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By Martin Gauto
In times of confusion, people need to meet trustworthy professionals to whom they can listen. Your staff, as well as your clients, will pay a great deal of attention to what you say and how you say it. Be careful with this because your image as a leader and as an advisor is at stake. Following are several basic communication guidelines that must be taken into account when you are in the middle of uncertainty.
There can be no doubt about it: Your message must be concrete and clear. If necessary, the main concepts you are transmitting be mentioned more than once. “In other words,” “it is to say,” “for example” and “it would be as if” are practical phrases to use in complying with this required repetition.
If you are communicating bad news, you may be as diplomatic as you like but make sure that the bad news is told in an -- please excuse my language -- idiot-proof manner. No large introductions talking about the great things that the branch has accomplished in the past, only to end up announcing a downsizing there. This said, please bear in mind that in unstable environments, bad news is not unusual.
Are you communicating market news to your customers? Double-check everything. Be careful: These are times of uncertainty, and your customers expect you to let them see through the fog.
Do not take risks with opinions or projections whose source is not trustworthy to you. For example, when you hear “banks do not want interest rates to increase,” ask, which banks? Are they representative of the whole banking sector? To whom did those banks tell they do not want interest rates to increase? How did they do that? Was it a report? Who signed it? Did you read that in The Wall Street Journal? Did the paper mention the source?
The temptation to bring calm and serenity to worried staff and uneasy clients is high, but do not take unnecessary risks. Say, “Well actually, I had not thought about that alternative. Let me check it, and I’ll return to you with my opinion.”
Written communication has an advantage over verbal communication. Written communication has little room for misinterpretation (provided the written communication is clear and effective), but it also has a disadvantage. Written communication has little room for misinterpretation (if it includes things that you should not have included).
Here is a piece of advice: The more sensitive the message, the more careful you need to be. Double-check it yourself and ask other people to give you feedback. Are they getting what you want the reader to get?
I imagine that you sometimes have doubts about how much information to share in a written or verbal communication with customers. Of course, there are no fixed definitions of how much is appropriate. The amount of information you share can be totally different depending on the seriousness of the topic or the characteristic of the customer.
My good friend says, “Obvious things do not exist” and that is a good thing to bear in mind. Do not take anything for granted. Repeat it, explain it, describe it with other words. Do what it takes, but get your message correctly transmitted and, in the best of worlds, received.
Verbal communication allows you to witness the listener’s reaction; thus you can a) verify if the message is correctly understood, and b) solve doubts. You can ask, is it clear? Do you have any doubts or comments?
On the other hand, verbal communication is dangerous because you can unexpectedly find yourself talking about topics that you did not want to discuss or that you had not properly prepared for discussion.
A paper with bullet points and memory aids is essential. Do not hide these notes or pretend you are looking at the hour on your watch when checking them. Saying “I’ve written the important concepts I wanted to share with you; let me carefully check my notes since I do not want to forget anything” not only allows you to use your aid openly but also sends the message that you have devoted time to prepare your communication.
In discussing preparation, I want to mention another useful tool that is not used much -- rehearsing. Some leaders have the habit of rehearsing a public speech that they must give, but not so many do dry runs of town hall presentations or of a verbal communication to give bad news to a customer or an employee. My advice? Do not disqualify the benefit of rehearsing.
When there is confusion, you may not have the right answer to, or a clear opinion on, many issues, so there is a natural tendency to avoid facing those issues. On the other hand, simultaneously, your staff and clients have increasing needs of a guiding voice. Be careful not to hide from them (no matter how much you want to justify doing so).
During several periods of crisis, I was tempted more than once to postpone or even cancel meetings. However, I did not. I said, “The climate in the economy is not the best these days, so there are some topics that we still do not have an answer for, and there are some other confidential ones that I cannot comment on for the moment. But I will share with you our viewpoint on the current crisis and how we think you could protect your portfolio.”
Thus, you can use some well-prepared initial statement to protect yourself against the topics you know in advance that you will not be able to answer.
Please take into consideration that not all the recipients of your communication are equal or think in the same way. It is critical to understand how much prior information about the topic you will reference, and how much information your audience has. Pay careful attention to this since, if you do not, your communication will not only be ineffective, but it could also generate undesired reactions.
If it is a verbal communication and you are planning to open a time for questions, take some time to imagine the doubts and questions that may arise. Depending on your listeners’ characteristics, there could be radically different reactions to the same piece of communication. Be sure to prepare your answers to each of the scenarios you have imagined.
And, last but not least on communication, here are two statements:
Martin Gauto, a former economics professor, serves as a strategic ally to chief executive officers and other top professionals who seek assistance with the specific challenges of their positions. Based in Buenos Ares, Argentina, he is a former CEO of 25 years, and he was in charge of the startups of AT&T Capital and Prudential International Insurance companies in Argentina. He managed through some extremely chaotic times, from which he gained and grew expertise on grappling with uncertainty. The above remarks are excerpts from his MDRT 2014 address in Toronto, Canada, on “Growing Your Business During Uncertain Times.”