Communicating Strategically

Thinking strategically and communicating effectively are critical skills for executive success. Effective communication, or how to frame and present information and insights in a clear and compelling manner (both written and verbal), is a competency that managers must master early on. Strategic thinking, required when facing extremely complicated problems whose answers may resist standard knowledge-based analysis, is a decidedly more elusive talent. In fact, business school classrooms and consulting firm team-rooms regularly witness debates about whether great strategists are “born or made.”

However, if we combine these two competencies, we come up with an executive skill that is equally important but less often discussed: the ability to “communicate strategically.” Unlike strategy and communications, “strategic communication” is rarely taught in business schools or executive training programs. Interestingly enough, schools prior to the 20th century and going well back to the Middle Ages and Classical periods did indeed have “strategic communication” at the core of their curricula. The discipline was called Rhetoric, and it was seen as an indispensable skill for leaders of any kind, from military and political leaders to civil servants and clergy. In those older curricula, Rhetoric was also inexplicably tied to Ethics: a nice irony given that “rhetoric” these days is often used disparagingly of shifty politicians.

Strategic communication goes well beyond putting the right information on the page and delivering it without your audience falling asleep. Rather, strategic communication marries a subtle understanding of the audience to a clear plan for how you want them to more deeply understand what you are saying and then take action on it. In the modern workplace, examples of poor strategic communication are often easier to find than good ones: “He doesn’t have strong boardroom presence.” “I see her as a technical expert but not a trusted business partner.” “He’s smart, but doesn’t seem to get people on board with his ideas.”

Our colleague Mark Nevins, whose Harvard doctoral studies focused on language and the classics, has long been interested in how to develop strategic communications skills in businesspeople. Mark did some work recently with Kevin Leddy, EVP of Technology Policy and Product Management at Time Warner Cable, who has spent a good deal of his career presenting to boards, crafting marketing strategies, and dealing with Washington policymakers. During a side conversation, Mark and Kevin realized they had remarkably similar ideas on how to communicate strategically, especially when presenting to senior management.

Following is a set of guidelines for strategic communication that came out of their brainstorming:

1. Start with the Opportunity. Lay out in clear terms what the benefits will be for the most important stakeholders: the customer, the company, and the shareholders. First and foremost, your audience wants to hear “the punch-line,” not necessarily how you got there.

2. Review the Options--Briefly. Lay out the different possible approaches or actions at a high level, but be careful not to go into too much detail, since doing so may lose the audience or take you off track. Presenting a brief but pointed executive-level summary of the possible paths helps create confidence and credibility.

3. Present the Recommendation. Offer the best answer, solution, or path of action at a level of detail appropriate for the audience. If it’s a senior management team, stay out of the technical details; if it’s the senior team of the finance or technology organization, present the salient facts with an eye toward what’s relevant to them. Whenever possible, demonstrate that the research has been done that will validate the recommendation and ensure that consensus can be achieved.

4. Lay Out the Long Term Plan--Briefly. Remember that strategy, after all, is not a goal; rather, it’s a plan for how to achieve that goal. Without going into exhaustive detail, present the plan in a way that shows you have thought through how to execute in order to realize the opportunity. Again, conciseness here is important, especially for senior-level audiences.

5. Do the Math. Business strategies are only useful if they create profits or competitive advantages, and preferably both. Show that you have done the financial analysis, and make a clear case for the costs as well as the benefits.

6. Solicit Feedback. Prior to arriving at your answer, you will have done exhaustive research and analysis. If you’ve followed the steps above, you’ve resisted the temptation to get all of that work into your presentation! Now, in replying to questions, you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge and mastery of the subject matter while also ensuring that your audience has had its needs met. If you keep the first five steps brief and to the point, you’ll have more time at the end for dialogue and debate, which is when your audience will move from mere listeners to collaborators and advocates.

The guidelines above work well for formal presentations, but this approach is equally useful when simply thinking about how to chime in during a meeting or put together a compelling memo or e-mail. While these tips are simple ones, they do reflect some of the timeless wisdom from the Rhetoric classes most of us never took.

For almost all executives, developing boardroom presence is close to a lifelong journey: even seasoned Board members will point to others who are “really good at getting a point across and influencing people.” However, improving how we are appreciated by our colleagues and superiors as a strategic thinker and compelling communicator just might start with improving our “strategic communications” skills.

Let us know if the tips above work for you. If you have other ideas or experiences, please share them with us:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”