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Sell the Message

Part of delivering the message involves selling it—putting something of yourself into the message. In Chapter 4 we discussed marketing the message, finding interesting and sometimes novel ways to distribute it through different channels. Selling the message is about persuasion and conviction, putting the leadership commitment into it. Failure to do so can be hazardous, as Senator Trent Lott discovered on the eve of becoming Senate majority leader. In the wake of publicity about his offhand remarks in praise of fellow Senator Strom Thurmond's failed 1948 presidential bid on a segregationist ticket, Lott repeatedly tried to apologize. To many, his remarks seemed to lack sincerity and even credibility, given that he had made similar statements in the past. Lott was criticized by politicians on both sides of the aisle and rebuked by President George W. Bush. (As a result, Lott resigned his leadership post prior to assuming it.)

In contrast, watch a successful salesperson make a sale. She is fully engaged; she knows her offering and can make it come alive for the prospect. More important, she is attuned to the prospect's slightest nuance—a raised eyebrow, a glance at a watch, a look of consternation, a breaking of eye contact. These are telltale signs that the prospect is otherwise engaged and that unless the salesperson acts quickly, she will lose the sale. So what does she do? She shifts gears and tries another approach: asking a question, mentioning another feature, demonstrating a key benefit. She works the prospect, looking for signs that the message is reaching home.

Effective leadership communicators do the same. Whether it is Rudy Giuliani or Jack Welch, Mother Teresa or Shelly Lazarus, the communicator reads his or her followers, looking for signs that the message is being received loud and clear. When delivering a message, either one-on-one or to an entire group, the leader can judge for him- or herself whether the message is hitting home. Are people looking at the clock, looking concerned, or just not looking at all? Good communicators, like good salespeople, can shift gears and, like actors, find new ways to connect. How? Here are some suggestions:

  • Ask questions. If you want to know what is on people's minds, ask them. Good leaders are always asking questions as a means of gauging interest as well as finding ways to connect the offering to the individual. Engage the people in your audience in conversation. Find out what they are thinking. And don't be afraid to ask for feedback; it's important to know how you are coming across.

  • Make the benefits real. People need to see, hear, and experience the leadership message. The leader needs to connect the message to the individual. Show each person how what you are asking her or him to do will benefit her or him personally. Rich Teerlink made the benefits of a transformed Harley-Davidson real to employees, dealers, and customers through constant repetition. Give people a reason to believe, and they will. Human nature predisposes us to belong to something larger than ourselves.

  • Echo the values. All communications from the leader need to echo the values of the organization. The leader's interpretation of those values transforms them from platitudes to behaviors. For example, if a company prides itself on being people-focused, the people in the company need to see that behavior echoed by the leadership. When employees see a leader spending time with a customer or lending a hand with an employee, the rhetoric of "we're a caring company" becomes real.

  • Ask for the sale. Never leave 'em hanging. Ask for support. The call to action close to a presentation is a perfect example. As we said in Chapter 6, be specific about what you want your people to do. You can employ the same method when speaking one-on-one. Ask people to get behind what you want them to do. Statesmen such as Colin Powell ask for support for government initiatives. Business leaders like Jack Welch ask for an employee's commitment to a business objective. The very asking makes the person feel important, as if he or she has been singled out to do something special.

Leadership communications—in contrast to the sales cycle, which has a definite beginning, middle, and end—never really ceases. Messages may have cycles, but the communications process continues.

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