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No-regrets communication

It is my birthday, and I realize I’ve worked with leaders for causes and social movements for 32 years. Just writing that gives me pause. That’s a lot of years (gulp) and a lot of leaders. How well leaders communicate can mean the difference between transformative impact or no impact at all. I’ve counseled many leaders to take risks, speak truth and stand up for what they believe. At the same time, I realize those leaders, not me, are in the hot seat. That is why I am focusing on offering top tips to leaders for no-regrets communication this year. These are tips that leaders can use to step up — not step into regrets — in 2023.

Fill the communication voids. Leaders often sit atop a lot of valuable information and intel. When they share that, they build trust and show their intentionality. They give other leaders in their organizations and fields valuable insights that can inform work. When they hold back the information, they give space for negative interpretations and misinformation to take root and grow. Share what you know. Trust people to use it for good. 

Don’t add to stigma and stereotypes. Language is one of the most powerful tools leaders have. When they use it to feed stigma and stereotypes — like referring to people as “vulnerable” or “at-risk” — they are fueling damaging narratives and stoking a culture of unworthiness. Every word in messaging is valuable real estate. Spend time crafting narratives and messages that start with human aspirations and contributions. 

Prepare for speaking opportunities. By that, I don’t mean while you are on your flight on the way to the speaking engagement. When you accept a speaking gig, commit to making the most of it. Set yourself up for success. From understanding who is in the room and what you want to motivate them to do to determining whether you want to speak from a podium or with a lavalier mic to making sure your slides enhance your talk rather than serve as a source of technological malfunction, do it right. Schedule three sessions to practice. If you don’t have the time to do that, then don’t accept the gig. Seriously — canned remarks, boring the audience and missing your mark are worse than not speaking at all. The statement I hear most from leaders after a big speech is “I wish I had prepped more.”   

Be ready to ride waves rather than only create them. Society is noisy these days. Cutting through and getting attention takes a tremendous amount of effort. Rather than spending your time trying to create opportunities where you can share your perspective, consider how to move nimbly when the right doors open. For example, during the recent college football playoffs, Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud spoke about housing instability. If you work on housing, that opened a timely platform to talk about how essential stable housing is to opportunity. Is your organization ready to take advantage of culture moments when your issue is in the zeitgeist? To ensure you make the most of opportunities like that, create criteria to spot opportunities and not get distracted with ones that are close but not in the sweet spot.

Always ask: “Am I the best to speak on this?” Many leaders have a stated goal to amplify voices that are missing from essential conversations. That means anytime you receive an interview or speaking request, you pause and ask yourself: “Am I best to speak on this? Am I the most credible? Am I taking the spot that could go to someone else who doesn’t get the same opportunities I do but should? Will giving the spot to someone else offer a viewpoint that is missing and will advance an important conversation?” It is hard to give up valuable opportunities to share your viewpoint, and it is invaluable to do so to make good on your promise.

Don’t make it worse. The opposition knows how to bait leaders. They want to lure you to the ground, where they are confident about having a conversation. Maybe they taunt you with untruths. Maybe they say you being quiet shows that you know they are right. Don’t take the bait. It takes two to have a conversation, and if the conversation they want to have is not strategic for you and your issues, don’t weigh in. Air makes fire burn hotter. Quiet — when applied well — is water to the fire. Save your breath for conversations that are productive and effective. Remember: Reactivity is rarely strategic. 

Apologize when you are wrong. Do so swiftly. You may have your reasons for doing what you did. Others may not understand the full context. But if you are in the wrong, the sooner you say that, the better off you’ll be. Don’t wait for other responsible parties to step up. You are only in charge of yourself and your behavior. The longer you wait, the more people will spend time getting you to see what you did wrong. Their frustration will grow if you are resistant, and when you finally apologize, it will seem like you had to rather than doing so on your own accord. Apologizing is hard — I am not suggesting it is easy. But when faced with their flaws, that is what leaders do. 

When people ask me what my hopes are for a new year, I often remark: “Make new mistakes.” Making progress means trial and error. But we can learn from other mistakes and use communication to advance rather than lose ground on our important issues. Use your communication power for good.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 5, 2023 at 07:13 am and is filed under Communication planning and Opposition containment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.