We knew a man once who confessed that he didn’t like being a parent. We asked him why. He said it always made him feel like a failure. We asked him for specifics. “Because my kids never do anything the first time I tell them to,” he said of his four children, all under 10 years of age.

He contrasted his role as a parent with his role as a high school vocational arts teacher. “Sure, some of the students like to goof around, and none of them listen all the time. But when I tell them to get started on something, most of them do it. At home, I’ll say something and the kids just ignore me.”

Our advice: “If you’re not prepared to repeat yourself, just save your breath.”

A Harvard Business Publishing article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter says that’s true on the job as well as in the home.

“In my experience, people don’t ‘get’ the important messages leaders try to send the first time around,” Kanter writes. But leaders shouldn’t take it personally. “This isn’t intentional, but there’s too much noise and too many distractions. And leaders with lots of ideas find that people wait to see which ones take priority, which ones will be acted on, and which ones the leader really cares about.”

Kanter also makes a point about email communications. People get smothered in it, so they tend to move through it quickly, browsing rather than methodically reading whole messages and all of their attachments. A leader who sends a message without filling into the subject line is asking for his or her message to be ignored. “I now try to stuff the gist of the message in the subject line,” she says. That’s good advice for two reasons: those who don’t open the email still get the key message, and with a good subject line, it’s easy for them to go back and find it when it becomes clear they should have read it and gotten the details.

When it comes to communicating important messages, Kanter sings the praises of “the principle of redundancy.” But she doesn’t propose that you just keep sending the same email to the same audience over and over again. “Send it through multiple media, and do it a few times.”

We offer the following additional tips:

  • Strategize — With important messages people need to retain, spend a little time — even a few minutes — to strategize. Start by stating clearly what the message is and identifying its audiences.
  • Look at options — After you’ve clearly identified the message and its audiences, identify the media that will be most effective in reaching each of these audiences. Then consider how best to craft the message in each medium for each audience. “Cheapest and easiest” isn’t always the most effective. Ask yourself if some audiences need to have more details — and have them sooner — than other audiences. A process that bombards mid-level managers with questions they can answer only with “I don’t know” is not a good process. But with any multi-tier approach, anticipate that there will be leaks.
  • Keep it fresh — We know one employer whose strategy is just to keep sending the same email over and over again. Sometimes the sender varies, but the text is always exactly the same. After this happened two or three times, how do you think it affected future readership of all the organization’s leadership communications? A good basic approach is to begin with an overview, then follow up with individual messages on each of the main points, then present a comprehensive summary. (That’s the old strategy of: “First, tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, and finally tell them what you’ve told them.” It’s gotten to be an “old strategy” because it works.)
  • Consider events — To get an important message on people’s radar, or to keep it there, consider scheduling events. They’re a good way to focus initial attention. They’re also a good way to maintain focus, especially if they’re related to important milestones in the process. They don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. In fact, they could be as simple as asking people to attend a brief presentation on the part of a leader, either in person or on the web. To keep it brief but to sustain engagement, the leader can invite people to submit questions directly to him or her personally, or set up a system whereby teams discuss the message and submit any unresolved questions up the chain of command. In either event, make sure all questions are answered.

Copyright © 2009 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site: 

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