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Dottie DeHart

Quality Insider

Seven Tips for Streamlining Communication

Cut the noise and cut to the chase

Published: Monday, September 26, 2011 - 13:30

If you don’t think our society is experiencing a communication overload, you really are living under a rock. We can record all of the ups and downs of our personal sagas through blogs. We can call or text anyone at any time. And this communication avalanche doesn’t exist just in our personal lives. Today, it’s a lot easier to get in touch with co-workers and ask them for information whenever and wherever we need it. And we can share every detail of our current projects with our bosses just by clicking “send.” We’re much better off than we were 20 years ago, right?

Well, maybe not. According to OfficeMax co-founder, former CEO, and serial entrepreneur Michael Feuer (pronounced “Foyer”), innovations in communication sometimes make it more difficult to get the point across.

“Since we can say as much as we want in multiple forums these days, almost everyone—including businesspeople—provide too much information (or TMI) in their exchanges,” points out Feuer, author of the new book, The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition (Wiley, 2011). “In many organizations, the art of cutting to the chase has been lost.”

Feuer knows what he’s talking about. He’s been involved with launching a number of business ventures, including OfficeMax and his newest business, Max-Wellness, a recently launched health and wellness retail chain concept.

The lessons he’s learned have convinced him that a great leader’s management style should mirror that of a benevolent dictator. This is not as scary as it sounds. Basically, we all have a “dictator” side—it’s the part of you that calls the shots and makes the difficult decisions. But we also have a “benevolent” side, which puts the interests of the organization, team, and customers ahead of our own. The two work together, or should.

Part of being a benevolent dictator is requiring clear, concise communication at all levels, so that key decisions can be made quickly and effectively.

“Before today’s instant transmission of words and numbers by lightning-fast speed, you had to talk to your boss in person, on the phone, or in a hard copy report,” Feuer explains. “In all of those formats, it was in your best interest to get to the point quickly. These days, though, there are e-mail in-boxes, shared calendars and documents, instant messaging programs, and much more. Employees can send a constant stream of information to their leaders, and that’s a problem, one that’s bleeding into face-to-face interactions, too.”

If you’ve ever asked an employee or a co-worker a basic question and gotten an e-mail that took you 15 minutes to read and answer, then you know what Feuer is talking about. Many people seem to have a compulsion to provide minute, detailed responses embellished with “he said, she said” anecdotes.

“Really…who cares?” Feuer asks. “As a leader, you need the basic, bottom line, and you need it now. Your team members may want to provide you with excessive detail in the hope that you will recognize them as the ultimate experts on various topics. However, you must let them know that a succinct response is much more valuable.”

If you would like to encourage more concise and effective communication in your organization, read on for seven of Feuer’s tips:

Be clear about what you need. The first step in encouraging concise communication is to be straightforward about what you need. Don’t expect your team members to pick up on the hints that you’re dropping. If you don’t want to read between others’ lines, don’t force them to do so with you. Remember, though, that one size doesn’t fit all, so you may have to infuse your cut-to-the-chase request with humor or compliments to soften the message. Otherwise you may have to resort to the “ton of bricks” approach.

“When someone is giving me way too much information, I politely interrupt and tell him that I recognize him as an expert on the subject matter being discussed,” Feuer says. “Then I say that since I know it’s a given that this person knows his stuff, I merely need a short sound bite. Usually, this strategy soon leads to more frequent one- or two-sentence summaries. If it doesn’t, well… that’s when the ton of bricks comes in.”

Overhaul voicemail and e-mail. If someone is consistently wordy with you, odds are that she’s loquacious in most other situations, too. Asking her to put the bottom line upfront when she reports to you is a good first step, but you need to make sure that she’s applying this lesson to other aspects of her workday. A good place to start is with voicemail and e-mail, since these forums are used frequently throughout the day.

“Survey your team members’ current responses for their business e-mail and telephone messages, and prepare to be shocked by the content and length,” Feuer advises. “Then supervise the shortening process. You may even have your HR or PR department provide brief scripts for employees who have trouble keeping their messages short. Each script should be tailored to the person’s job function and provide an alternate contact for emergencies. I think you’ll find that your team appreciates the scripted assistance because it gives them one less thing to worry about.”

Talk through conversations. Once you’ve tackled e-mails and recorded messages, it’s time to move on to something a little less predictable: conversations. Although you can’t control every word that comes out of your team members’ mouths, you can establish standards of what is appropriate. Tell them that brevity and clarity are key, and point out that these things will set your organization apart from the competition. After all, clients and callers will appreciate the chance to do as much talking and question-asking as they want.

