Sound Bites Can Bite

ADVERTISERS USE sound bites to capture attention and promote interest. Recently our leaders both political and non-political adopted the use of clever snippets that might be witty but they are not clear. In fact, they often produce confusion, rather than dispel it. A catchy phrase may entertain, but it rarely enlightens. As we all know from misreading email messages, words have multiple meanings that obscure intentions and plans.

Every leader aspires to be a great communicator who gains acceptance, builds commitment and ensures stellar outcomes. To achieve this goal, however, leaders need to avoid seven derailing fallacies.

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  1. Communication and promotion are not the same. Promotion’s goal is to excite emotion in the short-term.   Communications goal is to establish common ground and connect for the long-term.
  2. Information sharing is not communication. Communication ensures that the message both spoken and unspoken is understood, trusted, accepted and acted upon. Information consists of data which may or may not be accepted or utilized.
  3. Holding your cards close to the vest is great for poker but not for building trust and gaining committed to achieve desired goals. Withholding information produces bewilderment and leads to passivity.  It may also indicate a lack of conviction and a need for confirmation before committing to a decision or action plan.
  4. Communication should be consistent and complete. It should not be tailored by staff level. Assuming that senior staff deserves and can handle full disclosure while frontline staff wants only a limited positive spin has been disproven time and again. This assumption, often referred to the “I’ll steer and you just pedal” philosophy, was discarded years ago when quality circles, process improvement and safety ideas illustrated that entry personnel can master complexity and ambiguity.
  5. Communication cannot gloss over errors or mistakes. Even the emperor with no clothes eventually admitted to reality. Deception, obfuscation, and omission reduce respect and create divisions.  It only amplifies uncertainty. Owning up to what went wrong is the first step to making things right.
  6. Communication must not be mindboggling. It must be tested for clarity. Napoleon stationed a private outside his tent and asked the private to read his communiqués. If the private could not understand a portion, he rewrote it. Even an Emperor knew he needed clarity and uniform understanding of proposed plans to be successful.
  7. Repeating a message using different venues (large group and informal settings), formats (presentation and Q&A) and media (verbal, written and digital) improves not only understanding but also acceptance.[/message]

Will following these guidelines really pay-off? It has for many leaders. Organizations with highly effective communicators produce almost 50% higher returns to shareholders over a five year period. This improved results from reduced rework, key talent retention, less conflict, greater productivity and better resource utilization. Improve your communication effectiveness by retiring the sound bite and applying sound communication practices.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. Jane,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Your reference to fluff captures the temptation to substitute substance for slogans. The trap of thinking that information is power stirs some to keep things too close to their vest. In many cases it is a sign of job insecurity not leadership. Your point of different styles is key. We cannot expect others to process information in the same time frame, manner or level of detail. When we want to communicate we must listen and consider our audience.
    Thanks for a great comment.

  2. Mary, I appreciate this article so much. I am always baffled by little phrases that are passed around because they have a nice sound like sleigh bells, but they are as cold and fluffy as the snow as far as solid meaning. Communication is never about the words, it’s about understanding. I’m all over #4. There is such a thing as confidential information that falls into the needs to know bracket, but as far as information about a project, leaders should be as transparent and free with information as possible. People don’t have identical learning styles. The level of information needed by one person to perform best, might in no way be sufficient for someone else to understand their tasks. I believe that even applies to your points 6 and 7. Because my background is in system and usability testing, #5 is especially meaningful. I attended more emergency meetings than I can count that were the result of covering up mistakes and shoving things under the rug in hopes that the errors would never be found. Of course it applies to more than what I just described, but shading the truth, deception, and finger pointing are inviting tragedy.