3 Keys to Effective, Strategic Communication
Have you struggled to communicate your message effectively in past meetings, emails, or reports? You’re hardly alone. Researchers have found that security professionals often struggle to connect their security risk management message with other members of the organization.
“This often means that the strategic impact of security risk is discounted by organizational decision makers,” wrote the researchers behind a 2023 ASIS Foundation report, The Influence of Security Risk Management.
Whether security professionals are presenting information in-person, virtually, through spoken word or written communication, their message, delivery, and audience must all match up, says Lida Citroën, executive branding expert, CEO of LIDA360, and the facilitator of the 2023 CSO Secure Horizons event at GSX.
So, what makes good communication? Citroën says it takes confidence, clear messaging, emotional intelligence, rapport building, and modulation of voice and tone. Pay close attention to who you’re talking to and their reactions to your information—especially around sensitive issues—so you can match your approach to the situation, softening your voice when expressing condolences or speaking more directly when outlining action points.
Knowing your audience is critical when starting to craft your communication plan, Citroën says. Ask yourself:
- What do I know about the audience? What is keeping them up at night, and what do they dream about? How can you solve a problem for them or help make the world better?
- Why are they here? Did they ask for you to help solve a problem? Do they see you as credible and reliable?
- What is their pain driver or joy driver? If they feel good, why? If they feel bad, why? Know what will excite them, turn them off, or build credibility.
Communication is not about you, but about your audience. Understanding your audience is a huge part of branding, marketing, communicating, and building influence, she adds. Be sensitive to your listeners’ needs—you’re the one who wants something, so you should figure the audience out. That doesn’t mean you need to change who you are—just change your approach.
Connecting with the Audience
While you need to share something about yourself to connect, the points you choose to emphasize depend largely on your listener’s situation. People have two sets of needs: functional and emotional. Without emotional intelligence and a personable communication style, speakers might find themselves stuck.
“You might be the most technically competent person I have ever met, but if you creep me out, we are not going to work together,” Citroën says.
In these cases, leverage personal and confident stories to connect more effectively with the audience, especially when the topic is dry. Stories enable communicators to better share data, capture attention, and drive points home, and they are also a gentler way to guide an audience into a difficult topic. That is not to say the story should be random or simply comic relief to break the ice—instead, they should be part of a carefully considered and crafted message.
Your message should have an arc. Consider the classic three-act structure (first attributed to Aristotle):
- Opening. Leverage a story, a surprising statistic, or a mission statement to get the audience’s attention.
- Body. Unpack the situation clearly and concisely.
- Close. Stick the dismount, Citroën advises. Audiences often remember the closing statement most, so don’t end a compelling case with “Well, that’s all I have today.” Even in an email, she says, try ending with a call to action, such as “I know we can do this. Come see me if you have any questions.”
Also consider the type of message:
- Demonstrative. Showing the audience how to do something.
- Informative. Telling the audience about something.
- Inspiring. Empowering the audience about something.
- Persuasive. Convincing the audience to take action.
Effective communication can leverage more than one type of message, Citroën notes. If you need your team to work overtime during a holiday season, consider combining persuasion and inspiration in your message.
Crafting Your Communication
For each message you present—whether an email or a presentation—start with five steps, Citroën says:
Start with a goal. Consider starting with your conclusion, she advises. What do you want your audience to be thinking about after your message? From there, go back into crafting the other two arcs of your message.
Pick the type of message. Does your goal necessitate a demonstrative approach? Do you want to inspire or just inform?
Identify your big idea. Is this scary? Inspiring? Bold? Think about the emotional response your big idea might illicit from an audience and craft your message accordingly.
Craft your key messages. Prepare to meet the audience’s emotional need to understand—you know what you need the audience to take away from your message, but will they feel safe asking questions? Will they feel empowered to speak up? Consider outlining your communication—don’t write out your whole speech (this can lead to a stilted, unnatural delivery), but give yourself visual clues to make sure you communicate your goal, big idea, and key supporting points, even if the conversation has to pause for clarifying questions or discussion.