“Also consider asking your employees to end all conversations and messages with a tagline that expresses your organization’s best attribute,” suggests Feuer. “Some tried-and-true examples are ‘Your satisfaction is our number-one priority,’ and ‘Getting to the point makes us better.’ At Max-Wellness, our branding tagline is simply ‘Be well.’ I’ve found that clients respond better to these than gratuitous endings.”

Get frequent updates from key people. Simply put, micromanage. Somewhere along the line, “micromanage” has become a bad word. It conjures up images of bosses who can’t delegate, who don’t trust their team members, and who don’t give employees room to do their best work. No, you shouldn’t do your team’s work for them, but according to Feuer, you should get regular (and of course, succinct) updates from key people. These fast-and-frequent communications allow you to keep your finger on your organization’s pulse.

“When you know what’s happening in real time, you can accelerate your organization’s growth and prevent garden-variety problems from snowballing into disasters,” explains Feuer. “During the first 18 months of OfficeMax, I required every store to call my home seven nights a week to give me sales figures, which I recorded in a ledger. This ritual helped me to manage our growth by knowing our daily cash flow, with an emphasis on accounts payable down to the last few dollars. This protocol not only accelerated our growth but set a management style for executives to operate in a similar know-what’s-happening fashion. Don’t underestimate the importance of remaining aware of the flow of factual information.”

Use your negatives sparingly. Say you’re telling your team everything it needs to know, but you still aren’t getting the results you want. What gives? The problem might lie in how you’re delivering that cut-to-the-chase sound bite. Think about it: How many of your announcements start with a negative, followed by a litany of unpleasant consequences? (For example, “If we don’t increase sales next month, we’ll have to start letting people go.”)

“Many leaders think that this style is more forceful and expedient, but it’s actually counterproductive,” says Feuer. “If you make too many of these negative announcements, your employees will be motivated only by fear and desperation—at least in the beginning. As time goes on (and presumably, a majority of your threats don’t come to pass), your team will come to see you as a knucklehead, and they’ll start to ignore your message altogether.”

Look in the mirror. The Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—definitely applies to leadership and business. It’s always a good idea to treat your team as participants and partners in whatever you’re doing, not just as people to blame when something goes wrong. Remember that they appreciate appropriate amounts of respect and praise, and that they also enjoy being given credit for having the ability to grasp the obvious.

“If you’re not getting the results you want, you might be the problem,” Feuer says. “Leaders, especially those nearer to the top of the organizational hierarchy, sometimes forget how it felt to be directed. Ask yourself how you’d want to be told to do something important. Chances are it wouldn’t be to do XYZ, or face dire consequences without any further explanation. When you’re open about what’s at stake and use a logical, positive tone, you’ll probably find that your communications take root and grow.”

Remember that the medium is the message. If you’re like most leaders, every minute of your day is more than spoken for, and you may tend to tell your team what it needs to hear, regardless of the overarching circumstances. Despite your busy schedule, try to always keep in mind that the vehicle or venue you select to deliver your directive is just as important as the point itself. Good news should be presented in an upbeat setting, and more serious subjects should be broached in a setting that’s “strictly business.”

“Delivering a serious concern about sales would be an inappropriate announcement to make at an awards event, for instance,” says Feuer. “Knowing when to say the right thing will lend your message credibility and significance. Yes, there will always be some people who will require the ton-of-bricks approach when it comes to giving and receiving appropriate communication. But if you’re open about the level of succinctness that you want and model those behaviors yourself, you’ll find that most of your team will get on board quickly. And chances are, they’ll also be grateful that you’ve cut out all the background noise.”


About The Author

Dottie DeHart’s picture

Dottie DeHart

Dottie DeHart, principal at DeHart & Co. Public Relations, is a seasoned media specialist who serves as a strong media contact for broadcast and print media inquiries. DeHart identifies and analyzes communications needs and develops and implements communications strategies and activities. She is responsible for maintaining media lists and contacts. DeHart has placed media in Associated Press Worldwide, ABC World News, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Working Woman, Time, The View, and The Today Show.She also develops and nurtures our media contacts so that we create lasting relationships. DeHart runs the news bureau, develops story ideas, and works one-on-one with key media contacts. She holds a B.S. in criminal justice and a master’s degree in political science from Appalachian State University.