2-min Leadership Masterclass: How ‘Simple & Concrete’ Beats ‘Clever’

Why do we listen to some people, and not others? This question inevitably challenges every leader at some point, and can be a daunting prospect for people when they join new organisations, return after maternity leave or take on more senior roles. The myth in business culture, perpetuated by Hollywood representations of the boardroom, is that leadership is a natural quality, and you either have it or you don’t.

That makes for an entertaining movie, but it’s not even close to reality.

Leadership is not a biological attribute like height, nor is it endowed by socially constructed ideas like class or gender. It’s true that in the past, you might have been born into a powerful position, or precluded from one on account of your background or social attitudes to your ethnicity and gender, however that isn’t leadership, it is privilege. The most notable leaders of ages past — many of whom were privileged — aren’t defined by privilege, they are defined by their ability to convince others to follow them, and in many examples, overcoming privilege (and oppression) as they did so.

Leadership is defined by communication. Communication that makes people listen, win support, and take people with you. Good communicators make good leaders, and at the core of good communication is the concept of authenticity, or in other words, meaning what you say and saying what you mean. That’s what makes people listen and engage. If you look uncomfortable, sound unsure, feel awkward, people pick up on it and they’re less inclined to follow. It’s really that simple.

In this series of posts, we break down three core principles of how to tune-up your own leadership communications skills, and in doing so, become (even) more effective at leading your colleagues and teams.

Tune-up #1: Be simple and concrete (before being clever)

Everyone suffers from a mismatch between what they know, what they say, and what someone else understands after they have said something.

It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Curse of Knowledge’.

To put that in scientific terms, in 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by asking people to tap out famous songs (like Happy Birthday) for a listener to guess. The tapper would tap out the rhythm on a table. 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed an average of only three of the songs correctly (2.5%).

However, before they tapped, Newton asked the tappers to predict how many songs would be guessed correctly, and they predicted the probability to be about 50%.

So, the tappers predicted half of their songs would be guessed correctly, but the listeners’ actual success rate was 1 in 40. The mismatch between what we think people understand when we communicate, and what they actually understand from our communications, is why it’s so important to focus on honing your communications skills.

Adjusting your language to be really clear and concise, means applying two important filters to your messaging:

  1. Firstly, check your language is concrete, simple and understandable.

The strongest leadership communications use language that’s rooted in action, at the bottom of the ladder of abstraction. It’s a simple way to grasp effective use of language. At the top, we have the abstract concept, at the bottom, the simple concrete concept. In the middle is the confusing world of jargon.

Checking your language moves from the top of the ladder (big picture concepts) to the bottom rung of the ladder (clear, concrete examples) helps your message land because it’s unambiguous. Remember, the higher up the ladder you go, the more room for interpretation there is, so this is where what you mean and what your audience think you mean can diverge. By traversing from the top to the bottom in your messaging, you make big concepts more relatable. e.g.

(TOP RUNG) Language is a dynamic, recursive process of iteration and recalibration in the search for meaningful self-expression… (MIDDLE RUN) and to untangle the complexity of that statement in plain English… (BOTTOM RUN) we often start talking before we know what we want to say or have chosen the right words to use when we do.

(TIP: Try using a tool like read-able.com and check your score. This article got a 9, which is easily understandable by adults. The Harvard Law Review gets a 12.)

2. Speak to be Heard

The journalist and author Italo Calvino summed-up the importance of speaking to be heard with the idea that …

“It’s not the voice that commands the story, it’s the ear”

What the SILK model shows is a clear way to approach shaping your communications to make them have the best chance of landing with the audience. Combined with plain, concrete language, this gives you the maximum chance to break the curse of knowledge problem.

  • Structure: Keep it simple and direct, one thought per sentence; signpost the beginning, middle and end clearly (e.g. let me introduce the issue, what we need to consider in response is, in summary we should do x, y and z); don’t make it too big picture, or too detail heavy, e.g. save the big picture for the intro and the end, and discuss detail in the middle.
  • Intention: Make the goal of your communication clear, and have one goal (bundling important messages together is more likely to confuse them in your listener’s mind). Make sure you are clear about what you want people to do, and don’t use multiple instances of the same concept, it’s often better to use one really clear example than three… and risk boring people.
  • Language: Use the ladder to root your words in simple, concrete terms.
  • Kernel: Get to the point and start with a clear summary of what you want to express. Make sure you don’t sugar-coat or obscure difficult issues, clarity relies on ensuring nothing important goes unspoken, and avoid going off topic. If you are asked a question that diverges from the core ideas, acknowledge it, flag it up for discussion separately, and get back to the point.

We hope this simple guide has been useful, and supports your own experience of leadership communications. It’s important to remember to practice your communications skills, and work on your delivery. By being simple and concrete, you make it easier to deliver the message (because it’s easier to remember and present simple things) and that improves your ability to get your message across clearly.