I have been a leader for more than fifteen years at this point. The most significant number of people I have led so far is about 1000 – 1200 people in a company for which I was the CEO. Communication has always been an integral part of my leadership, and I continuously strive to improve myself further in this area.
This article is a list of 17 tips on how to improve your leadership communication skills that I have gathered through reading, listening, reflecting, and practical experience over the years. I guarantee you that you will find this list helpful. Please share the link with your friends and colleagues as well. (If Public Speaking is your particular interest, you might find this online class by University of Washington on Coursera interesting: Dynamic Public Speaking.)
You can check out this content in video format below if you prefer. The tips are in a different order than in the article though.
17 ways to improve leadership communication
The seventeen ways to improve leadership communication are:
- Make people relax
- Develop Emotional Intelligence
- Be Authentic
- Create Dialogue
- Use your body language and non-verbal communication
- Adapt to your Audience
- Implement Active Listening
- Ask Questions, don’t give Orders
- Summarize and repeat back
- Narrow down your message
- Obtain feedback
- Repeat frequently and use different channels
- Avoid filler words
- Speak clearly and articulated
- Use volume and pitch
- Provide clarity in written form
- Ensure effective and clear email communication
We start with more general aspects of communication, move on to packaging your messages, and end up with actual mechanics of communication, i.e., how you say or write things.
(Want to learn more about leadership? Then check out the leadership books I recommend.)
1. Make people relax
If you can find ways of getting people you communicate with to relax, it will help get your message across. As a leader, you often end up in situations where the topic carries additional importance or meet with people who rarely meet with “the boss”. This setting can cause them to be nervous, which in turn will make them tense, worried, and less likely to communicate with you. They will be less likely to speak, and they will be less likely to listen.
Finds ways to make the counterparty or counterparties relax. You can achieve this by talking about the weather, smiling, sitting in a relaxed way, for instance. Ask them how they are doing this morning and that you enjoy meeting with them. Or, say something personal about yourself, such as how your kids refused to brush their teeth this morning. Anything that leads to a smile will help defuse the situation and make the other person feel more relaxed.
2. Develop Emotional Intelligence
I know that this is an incredibly large area to put as an item to improve on. That doesn’t make it less important, though. You need to develop your Emotional Intelligence; it’s as simple as that. If you have or develop reliable emotional intelligence, you will be able to empathize with and understand people much better. These skills enable you to shape your communication accordingly and maximize the information exchange between you. (Hint: Check out our article on the Six Leadership Styles by Daniel Goleman, which are based completely on the use of Emotional Intelligence.
3. Be Authentic
Be authentic with people, as in be yourself. If you are fake or pretend to be something you’re not, people will notice fast, and they will be less likely to trust you. This impression drops the quality of any communication between you and the other party, of course.
Being authentic doesn’t mean you always have to speak your mind or always show your mood. It’s about standing by your values and code of ethics and not pretending to be someone you’re not.
If I have a terrible morning, I still try to seem more joyful and happy in front of others at work. Doing this doesn’t mean I’m inauthentic; it merely means I know about Emotional Intelligence and that there is no reason for me to imprint a bad mood on others.
4. Create Dialogue
Make sure you are not speaking “to someone” since that would be a monologue. Focus on creating an information exchange instead. An exchange requires a minimum of two parties, and it requires both to give information. Hence a dialogue is necessary.
If you are one of those leaders who are in love with your own voice, then this tip is for you. Ask what others think, ask for their reactions, ask for their viewpoints. Ask, ask, and ask as this means that you can naturally also speak.
In my leadership, I try to receive more information than I give, and that would be utterly impossible without creating dialogue.
5. Use your body language and non-verbal communication
Body language matters, and it matters a lot! It matters even more, when it is contradicting your verbal message. Consider the following situations:
- Say no but nod your head at the same time
- Slouch and almost lie down in your chair when giving someone your condolences
- Sit up straight like a soldier with a stern, angry face and say that you enjoy being here
It doesn’t work. People won’t know for sure what you actually mean, but they will be very likely to let your body language overrule what you said. A conflicting message is even worse since it means they think you are lying to them, lowering trust, which is detrimental to any communication.
So, be aware of your body language and what emotions you transmit with it. Body language includes body position, posture, body movement, facial expression, tone and the speed of your voice, and more.
Learn how body language works and master it as a communication tool.
