This article describes how to communicate well with minimum preparation time when you have a quick update to provide or a request to make. Quick means you’re speaking less than five minutes, although a subsequent discussion might last longer. This is for aspiring leaders or anyone who wants to communicate more effectively.
I get asked by engineers, project managers, aspiring speakers “How do you talk to your team, an audience, your boss?” Hidden in that question is an implication that I do this well. I didn’t fully grasp that until I was out on medical leave last year when I heard this the day I returned.
“Everyone is excited you’re back. There’s just this energy that was missing. I can’t exactly put my finger on it but the energy you bring to our team out there is important. We missed it. Glad you’re back.”Lead engineer on my team
After choking back tears, I thought “Wow. I didn’t know I did that. I can’t believe anything I do has that kind of impact on people.”
Now months later after coaching my teams, leads, and speaker mentees, I wonder “How could I bottle simple habits for leading in a way that people want to follow?” Good question lead to good answers. This post contains one technique I use repeatedly to communicate effectively.
The problem most of us have when communicating is we focus on what we want someone to do or how they should do it. If you’re working with robots, monkeys, or automatons, this is fine. Monkey-see, monkey-do. I work with engineers. They’re smart. Like you can’t imagine living with a thousand of the smartest people in your zip code smart. You get average results telling people – what to do and how to do it.
Most people don’t want to be told what to do. Very few smart people want to be told how to do it. Telling someone what to do is part of the job as a leader. We need a result. “Here’s the plan. I need you to do X.” Not bad, right? Except what if we find X won’t work. Now the team needs you to create a new plan. What if multiple people need you to find a new plan. You’re the bottleneck. Not good. Better to have all those smart people doing what they love – solving problems independently by understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Engineers are obsessed with how we do things. I understand. I was the model child always following the rules except when I took out all my dad’s tools (he was a mechanic), laid them out all around the house, and started building. I like creating things. Engineers get paid to do this. I held a brainstorming session to define a project for a high school student coming to work for us a few months ago. All that we (three engineers) talked about is how we could use machine learning and visual analysis algorithms and defect classification techniques to solve a random problem. Then it hit me, “What are we trying to solve? Why will anyone care?” In most engineering organizations, focusing on how is the common theme in conversations.
Most people feel stronger ownership in a vision, mission, goal, or task when they understand why it’s important. Why’s move mountains. What’s make dirt piles. How’s make anthills. “We’re going to give everyone in our community affordable healthcare because we want our families to thrive. Here’s the plan. I need you to do X.” Affordable healthcare? I’m in. Where’s the mountain? Can I bring friends to push?
The solution = one-sticky-note
Communicating well in the minimum preparation time means we’ve added a constraint — time. When you’re delivering a quick update or making a single request, adding a physical constraint forces you to keep it short.
Enter the sticky note – mans’ greatest invention. Not only are sticky notes a great forcing function for keeping your communication short, using them will form a habit that reminds you to prepare before communicating something important. When you need to communicate, you’ll reach for a sticky note. After a while, you might not need the sticky note as often. You’ll master the habit of filling out a mental sticky note and be better prepared to communicate effectively. Any time I need to communicate a request to my teams at work, I grab a sticky note and write down “what, why, and how”.
- Set the context
- “what situation are we in?”
- “what’s critical to know before hearing the request?”
- “how should I frame this request so it’s easy to understand”
- Make a request or deliver key information
- “what’s the goal?”
- “what do you need us to know or do (at a high-level)?”
- “what happened”
- “what’s going to happen?”
Before writing down the context, step back mentally, notice how you’re viewing the situation, and write down why this leads to your request. Framing a situation well will help others understand and follow your request.
Describe what’s driving the change or request.
- “why should I care?”
- “why is it important that we do this?”
- “what will happen in the future if we do it?”
When explaining “why” I describe the journey we’re on and the purpose behind the request. Again, step back mentally, notice the situation (past), and describe what you expect will be different (future) if you make this change. If you’re leading others, this is a critical skill to master. When you explain the “what” and the “how”, your audience can connect the dots and create a reason for “why” they need to do what you asked. We’re human. We make up stories about everything. Your job is to provide shared meaning and purpose. If everyone understands the same “why” for your request, they can connect over understanding the situation the same way and how they’re collectively achieving a “why” with what you asked.
List the specific steps, actions, behaviors to accomplish what you want. This section is optional.
- “what exactly do we do?” or “should we figure it out?”
- “can you give me a printout, email follow-up, or just one thing to remember?”
Skip explaining “how” if your job is to lead a team towards a goal but want to avoid micromanaging how they achieve it. Tell your audience that you’ve described the outcome but they have freedom on how to achieve it within any boundaries you might need to set. You might want to tell whoever is responsible for achieving the “how” (ex. team lead, project manager, direct report) beforehand so they’re better prepared to lead the team through that discussion afterward.
