by John Baldoni

Saying Something Important? Three Questions to Ask Yourself First

Mar 23, 20076 mins

People forget what you say, but they remember how you made them feel.

“People forget what you say, but they remember how you made them feel.” That’s what actor/director Warren Beatty told Frank Luntz at a Hollywood gathering. Luntz, the noted pollster and commentator, believes that “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” The point that Beatty and Luntz are driving is that words take second place to interpretation. This is a theme that Luntz explores in his new book, Words That Work; Luntz argues that the onus of understanding falls on the communicator, not the listener. This concept is vital to leaders because so often they spend time honing their messages but comparatively little time thinking about how those messages will be received, if they are received at all.

Live the Message

Communication, of course, is vital to leadership; that’s certainly no secret. It is vital for a leader to develop a message and stick with it, but it may be equally important, if not more important, to find out how that message is playing. Now politicians are adept at the later, especially those who watch the polls. But sometimes the pols do have it right; they do know how to judge the effect of a message on an audience. And in that regard they can certainly teach corporate leaders a thing or two. Too frequently the mantra from mahogany row is this: “Here’s the message, like it or lump it. But pay attention, I’m only going to say this once.”

Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. It is often not that senior leaders are being arrogant, it is that they are so pressed for time that they forget to iterate a message more than once and even more they forget to listen to the feedback. Yet communication is vital. A recent survey from the Ken Blanchard Group stated that more than three quarters of all employees feel their managers fail to set clear goals and objectives. Is it any wonder then that so many initiatives fail, or worse, are dead on arrival to anyone more than two levels down from the CEO? There are ways, of course, to make communication a priority and in the process sharpen your messages so they resonate clearly. Toward that end, here are three important questions to ask before you give a speech, or make an important announcement.

What have you got to say? Think about what you are going to say and why. Put your message into the context of what is happening in the organization. For example, if your company is facing stiff competition and is losing market share, your message must address what people need to do and why. At the same time, if your organization is facing layoffs, you must put that on the table. You may not know the specifics or the timeline, but you have to mention the subject. Otherwise people will assume that you are being evasive.

What does your audience expect? Find out what people are expecting you to say. For example, if you are talking to a sales team, they likely will expect you to cover the high points of the year and issue the sales goals. On the other hand, if you are addressing the board, they want to know the facts behind your trends and projections. If you decide to talk about something else, you must acknowledge the expectation before moving onto your key message. What’s the best way to find out what people expect? Ask them. Find out who’s going to be in attendance and interview a few people beforehand about what they would like you to say.

How will you reconcile any differences? Sometimes there will be disconnect between your message and the one the audience wants to hear. Here’s where Frank Luntz comes in with some insights. Change your words. Luntz responsible for turning estate tax into death tax. In doing so he changed the paradigm from rich people passing along their wealth to middle-class people protecting their assets. That’s one approach. Another is to challenge your audience. To return to our example of falling market share, how about the leader asking people in the audience to take action? Turn something abstract into something concrete. That is, to reverse market share, quality folks have to reduce defects, sales people have to call on one more customer per week, and product developers need to listen more closely to customers. People can be told what do to, if you frame it properly.

Paying Attention

Answers to those questions will steer toward the right course, but there a few more tips to consider. For example, Paul Hersey, the originator of Situation Leadership, says never use a dime word when a nickel one will do. That’s a variant on an old adage, but what Hersey means is that you put yourself on the same level with your audience. Never speak down to them. Putting on airs is a sure way to turn people off. At the same time, get to the point. If you are asking people to do something, be direct. Tell them what needs to be done and then either invite or ask them to do it.

One more aspect of communication that is growing in popularity: storytelling. The popularity of NPR’s StoryCorps initiative, which seeks to record oral histories from ordinary citizens, is indicative of people’s need to tell as well as listen to stories. Same applies to leaders. Whenever you can wrap your message in a story so much the better. That’s not beating around the bush; it’s telling a tale that captures the listener’s attention.

A favorite of mine, which demonstrates the power of storytelling from two sides, is that of Winston Churchill speaking to young New Zealand airman who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. The sergeant had crawled out onto the wing and beat down the flames of his Wellington bomber, saving the plane and its crew. Seeing Churchill, the young man was tongue tied and awestruck. Sensing the moment, Churchill said, “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence.” When the young man replied affirmatively, Churchill looked at him and said, “Then you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours.” In that instant, Churchill connected with his audience, putting the airman at ease and emphasizing his human touch. Again, as Beatty tells us, “People forget what you say, but they remember how you made them feel.”

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at