This entry was originally posted on my summer institute blog, a collection of reflections on my summer doctoral coursework.
According to a survey the National School Public Relations Association, communication is the biggest reason school superintendents lose their jobs. I’d argue that the same might be true for college/university presidents. There are smart people in many organizations that just don’t know how to communicate, and it affects their ability to lead, teach and work effectively.
Last month David R. Voss of Voss & Associates led over 100 doctoral students at Cardinal Stritch University through a three-hour seminar on communication. Many people may think that sounds like a total snooze fest, but I really enjoyed his presentation. Two very practical pieces of advice stuck out to me. I believe I practice these tactics at some level, but I look forward to improving my communication using David’s tips.
#1: We must translate before we communicate
How much jargon exists in your industry? In higher education, understanding the jargon can be one of the most insurmountable tasks for a prospective student or interested community member. We talk about credit hours, general education requirements, high impact practices, student engagement, financial aid, expected family contribution, accreditation and tenure…and many people have no idea what these words mean.
I find myself needing to translate my message in many situations: our booth at the county fair, when I pick up our general campus phone line, and when I post messages to social media sites. Here are some tips from David to massage your message for an external audience:
- Use their words, not ours
- Use the right amount of depth and details
- Use conversational sentences
- Use word pictures and concrete terms
- Avoid jargon, acronyms and buzz words
This task becomes infinitely more difficult when you need to convey financial information. I’ve been there, and trust me—it’s tough. If you’re a campus communicator, chances are at some point you’ll need to defend proposed cuts to your budget or you’ll need to help your president identify budget impacts at a local level. David offers a way for us to FLIP this message:
Financial Language Interpreted For the Public
- Determine what pieces of information are important to your target audience
- Humanize the numbers. Talk in terms of students, courses, impact
- Reduce numbers: what’s the cost per student, school, pieces of technology that will be lost?
- Interpret numbers using analogies and common terms
- Address myths and facts straight on
- Demonstrate pain (from budget cuts) through stories. People forget numbers, but they remember stories.
- Demonstrate variance (changes in funding, reductions in classes) to get an audience’s attention
#2: Deliver an effective speech by writing it backwards
Many people write speeches like they wrote high school and college papers. Start with an introduction, come up with some good points, and close it out. David argues that we should use the following steps to write our speeches backwards.
What is the goal of your speech? What do you want the audience to think or do when you are finished? This is when you define your objectives.
Have you ever watched a speaker who clearly had no idea what type of people were in the audience? Don’t let this happen to you. Research your audience, and target your message to them.
Only after you’ve defined your action and audience should you think about what goes in the guts of your speech. Think about big chunks at this stage. What proof do you have that supports your objective? What stories can you tell? Can you share any incentives for your audience?
Now that you have an idea of what the meat of your message will be, you can create a compelling introduction. In your introduction you must clearly define your message, establish your theme, and grab the audience’s attention. If you’re funny, you might start with a joke. If you’re not funny, avoid that temptation. You can start with an astonishing fact just as effectively. Or, maybe this particular speech calls for a well-worded rhetorical question. If you know your audience and your content, it will be easier to figure out what will work best.
Write the speech
This is where you actually figure out how to transition from introduction to body points and what language you will use. Depending on the situation, you may actually write a speech word for word. Or, you may create a list of talking points that guide you along your way.
How have your communication practices changed as you’ve advanced in your career?