One of my biggest public speaking mistakes was in 2000 when I oversaw the launch of a major public website. On the day of the launch, I was asked to give a short speech to dozens of people, including my team, my bosses, their bosses and other executives.
I spoke about how much the moment meant to me, given my professional history and aspirations, and how proud I was to be involved in and lead the project.
When I was done, the response wasn’t so much “yes!” like “umm, okay.”
I didn’t inspire, engage, or even engage with my audience in any meaningful way. Why? Because I asked myself the wrong question from the start:
I thought, “What do I want to say?” instead of “What does my team want and need to hear?”
As a result, my talk wasn’t about the importance of the project, our hopes for its impact, or even my team’s contributions – all valuable and compelling things. Instead, it prioritized what was important to me personally over what was important to them professionally.
Focusing on “what I want to say” versus “what do they want and need to hear” is a huge communication mistake for leaders because there is no point in getting a message across to your team if the message has little value or relevance to them. . Leaders who focus on ‘what I want to say’ also run the risk of appearing self-centered or oblivious to important realities and challenges in the workplace.
But knowing what your audience wants and needs to hear isn’t as obvious as it seems. Let’s explore these two ideas more deeply.
“want to hear”
In the context of leadership communication, “want to hear” means that the audience is already aware of the general issue, but wants more details or elaboration. Rely on your people managers, internal communication teams and HR staff to understand those valuable details. You can also conduct polls, ask employees questions and comments directly, and hold quarterly meetings with small groups to understand their concerns and ideas.
When you address a “want to hear”, you are filling a bucket that already exists.
“Must hear” is a new idea to them that can improve productivity, morale, work-life balance, motivation or any other core value of your team. Your team isn’t aware of a “must hear” until you say it, so give explicit context and the “why” behind the idea. As with “want to belong,” work with other senior executives to determine what your team needs to understand to do their best work. By collaborating with others on this mission of discovery, you ensure that you focus on an organizational necessity and not a primary personal interest.
When you address a “need to hear,” you build a bucket of essential understanding.
“Need to Hear” vs. “Neat to Hear”
Be sure to identify a real and vital “need to hear” versus a less valuable “nice to hear”. Ask to perform that audit: How important and relevant is this message to them? “Very” = Must hear. “Somewhat” = Correctly to belong.
Once you identify and differentiate your “want to hear” and “need to hear,” direct your communications to hit those points like a bull’s eye.
In a recent example, Jeanette, an HR manager I worked with, wanted to talk to her team about a new book she loved that suggests new ways to support remote workers. Jeanette hadn’t brought these ideas up with her collaborators before, and the only reason in her head for sharing the book was that the ideas appealed to her.
I asked Jeanette, “How would your team benefit from this insight?” She said the ideas could help the company improve protocols so remote workers feel more recognized and improve their productivity.
Based on that response, we’ve shifted Jeanette’s focus from “what I want to say about this book” to “how using new technology and innovative thinking can enable us to better support remote workers.” She frames the book as a resource, but not as the point itself.
TED Talks are another strong example of communication that emphasizes audience relevance over the speaker’s interests. All TED Talk topics focus on areas of high public interest, which is usually reflected in the title. You’ll never see a TED Talk titled “My Conversation With [Famous Person],” but you’ll find thousands of TED Talks about having successful conversations.
If you’re having trouble identifying the “want to hear” or “need to hear” of your team, it may help to ask these three questions:
What is the relevance of this communication for my team?
How do I hope my team thinks or acts in response to my communications?
Is this communication something they want or need to hear now? Why?
The answers to these questions can provide valuable insight into continuing the communication (this point serves the interests of my team) or rethinking it (this point serves my interests first and foremost). Effective leaders – and communicators – know the difference.