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Conscious Communication: Headline Speaking and Writing

Written by: James Ware, CFA
Published on: Jun 14, 2017

This post originally appeared on Enterprising Investor on 3 May 2017,

Some of you will be grateful for this piece, not because it helps you, but because you can forward it to a long-winded colleague.

We are busy people, and we appreciate it when others get to the point. You never expect to hear a client say, “I enjoy an inartfully delivered, vague, and winding message with digressions and personal updates about your private life.” And yet that’s how some advisers communicate with them. Maybe not the private part, but certainly the vague and winding part.

Investment teams often ask our consultants about communication — how, when, and what to say. So as a public service message, I offer this advice: Learn headline speaking and writing.

To do this you need to be more conscious when communicating. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and remind yourself that he or she doesn’t know what you’re going to say or write next. Therefore, it’s helpful to give them a headline so they have an immediate context. For example, if you want to deliver a message about your firm’s next town hall meeting, start with, “On the topic of our next town hall . . . [insert your message].”

I recently heard someone say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about how we communicate with the staff, and how we often get questions about strategy and what our firm is doing. So it occurred to me that we ought to clarify our strategy — especially the Asian piece, because that’s where most of the general questions occur — and then present a strategy update in our next town hall meeting. What do you think?” As the speaker presented his idea, I looked around the room and saw three furrowed brows. Clearly, we were all wondering, “Where is he going with this?” The headline was contained in the last 10 to 15 words. The first 50 words had listeners asking, “Is there a depot for this train of thought?”

One CEO felt so strongly about headline speaking — he referred to it as brevity — that verbose speakers didn’t make it past the hiring interview with him. Candidates were coached up front by human resources to be succinct or they were out. This CEO was smart enough to realize that some people are naturally more loquacious, so he stated publicly that people could speak however they wanted after work, but in the office, brevity ruled. Staff members were expected to toggle their communication styles on and off.

Headline speaking can also be customized. One colleague uses this form: “The big idea is . . .” Then he will usually list three points: For example, “The big idea is that we ought to be over-weighted in energy stocks. The three stocks I would choose are A, B, and C.” Then, if someone wants more details, fine, he’ll provide them.

Also, eliminate verbal tics when speaking.

Far too many professionals are a continuous stream of “um,” “ah,” “er,” “you know,” and my favorite as the father of two teenagers, “like.” I once counted 14 “likes” in a 30-second conversation. “Like, c’mon, that’s just, like, too many ‘likes’ in, like, one exchange. You know?”

When writing, the same advice applies.

Most portfolio managers want a short summary of an investment idea, with the thesis up front and a few supporting points. Provide enough information to provoke interest but not to overwhelm. In discussing this approach, one manager responded, “We pride ourselves on giving our analysts autonomy. Telling them how to prepare their reports seems a bit controlling.” Fair enough.

I believe in autonomy as well, but I reminded this manager that he is effectively the client for the analyst’s work product — the research reports. Yes, he should aspire to keep analysts motivated and engaged, but he must also find a balance between autonomy and a suitable report, with the end goal being portfolio performance. I recommended that the manager have a respectful conversation with his analysts and negotiate the guidelines for research reports. Most analysts like working in an environment where the rules are clear.

With both headline speaking and writing, aim for clarity. Again, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask, “Is there any way they could misunderstand my message?”

I regularly hear comments like, “He told her that they weren’t going to accept his proposal.” If I stop the conversation and ask, “Is everyone clear about what was just said?” often each listener has a different view of who the “he,” “her,” “they,” and “his” were. It is better to train yourself and your colleagues to be deliberately explicit in communication. Don’t assume everyone will know what you mean. State it clearly: “John told Mary that the investment committee wasn’t going to accept Frank’s proposal.”

It’s well worth asking, “Could anyone misunderstand my message?” If so, make it clearer.

Print this post and leave it on your long-winded colleague’s desk. I think they’ll get the message. It’s pretty clear.

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