“The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” Sydney J. Harris
I’ve always appreciated this quote, but it wasn’t until I moved into Leadership roles at Southwest that I realized the gravity of its truth. Conveying information—even very important information—is nothing more than an exercise in speech if the intended audience either does not understand or, more significantly, does not care. And let’s be honest. In the financial world—my world—discussing performance numbers and the regulatory nuance of broad corporate fiscal management isn’t always riveting conversation. It’s detailed, complicated and can often feel detached from the nuts and bolts of daily operational work. Yet, it is a critical, unavoidable component of every business or organization and the driver for some of the most crucial decisions a leader will ever make. Decisions that can have real-world impact on workers and consumers. So how does a leader move from simply conveying information to communicating genuine relevance and meaning that ultimately leads someone—or an entire company—to acceptance and action, no matter the subject?
One of the most meaningful, impactful practices I had the privilege of experiencing under the Leadership of Southwest’s Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Herb Kelleher, was his ability to genuinely endear his audience to his message—any message. Southwest’s 52-year history is replete with operational successes, funny moments, and reasons to celebrate. Herb excelled in making the most of our victories. Yet, it was in facing challenges, many extreme, that his brilliance as a Leader, specifically a communicator, shined the brightest. It wasn’t just his mastery of language that gave his words influential power, it was his ability to demonstrate how deeply he believed not only in his message but in the Employees to whom he was speaking. He brought us into the moment in a way that resonated personally and corporately. Reflecting on those times, I think the difference between informing and communicating comes down to these three principles:
1) Work from an established foundation of trust. This begins well before the conversation.
2) Speak hard truths clearly and factually. Don’t minimize the facts of the problem or the vulnerabilities of the moment. Own both.
3) Be relatable and show you care. Demonstrate astute knowledge about the rationale and details of a decision and an even greater understanding of its impacts.
I won’t tell you it’s always easy. It’s not. But framing communication in a way that invites individuals into the process and conveys their intrinsic value to the outcome is a solid first step to work through almost any challenging decision. It’s true in business. It’s also true in life. I’m privileged to have learned from the best!