6. Adapt to your audience
Adapting to your audience is essential if you are talking to more massive amounts of people, i.e., a speech or similarly. It’s equally valid when you are communicating with just one person. Many leaders forget this. Let me give a few examples of situations of communicating:
- You are talking to your child
- You are speaking with your spouse
- You are addressing your boss
- You are chatting with your colleague
- You are talking to a junior employee who just started
Would you communicate the same way in all the above situations? Of course you wouldn’t! The same thing applies even if you drill down in what seems similar. Let’s take “You are chatting with your colleague” and drill down. You have many colleagues, and they are all different. Each of these colleagues has different moods. Each of those colleagues might have a different understanding of some topics. Each of them reacts differently to you. It would help if you adapt your communication in every situation to fit the counterparty as much as possible – it is more effective, and your message is more likely to be understood. The non-finance person will not understand all the finance acronyms, the non-native English speaker might prefer you to speak slower, and the introvert wants you to be short and specific on your message and avoid being “chatty”. See what I mean?
7. Implement Active Listening
There is hearing, which is essentially receiving sound. There is listening, which is slightly more advanced since it involves focused hearing and thinking. Then, there is active listening, which means ensuring you have completely understood the message you heard and decided to listen to.
Active listening, much like Emotional Intelligence above, is a vast topic, difficult to cover in this list. In short, active listening involves the following, and more:
- Heightened focus and concentration, don’t think about other things at the same time
- Show that you are listening with eye-contact and body language
- Ask follow-up questions to get the extra level of detailed understanding
- Reflect on what you have heard
- Summarize and repeat back to ensure you have understood the message accurately and completely.
Active listening will show the counterparty that you are engaged. Active listening will bring out additional facets of the message thanks to your questions, and it will reduce any risk of misunderstanding through questioning and repeating back a summary and asking if this is correctly understood or not.
Implementing active listening sounds easy, but then you haven’t been “listening”.. Active Listening is difficult to master and requires a lot of mental focus. You can learn it too, and it will help you a lot in your role as a leader, I promise you.
8. Ask questions, don’t give orders
When someone is being told what to do, it triggers primal reactions of resisting dominance, becoming defensive and other things. All of them are detrimental to effective communication. Sometimes you will indeed have to tell someone what to do, i.e., give an order, but make sure you only use this as a last resort. Asking questions will mostly result in compliance with a better attitude, better motivation, and a more productive counterparty in the end. They are also prone to like you more, and that doesn’t hurt, does it?
Here are a few examples:
- “Finalize the report tomorrow and send it to me before the end of the day.”
Instead, try: “I urgently need the report by tomorrow to handle the important financial issue we currently have. When do you think you could have it ready for me?”
Difference: The same result, but the other party will feel less like a lap dog and more like he or she is helping you. If they don’t comply, you can always try again in a different way, right?
- “You need to work during the weekend to make up for what you lost during the week.”
Instead, try: “We’re behind schedule quite a bit. I see no other option than working more in order to catch up before Monday. How would you like to solve this?”
This approach removes personal blame, it is explaining the problem, and it is leaving the other party with alternatives such as working evenings, the weekend, or finding another smart way of catching up.
This makes a world of difference. It also means you are naturally gravitating from a more autocratic leadership style to a democratic or coaching leadership style. The former one is detrimental for engagement, commitment, and loyalty, whereas the latter two are favorable for those three areas.
9. Summarize and repeat back
Summarizing and repeating was mentioned briefly above under Active Listening. However, it’s so important that it deserves its own bullet point. In any communication there are two, or even three, versions of the message:
- The message the sender intended to send
- The message that was sent in words, i.e., factual and objective interpretation
- The message the receiver interpreted
The more complex the message, the bigger the risk of deviations among these different versions. Now, if the receiver phrase back what he or she understood, it reduces the risk of misunderstanding significantly. The receiver can say: “So, do you mean that you want to A and that B and C are the requirements for making that happen by time X?” This is an opportunity to show the sender that the receiver has indeed been listening intently. Secondly, the sender can easily adjust and say something like: “That is pretty much it, but B needs to be the small version, and it has to come before A. Besides that, you understood what I meant.” This underlines understanding between the parties and creates rapport and resonance, some nice secondary effects. Compare this with an alternate approach: the sender asks if the receiver understood. The received will obviously say yes, because he or she is positive that the message was understood as intended. Only time will tell the consequences of the misunderstanding and any problems that come out of it.
