-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.
“I have the vision for how I want this to work in my mind. I just can’t seem to explain the next steps in ways that make sense to anyone but me.”
Clarity is often a key theme in my coaching sessions with leaders and leadership teams. From their perspective, what they want their organization to achieve is compelling and connects directly to their values. Yet, the path forward is complex and involves each aspect of the organization differently.
Be prepared to explain almost anything at your next meeting with these three communication strategies.
Make a script.
Writing is the quickest way to make thinking visible. Particularly when a group is engaging a complex issue, putting your thoughts in writing can help you articulate what you want your team to accomplish and why the team’s work is important.
One strategy that I often use for my own scripts is the “What / Why / How will we know?” framework I discovered in a workshop by Dr. Nikki Newton.
- What are we doing?
- Why are we doing this?
- And how will we know we got it right?
While Dr. Nikki uses this framework as part of her Guided Math trainings, I’ve found that it works in many contexts outside lesson plans. For example, perhaps I’m preparing for a leadership team meeting and I’d like us to develop Outcomes and Key Results (OKRs) for the semester. Since this is the first time our team has written OKRs, I might write something like this:
I’ve shared with all of us examples of goals written in the “Outcomes and Key Results” format. I’ve asked for 90 minutes of time today so we can use this format to write goals for the semester. I believe that writing goals in this way will focus our work on what matters most, communicate our vision more effectively to faculty and families, and keep us accountable to doing our best work. We’ll know we got it right when we have three to four outcomes that describe what we believe our team should achieve this semester, and each of those four outcomes has three to four measurable key results.
The likelihood of explaining what the team is doing, why the team is doing the work, and how the team will know if the work is done right is much higher if the leader has written down the answers to these questions ahead of time. Give this framework a try and see how it works for you.
Do Now: Think of something that you need someone to do. Write down exactly what you want them to do, why doing it is important, and how they’ll know they got it right.
I once facilitated a meeting with a team known for transforming schools in underserved communities into true community schools. They also struggled to communicate to prospective principals what a successful community school looked like. So, we drew a comic strip.
The comic strip format was key in helping the team develop a shared understanding of their work that they could easily communicate to others. The added benefit of developing the comic strip is that it both helped the team explain their work to principals interested in the community school model and also became a convenient communications tool both inside and outside the organization.
I created a sketch version of this on a whiteboard prior to the meeting, and then I used Comic Life 3 to create this one collaborative with the team. You’ll notice that the draft is clearly far from complete. When using comic strips as a thinking tool, it’s important not to try and make it look too good. The goal is to clarify thinking quickly.
I’ll use comic strips during a work session when it’s clear that a group has great ideas and is looking for words and visuals to explain their work better. Another time to use a comic strip is when complex idea needs to be shared with an audience who needs to know about the project but may not need be interested in the whole initiative overall. Finally, comic strips can be a great individual planning tool that leaders can use words and images to something that needs to be communicated clearly.
Do Now: Think of a complex project you’re working on. What if you had to explain your project in a comic strip? Draw a few boxes on a blank sheet of paper and explain your work using stick figures and captions.
Talk it out.
I often work with small groups of staff who themselves are working on important goals for their organization. We’ll work for hours on a key initiative, build amazing actions plans, and feel confident that we’ve arrived at the best solutions. Then, when the team presents the plan at the next staff meeting, they discover that those affected by the work didn’t have hours of focused planning. Rather, they’re hearing about the new plan for the first time and understandably, they have questions that deserve thoughtful answers.
One easy way to increase clarity of communication is to talk it out first with at least two or three members of the larger group first. Choose at least one person who rarely speaks staff meetings, and one person who always tends to have the first (and the most) questions about any announcement.
You might say, “I’m hoping to talk about chronic absences at our next staff meeting. I met with Ms. Juarez and Mr. Brown about a couple of ideas to support families, and I’m wanting to get your perspective on some parts of it that we don’t really have figured out yet. I’m curious to know what you think…will home visits work?”
Then, just listen. You’ll hear from your staff all the areas of your plan that haven’t been considered yet, and also learn not only where you might encounter resistance, but why they are resisting. And, you’ll have several opportunities to practice explaining whatever you are announcing, meaning that by the time you are ready to announce your plan, you will be confident that the words you are choosing reflect what your staff need to know and understand.
If you serve on a task force, committee, or leadership team that often works on something that affects a larger group, taking time for dialogue within the larger group is essential. Dialogue supports clarity in two key ways. First, dialogue increases clarity by providing everyone an opportunity to seek answers to questions that matter to them. Second, by increasing the amount of time stakeholders have for dialogue, leaders gain insight into how everyone in their organization is thinking.
Do Now: Think of something that you’ve been working on for a while that you need to explain to a large group. Which two or three people could help you uncover what the larger group needs to know and understand? Write down their names and go see them.
Whether you make a script, go visual, or find two or three people to talk it out, increasing clarity of communications always serves leaders well. Make a plan to give one of these strategies a try and let me know how it works in the comments below.