Articulate your supporting points. Supporting materials give your big ideas some breathing room while reinforcing them. Prepare supporting points to respond to changes within the audience—why is your idea really exciting or better than other concepts? Are you ready to address skepticism?
Delivering Your Message
Stage presence is not an issue of clothing or charisma, although those can help, Citroën says. Instead, it’s a level of commanding the room—moving around to make sure the audience feels connected, making eye contact to different people, taking up space. Confidence is hard to fake, but it can be fostered. If you’re nervous speaking in front of a crowd, just look at the tops of people’s heads instead of direct eye contact. Also, memorize the first three to five minutes of your presentation; after that, you’ll settle into the scenario and relax, she adds.
Stage presence is also about clarity of message—if your message is disjointed or convoluted, it is more difficult to follow and listeners become easily distracted. Relatable speakers can also hold a listener’s attention more readily, so aim to connect on a personal level quickly.
For video calls, command your surroundings with well-designed placement of your camera, microphone, and lighting. Look at the camera, don’t sit below it, and craft your view so that you fill the frame, Citroën recommends. Make sure the environment behind you is appropriate—the audience doesn’t mind seeing your house, but your laundry hamper is distracting.
Think about vocal factors that can undercut confidence in your message. These are often triggered by anxiety or nerves, and you might need to record yourself speaking to notice them and start actively correcting the issues.
- Fillers. A complete lack of filler sounds and words (um, uh, like, so, well) feels inauthentic and too rehearsed, but too many can distract and make you seem uncomfortable with your message.
- Up-speak. This speech pattern ends every sentence on a higher tone or note, so everything sounds like a question. This drives down the level of confidence in your message. Once you’re aware of it, though, you can start to manage it, Citroën says. Think of your verbal sentences of having purposeful punctuation at the end—periods, exclamations, questions… not commas.
- Vocal fry. This speech pattern ends words and sentences with a low-voice reverberation, similar to a Valley Girl accent. It can feel simultaneously too casual and aloof for most business communications.
Also consider the optics of your presentation, including body language and wardrobe.
Your body language can erode trust in your message and your personal brand. If you avoid eye contact, use aggressive facial expressions, angle your body away from the audience, cover your mouth, hide your hands, or put a barrier (like a podium) between yourself and the audience, it can undercut your outreach. Open body language, on the other hand, builds trust and confidence—use open-palmed gestures, eye contact, nod when appropriate, and face speakers head-on.
Wardrobe also matters. You might dress casually, but don’t dress carelessly, she says. Maybe your everyday work style is blue jeans, but if you’re presenting to the board, consider elevating the look a little—not to the point you feel inauthentic, but in a way that’s respectful to your audience.
Think about your image in terms of:
- Dress comfortably. If your shoes hurt, you’ll be thinking about that instead of your content. The audience will likely pick up on your distraction.
- Make sure your outfit feels authentic to you. Is the wardrobe your style, or do you feel like you’re wearing someone else’s clothes?
- Is your wardrobe functional for the activity? Can you move around? Will anything distract? Will anything get caught on a different garment (such as a bracelet snagging on a sweater) and distract you?
- What will the audience find appropriate?
- Is your wardrobe respectful to the site and to the audience?
- Will you be seated on stage or standing? If seated, sometimes pants are not as flattering as they were when you were standing. Sometimes a skirt is suddenly too short. Make sure that the bottoms of your shoes do not have holes in them that the audience will see.
- What will the background be like? If it’s a black curtain or wall and you are dressed in all black, you’ll be a floating head. Consider a light contrast.
- Will the venue be hot or cold? Sweating is no fun on stage—wear dark colors to avoid awkward stains.
- Will you have a wireless or lavalier microphone? Wear something it can clip onto (a belt, pants, etc.). If you will have a handheld microphone, make sure your hands look clean.
All in all, make sure that the optics don’t sabotage all the hard work you already put into crafting your message. When it comes to trust, after all, “your words are less important sometimes than what we see,” Citroën says.
Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her directly at [email protected].