Learn how to apply the summarize and repeat back approach, practice it, and keep getting better at it!
At this point in our list, we will move from more thematical areas of communication to some tips specifically aimed at the aspects of how you are communicating.
10. Narrow down your message
If I was to present this list to you verbally, there is no way I would tell you all the X points. I would focus on what I think fits you best and is the most important, and communicate that. I would then see what sticks, and continue with additional points that are either related or that connects well with any reactions or questions you might have raised. In a dialogue, you can communicate, check, communicate, check, etc. This is not always the case, though.
If you are communicating with a group, or even presenting to a group, you need to narrow down your message to the essential parts. The essentials are the core, the absolutely most important takeaways. Don’t dilute your message by stating irrelevant things just “in case someone’s interested,” or “to show that you have made all the research” etc. Focus on what is needed, nothing more.
I had a colleague that couldn’t get this into his system. Let’s say he needed input from the rest of the team, and he got a 60-minute slot in a meeting. He would then spend 45 minutes of those in a virtual monologue, explaining all the facts so that everybody completely understood everything. At the end, he would barely have time left for discussion and getting advice – the whole purpose of the agenda topic. On top of this, most of the people in the audience already knew 90% of the background. They were simply too polite to interrupt him.
11. Obtain feedback
If you are communicating something truly significant, such as a company vision, why not obtain some feedback afterward? See how much stuck with people, see what questions emerged, any doubts, concerns, additions, and new ideas? If you had a large presentation, ask which parts were engaging and which ones weren’t. Ask what was challenging to understand.
You get the drift. Find out what worked and what didn’t work. Then adapt your message the next time or add a FAQ section or something else that improves the message.
12. Repeat frequently and use different channels
Consider using multiple communication channels if you have important messages to communicate. Remember that repetition is vital for learning, so consider that opportunity as well.
Here’s an example of how I usually communicate an important company vision or business strategy in my role as a CEO step by step, starting with number one and pretty much never ending the repetition until the message is no longer valid.
- Prepare material using the input of multiple people
- Brainstorm on potential information gaps or risks for misunderstandings. Correct and improve.
- Me presenting verbally and using a PowerPoint presentation for visuals
- Me asking people afterward for feedback along the lines of the previous point in this article
- The next layer of managers communicate a similar message to a smaller group, all be it with a slight adaptation of the material to zoom in on what concerns that group to a greater extent
- Me and the managers gathering feedback and discussing any additional needs
- Me communicating in writing, perhaps an email or an intranet message
- Perhaps an interview with two employees that are well known in the organization with publication on our intranet
- Me repeating a few key messages at the next coming monthly meetings, normally handling more short term topics
- One on one talks between me and people further down in the organization to see what they think
- Employee surveys on the matter
- Continue as required..
This is, of course, just an example, and its an example on a large and important topic that is valid for years. Just scale it down or up depending on what you have to communicate and the size and number of layers of your audience.
For seeking feedback, you must take a look at using the democratic leadership style, and it can help you gather the information you didn’t even know was important!
13. Avoid filler words
A lot of people use filler sounds such as “uhm”, “eer”, or even words, which could be “like”, “obviously”, “kind of” and similar. These words dilute your message and is likely to make you seem less confident and knowledgeable in the process. It creates ample distractions for people to focus on instead of the message, and let their minds drift. Stop. Doing. This. Now.
It’s even worse if the filler words you use challenge or annoy people unnecessarily. Words such as “no”, “but”, “however”, all signal disagreement. This is fine, if you actually disagree, but why signal disagreement and potentially provoke someone if there is no reason?
A lot of people use “but” when they mean “and” and use the word “no” without intent. I once worked with a colleague that started almost every sentence with “No, but..”. Imagine me telling him: “I had a lovely weekend, I and the family went on a picnic.” and the guy would answer “No, but I stayed at home.” I would wonder what he meant. I didn’t ask a question, did I? What does he mean by “no”, I really did go for a picnic!
The filler words do not help anyone, so stop using them. If they have an effect, it will surely be negative and lower. Unsure what to do instead? It’s easy. Stay quiet. Say nothing for that brief amount of time. It works great.
To get better at this, watch a video of yourself speaking or in conversation to see what filler words you use. Then make up your mind and use intrapersonal communication to remind yourself when you hear those words coming out of your mouth. There is another way to learn, preferably in a safe environment, such as with your spouse or a close friend. Ask them to raise their hand every time you use the word X. You will be surprised to see how often they’ll be raising that arm!
