In 2013, I was standing on the pavement outside my girlfriend’s house in North Melbourne. My flight to the United States was leaving in 90 minutes, and the taxi I had booked for an hour earlier hadn’t turned up.
I was becoming very anxious. I repeatedly called to find out when the taxi would arrive, and the operator’s response was the same each time, “Next available.”
Eventually, I gave up, dragged my bags up to the main road, flagged a taxi and got to the airport. I caught my flight with minutes to spare, but the stress I went through was extreme.
This experience was far from unusual—everyone knew the taxi service sucked. Until Uber came along, most of us didn’t even know we could resolve this problem.
Today, we have the same situation with business communication—it sucks. The empirical evidence demonstrating this is overwhelming. But when I talk to most business leaders and communicators about this, the usual response is, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. Everybody complains about communication. It’s just the way it is.’ Like the taxi system before Uber came along, most of us don’t even realise that we can solve this problem.
And the solution is relatively simple. But before we look at it, let’s understand the problem.
Here is an experience many would be familiar with: several years ago, one of our partners in The Netherlands described how his wife had come home from work after attending an all-staff town hall meeting. The CEO had spoken for 90 minutes. Ronald asked her what she remembered. Her response was, “The chairs were uncomfortable.”
Even when Ronald pressed her, she could only recall that about 30% of the staff would be made redundant. She couldn’t explain why, how they would decide the redundancies, or whether she would be affected. The net effect of that 90-minute session was confusion, uncertainty and considerable panic.
The dominant model for business communication is to construct arguments, make assertions and state opinions. It’s a flawed paradigm and contributed to the situation experienced in that town hall meeting.
We have asked thousands of business people to respond to straightforward tasks like, ‘Pick one of your organisation’s values. Explain what it is and why it’s important.’ We then ask them to review their response. Over 90 per cent self-assess as using the assertion method of communicating and using overly complex and abstract words. It’s become the default mode of communication in business.
So, what are the impacts? First, let’s examine the status quo.
- For the past two decades, only a third of US employees have been actively engaged, and about 15 per cent have been actively disengaged;
- Communication is almost always the number one problem cited by staff in engagement surveys;
- Most meetings and presentations are appalling—PowerPoint-heavy, boring and meaningless;
- Trust in leadership is low;
- Leader authenticity is highly desirable but very rarely achieved;
- Strategy is poorly understood;
- Just 5 to 20 per cent of people know what their organisation is trying to achieve;
- Just 13 per cent of salespeople generate 87 per cent of sales, while others barely make their quotas, if at all; and
- Most leaders self-assess as being good (often very good) communicators (so they are not the problem, someone else is).
We can’t solve this problem by doing more of what we already do. In 2017, I was in Istanbul, working with 35 CEOs/COOs and CHROs. When I described the broken commuication system, one of the CEOs said, “Two years ago, communication was the number one problem identified in our employee engagement survey. So I kicked off a major project with substantial investment to fix this. A year later, nothing had changed. But I wasn’t that worried as I knew it would take time. We just received this years results. The needle hasn’t moved at all. Now I’m worried.”
Solving the broken business communcation system requires us to think differently. It starts by acknowledging that we have a problem. We need to demote the prevailing assertion-dominant paradigm to simply being one of our communication choices. Then, we add a healthy dose of story-powered communication into our repertoire. Only by doing both can we become effective business communicators.
By achieving a more balanced approach to business communication, we can repair the current system. As Uber demonstrated, the problem is fixable, and we can improve the experiences of our audiences.
Let’s start today. We can do better. Our people deserve better.
Harter, Jim (2022). ‘U.S. Employee Engagement Drops for First Year in a Decade’, Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/388481/employee-engagement-drops-first-year-decade.aspx.
Kaplan, Robert and Norton, David (2005). ‘The Office of Strategy Management’, Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2005/10/the-office-of-strategy-management.
Bosworth, Mike and Zoldan, Ben, (2012). What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story, McGraw-Hill.
About Mark Schenk
Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on: