April 13, 2020

Communications: 7 essential truths

By Geri Denterlein


The Stoics may describe universal truths for a life well lived and Steven Covey may give us the 7 habits of highly effective people, but in our work as communications professionals, we have found if you follow these basic rules, in good times and bad, your voice will be heard and respected.

Unlike the stoics who really did describe universal truths for life, I offer a few basic principles on communications that serve as a day to day guide to me and my colleagues.

  1. Good communications is more about listening than talking, writing or texting. There is no way to develop the right message without knowing what employees, customers or media need and want to hear.

  2. Empathy can’t be faked. In his recent book, “If I Understand You, Would I Have This Look on My Face,” Alan Alda says that developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are essential to good communications. He is right! It’s important to dial into subtle clues when trying to understand what other people really think and feel.

  3. Honesty matters. Everyone knows the word transparency has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. In some cases, it is impossible to tell everything that a corporation or an organization knows in real time. What is important is that whatever is shared is true. GM executive Mary Barra impressed me back in 2014 when she testified to Congress about a series of defects by saying, “I am not afraid of the truth.”

  4. Tone matters too. To paraphrase an old expression, “you don’t get a second chance to get the tone right.” Even if you are a brilliant writer, if the words aren’t conveyed with sincerity and compassion, the opportunity is lost. 

  5. How information is shared is just as important as what is shared. In this day of multiple channels of communications, learning how to “speak” in long form and shorter forms is important. “Digital natives,” those who grew up with modern technological tools, know how audiences of different ages and experience best receive news. Rely on their expertise.

  6. A little humility goes a long way. The person who thinks s/he knows it all is usually not the best communicator. Sure, a measure confidence carries a great deal of weight. However, willingness to remain open to new ideas without being defensive - otherwise known as teamwork - is equally important. Look no further than the examples of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, Miracle on the Hudson or Luis Urzua, the foreman in the Chilean mine disaster, to see how powerful the blend of confidence and collaboration can be.

  7. Remember the 3 C’s. The esteemed newsman RD Sahl counsels that effective communications is rooted in competence, confidence and compassion. In a crisis situation, I would add only one word. Calm. In her recent speech on the pandemic, Queen Elizabeth demonstrated a certain serenity in reminding the people of Britain that better days will return. “We will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again.”