5 Steps to Effectively Communicating Your Message

Military leaders know that information operations can be decisive in influencing populations, particularly in counterinsurgency operations. Commanders create entire staff sections devoted to analyzing populations and crafting targeted messages that will influence people groups to support coalition efforts.

Information is clearly an important part of combat operations, but what about back at home station? How can leaders communicate their message to the organization to do things like meet unit goals, achieve a shared vision, or simply influence subordinate behavior?

Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Capel, International Security Assistance Force senior enlisted adviser, speaks to Soldiers in 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, after awarding combat infantry badges, combat action badges and combat medical badges at Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan, May 28, 2013.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Julieanne Morse, 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Whether dealing with an unplanned crisis or trying to affect incremental change, leaders must actively communicate their message to the organization, or else its members will draw their own (possibly uninformed) conclusions and fall victim to rumors and misinformation. Leaders who remain silent end up surrendering their influence to people and entities that do not have the team’s best interests at heart.

Here are 5 steps leaders can take to communicate their message and gain the information initiative:

Step 1: Identify Your Audience

This step seems obvious, but leaders must identify exactly who they want to influence, acknowledging that each audience may require a different message. Are you talking to Soldiers? Families? Adjacent units? Only the high-performing leaders? Only the “at-risk” individuals? Soldiers transitioning to civilian life?

Audience groups will react differently to the same message because they hear it from varying perspectives. It’s a mistake to think, “I’m the leader, so it’s everyone else’s responsibility to understand my message, not the other way around.”

Step 2: Develop Your Message

This step is more than simply refining what you want to say. Your message is an intentional statement of your leadership, a translation of how you will apply your character, talents, and personality to the given situation. Though we all use prior experience to inform and shape our actions, leaders cannot assume that what has worked before will work again.

Write down the key points you want to communicate and scrutinize them in light of the current environment. Will subordinates understand your perspective? Is the message outdated or boring? Will it capture their attention and inspire change? Get feedback from trusted advisors to make sure you’re on the right track.

Step 3: Make it Digestible and Actionable

Chances are…you’ve written your message in a way that’s easiest for YOU to understand, which may not be the easiest for everyone else to understand. (“Big thinkers” often succumb to this tendency when translating their grandiose vision.) Audiences don’t live inside your head and won’t have perspective on the process you endured to arrive at the message you’re bringing.

Make your message simple, clear, and digestible. Include a story, metaphor, or example to relate your message to real life. If you are casting a vision for the organization, be sure to include details that will resonate with the different groups who will be a part of it.

Next, make the message actionable, especially if you are giving guidance or shaping the road ahead. Make a list, identify milestones, and describe changes that will occur, which will translate your perspective into tangible outcomes.

Step 4: Identify the Conduits and Catalysts

Every organization has people who connect across multiple groups and engage with large numbers of people. They are often extroverts who also represent the archetype of the population. You’ll want to craft your message with these people in mind because they can multiply its effectiveness, particularly by influencing the fence-sitters. Consider engaging them and gaining their support before you publicize your message.

Step 5: Plan and Execute an Engagement Strategy

Now that you’ve developed a clear message targeted at the right audience, decide when and how often to deliver your message. Will it be part of a speech? Is it a conversational message? Is it formal guidance, requiring a meeting or memo?

If it is a core message or an organizational priority, plan to sound like a broken record. Here’s a good rule of thumb, “If it doesn’t feel like you’ve repeated your message at least a thousand times, you probably haven’t gotten it across.” You may get tired of saying it, but there are always new people to influence, particularly in the high turnover of military units.

Consider these methods to communicate your message:

  • At formations and gatherings
  • As the opening discussion at meetings
  • Through your leaders
  • When visiting subordinate headquarters and training events
  • In emails to the organization’s leaders/members
  • During physical training with team members
  • At morale events (particularly for family related messages)
  • On the organization’s social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, website)

One useful engagement strategy is the 3×5 Method. Pick the three most important/influential groups in your organization and commit to transmitting your message to them at least five separate times.

Finally, remember to routinely connect people back to The Why. Simon Sinek brings this point home in his TED talk, where he emphasizes that what inspires people to action is being reminded of why they started in the first place. Remind people of why they joined the service, relive inspirational historical examples, and highlight courage.

Also check out the HBR Management Tip, “Three Ways to Effectively Communicate Your Vision.”

Questions for Leaders

  • What other methods do you use to get your message across?
  • Is your message clear enough so that even the lowest-ranking member can understand and implement it?
  • Do you repeat your core message often enough for it to become common knowledge and a shared vision?

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