Nick Morgan is a communication coach and the author, most recently, of “Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact.” Morgan spoke about how federal leaders can improve their communication skills with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. Your latest book centers on what you call the seven power cues of communication. What are they, and how can they help make leaders more effective communicators?
A. The first cue is how you show up when you walk into a room. Some people walk into a room with confidence, while others enter with shyness, reluctance or other negative attributes. The second cue is the emotions you convey when you are going into an important meeting, conversation or presentation. We leak emotions to the other people in the room unconsciously, so you need to first become aware of and then take charge of those emotions. The third and fourth cues center on the unconscious messages that you receive from other people and the effect that your voice has on others.
The fifth cue comes into play in key work and social situations: What are the signals you send out that indicate success or failure? There are a series of unconscious body language signals that we naturally emit when in stressful, important situations, and they either add up to failure or success. The sixth cue focuses on how well you manage your unconscious hopes and fears. Do they help you in times of stress or undercut your performance? The final power cue is the stories that we tell. A great deal has been written about the importance of storytelling, but the research shows that it’s even more important than we realize. Through powerful storytelling, you can control the minds of your listeners.
Q. What can federal leaders do to communicate more effectively with their employees?
A. We live in an anonymous age. People today want to be seen and heard for who they are, so the first thing is to listen to your employees. Leaders are so pressed for time that they tend not to listen. Second, find a way to be authentic. If you are not authentic, people sense it right away. That doesn’t mean that you must bare your whole soul to everybody — people don’t want that much information. Instead, you want to reveal a real piece of yourself, one that will resonate with your employees.
For example, one executive I’ve worked with is a professional jazz guitarist on the side, but he had never found a way to bring that into his public life as an executive. Together, we’ve figured out how to reveal that part of himself to his employees, and the results have been very worthwhile. It has allowed his employees to be authentic as well.
Q. How can leaders maximize their personal impact through nonverbal communication?
A. Most of the time, we walk around with a to-do list in our heads — a mixture of the immediate issues we’re facing, a few thoughts about tonight and tomorrow, and perhaps a passing nod to a vacation coming up this winter. If you enter a room with that mish-mash in your head, your body language will reflect that conscious confusion, and you will not be present or charismatic. That’s why people find so many meetings in business and the federal government so boring. Most of the attendees are not participating completely. If instead you can focus your attention and emotions on a particular moment and be fully present, then you can be charismatic.
Q. Are there common communications mistakes made by young leaders?
A. They talk before they listen. They speak from insecurity rather than security. They are afraid to say, “I don’t know.” They make things more complicated than they need to be, in order to sound knowledgeable. If you are a young leader, you should be saying “I don’t know” at least three times a day! You should listen first, and speak second. And you should keep it simple. By the way, our elders make all the same mistakes, too. These are equal-opportunity communications errors.
Q. Any final advice?
A. The power of storytelling is frequently misunderstood. People have been told that they should tell stories, so they attempt them, but what they end up relating are anecdotes, not stories. What’s the difference? An anecdote says, “This happened.” A story has a hero, a conflict, a villain, a crisis and a resolution. It’s a quest, or a revenge story, or a love story.
Most of the stories people tell lack those key elements. In our fast-paced, confusing, information-overloaded world, we really need stories to help us make sense of our lives. That’s the essence of it. Find one of those powerful stories to tell, and start telling it. Then you can lead people in the way you want because you’re providing your followers with the meaning they seek.