instead I’m loathe to find myself reading press releases and corporate missives that sound like this:

We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world. Computing is ubiquitous and experiences span devices and exhibit ambient intelligence. Billions of sensors, screens and devices – in conference rooms, living rooms, cities, cars, phones, PCs – are forming a vast network and streams of data that simply disappear into the background of our lives. This computing power will digitize nearly everything around us and will derive insights from all of the data being generated by interactions among people and between people and machines. We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.

You lost me at “mobile-first, cloud-first world.” Most people don’t know what the heck the cloud is; just ask Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz.


Nobody understands the cloud. It’s a fuckin’ mystery!

So get to the heart of the matter with simple words. Think like a blogger, not like a novelist.

2. Talk Normal, Write Simple

Corporations sure think they are people, but turn on a press release or a camera and they sure as hell sound like corporations. As Anil Dash suggests, I’m sure Nadella and team write normal when they email each other but turn on the spotlight and it turns weird; like this scene from Talladega Nights:

I’ve seen this Deer-in-Spotlight phenomenon in many an executive, but I’ve also seen some of them overcoming it over time. Writing makes it worse, since there’s no immediate feedback to your original missive. But if Nadella and his PR team are seeing the tweets or posts since, they should know this could have gone better.

Sure, most of Nadella’s speech might have avoided the obvious hard truths but worse still, there was no letting up on the esoteric:

A few months ago on a call with investors I quoted Nietzsche and said that we must have “courage in the face of reality.” Even more important, we must have courage in the face of opportunity.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”
Even True Detective makes more sense now:

Someone once told me time is a flat circle; where everything we’ve ever done, we’ll do over and over again.

The reason I insist on simplicity, is comprehension – the ultimate goal of all communication. In our attention-deficit world, the disparity between being heard and listened to is huge. The importance of your words lies solely in its ability to drive action and that cannot happen with the incomprehensible. This ain’t about you, the writer.

It is always about the reader.

3. Be Precise

Now to the heart of the matter. Rhetoric teaches us that in order to drive action, you need to persuade. And that happens with clarity of vision. Flashback to our 97 Macworld and here’s how Jobs set the stage for the future; inspirational, and on hindsight, prescient:

“We have the makings of a really healthy company, with some really talented people that need to come together and execute on a great plan.”

“What’s the fundamental problem? Declining sales.”

He then dives straight into how they are gonna overcome that in 5 concrete steps:

  • Board of Directors (calls out people but does it in a very subtle manner)
  • Focus on relevance
  • Invest in core assets
  • Forge meaningful partnerships
  • New product paradigms

Actions speak louder than words. And to back up those words, he clearly spells out actions like installing a new board of directors, one which includes the legendary Bill Campbell (who just today retired, after 17 years on Apple’s board), Steve Jobs’ close friend, Larry Ellison, among others.

”The confidence starts with a really clear vision. Then you take that vision down to strategy. People have to look at it and say “Yes”, they can do that. The past has been failure. The new board inspires hope.” – Bill Campbell

It’s just that Jobs makes what seems impossible for any CEO to do, seem easy: calling out past mistakes honestly and focusing on what needs to change, boldly and precisely.

One more thing: Bolt of Lightning

Towards the end of the presentation Steve Jobs says something that kinda gave away the mainstay of rhetoricians:

“Sometimes points of view can really make you really look at things differently.”

“For me when I was looking at the statistic and it hit me that Apple is the largest education company in the world, that was like a bolt of lightning. That’s huge.

“What an incredible base to build off of.”

“Another bolt of lightning is that Apple and Microsoft equal 100% of the desktop market.

And so, whatever Apple and Microsoft agree to do, it’s a standard (laughter). I think you’ll see us work more with Microsoft because they’re the only player in the desktop industry. And I think you’ll see Apple work more with Microsoft more because they’re the only other player in the desktop industry.

I hope we have more cooperation in the future because the industry wants it.”

Art of Manliness points out the third rule of persuasion – Appeal to Reason:

Finally, we come to logos, or the appeal to reason. Aristotle believed logos to be the superior persuasive appeal and that all arguments should be won or lost on reason alone. However, he recognized that at times an audience would not be sophisticated enough to follow arguments based solely on scientific and logical principles and so the other appeals needed to be used as well.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle states that appealing to reason means allowing “the words of the speech itself” to do the persuading. This was accomplished through making inferences using deductive reasoning, usually in the form of a formal syllogism. You’ve seen these before. You start with two premises and end with a conclusion that naturally follows the premises.

Jobs had to conclude that speech with a convincing call to arms. The troops were still skeptical but his conclusion hits at logic, while earlier in the speech, he tackled emotion:

Microsoft + Apple = 100%
What we do together = the desktop standard
The industry wants it.

The conclusion of Nadella’s letter reads:

Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”

We must each have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life? What insight can I illuminate? What individual life could I change? What customer can I delight? What new skill could I learn? What team could I help build? What orthodoxy should I question?

With the courage to transform individually, we will collectively transform this company and seize the great opportunity ahead.

Confusing quote, followed by rambling ideas (“What orthodoxy should I question?” Uh?) ending with more meaningless blah.

Let me clarify, this is not a dig on the writing style of one CEO over the other. It’s a reminder that most of us, myself included, sometime gets sucked into the “more is better” mentality, as a writer. And that’s just a bad place to be in, if the goal of your writing is to communicate effectively.

Conclusion

Every leader should be writing for the audience’s collective cynic, not to their internal sycophants. And I notice CEOs oftentimes do the latter. And don’t get me wrong, any decent PR effort can help broadcast this mindless jargon across the airwaves and social media, but then all you get out of that is awareness.

Communications, in my opinion, is far bigger than PR-as-Marketing and it involves converting people over to your line of thinking and this happens only with strong beliefs and convincing rhetoric. And to do that just follow the rules I outline above.

 

Filed under: Crisis Communications, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs

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