In the months since Barack Obama has taken office, a curious thing has occurred in his communication style. He has toned down the rhetoric and geared up the details. As Don Baer who once worked for President Bill Clinton put it, Obama is now “the Great Explainer.”
In doing so, Obama is following in the tradition of a previous president, Franklin Roosevelt. At his best, Roosevelt, either on radio or to the press, took on the role of a trusted friend explaining things in simple terms so that anyone could understand them. For example, Roosevelt compared the U.S. program of Lend Lease to Britain in 1941 to a neighbor lending a garden hose to a neighbor trying to put out a house fire.
Explanation is a key attribute of leadership communications. Leaders know to inject their communications with verve and enthusiasm as a means of persuasion, but they also need to include an explanation for the excitement. What does it mean and why are we doing it are critical questions that every leader must answer with straightforward explanations. Here are three ways to become an effective explainer.
Define what it is. The purpose of an explanation is to describe the issue, the initiative, or the problem. For example, if you are pushing for cost reductions, explain why they are necessary and what they will entail. Put the cost reductions into the context of business operations. Be certain to explicate the benefits.
Define what it isn’t. Here is where the leader moves into the “never assume mode.” Be clear to define the exclusions. For example, returning to our cost reduction issue, if you are asking for reductions in costs, not people, be explicit. Otherwise employees will assume they are being axed. Leave no room for assumptions. This is not simply true for potential layoffs but for any business issue.
Define what you want people to do. This becomes an opportunity to issue the call for action. Establishing expectations is critical. Cost reductions mean employees will have to do more with less; explain what that will entail in clear and precise terms. Leaders can also use the expectations step as a challenge for people to think and do differently. Your explanation then takes on broader significance.
Good explainers need to be careful, however, not to overdo the details. In a town hall meeting format, the leader sketches the facts and supports them with data points. Dwelling too long on a single point, or points, risks not simply boring the audience but confusing them. Save detailed explanations, which are necessary, for written documentation or team meetings. The latter presents an opportunity for the next level of leaders to translate the communications into action steps.
As such, detailed explanations work well in face-to-face situations, or in team meetings. They become opportunities to elaborate on possibilities. More important, they also allow individuals to offer their feedback, something that typically cannot occur in large-scale town hall events. The explanation becomes an invitation for discussion, and skillful leaders use it to communicate not simply facts, but also to engage support for their ideas.
One final point. Explanations may include aspirations. On March 31, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt gave a briefing to Congress on his meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in which the future of post-War Europe was discussed.
During the course of his presentation to Congress, as H.W. Brands writes in a brilliant new biography of Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class, the President, only weeks from death, mused momentarily to talk about the need for enduring peace. “Twenty-five years ago, American fighting men [in reference to World War I] looked to the world to finish the work of peace for which they fought and suffered. We failed them then. We cannot fail them again.”
FDR, like all good leaders, knew how to close a good explanation with an equally good challenge; it puts people on notice and gives them a reason for action.
First posted on HBR.org 6/22/2009