If you’re providing the “how”, list the specific steps you’ll use to accomplish what you want to achieve. If you want to dramatically increase the odds of getting follow-up action, send the details afterward in written communication or freak everybody out by giving them a print-out when you meet. While not as uncommon as handwritten “thank you” notes, getting a print-out is rare enough in the Age of Email to stand out just a little bit.
What – We’re going to lose a client (context). We need to deliver a project for them two months earlier than planned (request).
Why – This client has a one-hundred million dollar contract, meaning it pays most of our salaries. Plus, as a thought leader in our industry, they have a big impact on our market reputation. We want to keep them at almost any cost.
How – We’re adding another team to work on this project and want everyone to work extra hours for the next two months. We will give some comp days for this. Also, please think about how else we can achieve this goal and reduce our extra effort, for example by cutting any non-critical scope you see or simplifying designs. Let me know when you have an idea.
Here’s the simplest example I can imagine.
What – We (ants) lost that hill to a rat. We need to regain that hill.
Why – That hill is our home. It’s a good home.
How – My team goes left and attacks from the front to distract the rat. “Firebreather” and team go right, sneak up the tail, and light up that damn rat like independence day. Ready? Hill home on 3. “1, 2, 3 hill home.”
Why explaining why simply works better
The “what, why, how” model is effective for inspirational speeches or anytime your goal is to get people to align, change, buy, do something new (i.e. technically all forms of inspiration). Explaining why people should do something gives them a reason to justify their behavior change. Why? Because it gives them a reason. Sound redundant? Read this James Clear article on the copy machine study that explains that just using the word “because” and any nonsensical reason often is enough for people to comply with requests.
Ineffective communicators normally miss one component of what, why, or how. If you skip explaining what you want people to do, I can’t help you. Normally no one misses explaining what. This is what you’re asking your audience to do. Frame the context before explaining what you want. You can do this in two sentences. “This is the situation we’re in. This is what we’re going to do about it.”
Most often people miss explaining why something is important or overcomplicate it. It’s okay to have a story or details explaining why you want people to do something, but that should be prefaced or followed by summing up why in a one-sentence soundbite. You may find that hard to do. Practice.
Whatever you’re communicating is clear to you even with all the complex details in your head. It will not be as clear to your audience. As an engineer, I cringe when I hear oversimplified soundbites. As a speaker I know simplifying my message is the only effective way to get people to move in the same direction. If you’re in a leadership position and think people should pay attention to and understand all the details, nuances, and complexity you’re communicating because you’re the leader, you’re wrong. It’s hard to understand you, just like everyone else. Maybe 20% will grasp the complexity. 80% won’t. You’re better off communicating a simpler message to get 80% of your audience on the same page, moving in the same direction.
If you want to learn more about why this communication style is effective, watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk, read his Start with Why book, or read this Golden Circle summary. After reading you may notice that Sinek advocates for communicating from the inside out, from the why to the how to the what, and I’m starting with what. Why start with what? Read more in the next section.
When to change the order of “what, why, how”
You can reorder these steps depending on your situation but for quick updates (like you can fit on a sticky note), I’ve found the “what, why, how” order works best. Why? You need to get to the point quickly. People care about what’s needed and how it affects them. Then they’ll listen more closely to why this needs to happen.
For longer presentations (>5-10 minutes), use Sinek’s inside-out model starting with why. You have a little more time when people know it’s a longer presentation. However, most people still tune out if you don’t get to the point of what’s changing quickly. Expect to have thirty to sixty seconds when you begin to speak before people start thinking “Why am I listening? What’s changing for me? That’s it. I’m tuning out…” That’s a subconscious, natural behavior. Don’t fight it. Get to the point. If you’re an exceptional communicator, you might keep people engaged longer. That’s why some CEOs can talk about why for much longer and keep their audience engaged. Most can’t.
A group discussion might use any combination of the “what, why, how” order. Most often group discussions focus on how. The larger the group, the less patience you’ll have for soliloquies on why you think something needs to be done. If you’re stuck arguing over the how and want to reframe the discussion so everyone starts working together, raise the need to restate and align on the why and the what. Debate that until everyone is aligned. Then decide on the how which should be easier.
Break the habit of ‘how’. Start with ‘why’. It takes more time. You need to think deeper about the meaning of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is leadership. This is effective communication. If you don’t want to create meaning in this world, you don’t want to master this skill, or you don’t want to take on this responsibility, that’s okay. If you believe in yourself just a little bit, it’s a beautiful thing to create meaning when others see none.