14. Speak clearly and articulated
Don’t whisper. Don’t yell. Don’t speak with your mouth closed. Don’t state half-ready sentences. Don’t talk too fast. Obvious and easy, right? It isn’t. If it was, people would be speaking much more clearly and articulate better. If you say hunnerd instead of hun-dred you will be more difficult to understand. If you speak fast with your mouth barely open, it will become even worse. Do you have words that are additionally challenging due to your accent or dialect? Perhaps use synonyms if that increases the chances of your audience understanding you. (For remote situations, make sure you use good equipment so you can be heard properly. I use microphones and speakers from Jabra for instance. They work great. See listings on Amazon here: Jabra equipment.)
15. Use volume and pitch
The more monotonous you sound, the less likely people are to listen to what you have to say. Use the speed of your voice to signal excitement by speaking fast or be serious by speaking slow. The same thing with pitch. Do you end your sentences with a slight up pitch? This is normally done only when asking questions. So, you might sound like you are asking questions when you are coming with a statement. You can speak louder for a while to hammer at an important point, and you can speak softly and almost whisper to portray other emotions.
This behavior will make your voice come alive much better, and it will intrigue people more. The end result? They will pay attention longer, and they will take in much more of your message than if you go along at the same pitch and same speed forever, and ever, and ever.
16. Provide clarity in written form
A lot of the advice so far has been about spoken communication. Many of them apply just as well to written communication, although some of them, such as adapting your volume, obviously don’t.
Ensure your sentences make sense, are clear, have a point, and an identified call to action if applicable.
I’ll write that same sentence again but in a different way.
It’s important that you think about making your sentences much more clear and that you have a point with them. Also, it is good, but perhaps not always the most important thing, to make some sense as well of course. If you want the person that reads to understand that you have a point, it is great to actually tell them about the point. If you want the one who is reading to do something after they have read what you wrote, then it is a good idea to spell that out and ask them for it.
I just spent 97 words telling you the same thing as I did with eighteen words above. Which version was easier to understand? Which took the longest to read?
A lot of people do this without thinking about it. Re-read your message. Play the devil’s advocate and try to find ways to misunderstand your own text. If you find ways for misinterpretation, then improve clarity.
Clarity is especially crucial in presentation documents, such as Powerpoint. Use as few words as possible, and remember point number ten above, narrow down the message. If you are presenting, you need to use many of the pointers in this article, of course, since you are using written and spoken communication at the same time. That’s not all. If people can see you, you are also communicating with body language and facial expressions.
University of Colorado offers an online class at Coursera, specifically targeting written communication and presentations. You can read more here: Effective Communication, Writing, Design, Presentation.
17. Ensure effective and clear email communication
Apply the above in your emailing as well. Be clear of your intent, clear on background information, clear on what you expect people to do or not to do. This increases the chances of proper and effective communication.
Avoid copying too many people, and only add those that really need to be involved. This is basic email etiquette, but also imperative for not diluting your message. If there are a hundred recipients instead of one, that one person will treat the email very differently.
If you have multiple topics, questions, or actions in the same email, why not number them?
Example: I’d like us to work out the schedule for next week and the coming month. Then we need to check with our NY office for collisions and make changes if needed. Communicate the new schedule to Mary before sending it to NY, and send it to her again after the changes are completed.”
Consider this instead
We need to work out the schedule. Here’s what we need to do and consider, as I see it:
- Scheduling the upcoming week and the entire next month.
- Send the schedule to Mary for feedback
- Check with the NY office for collisions and make necessary changes
- Send the schedule to Mary again for feedback
If you use this approach, it is much more likely that everything gets completed. In the former case, it would be so easy to miss scheduling next month, or reaching our to Mary twice, for instance.
I started applying this strategy years ago, and I rarely have to reply and ask for missing answers. Lead-in and lead-out, otherwise you will look like a robot king issuing lists of demands, and that’s not what we want to achieve.
Communication Skills are at the core of leadership. As a leader, you must make the most of your communication, and improving skills and methods will take you there. This list is not complete; there are many other ways of enhancing your communication skills as a leader. It can serve as a great start though, to focus on these 17 points and make sure they become part of your everyday communication. Seek feedback, rinse, repeat.
Good luck with improving your communication skills!