Bill Nichols

30 January 2015

Bill Nichols

Leader Communications: The 3Cs of Motivation (February 2015)

Leader communications often retreats behind platitudes and, evidence suggests, is seriously damaging to business or cause (writes Dr Bill Nichols).  Easily embarrassing and irritating too.

So how do leaders ‘make dreams come alive’? (To quote guru Warren Bennis in an earlier Ad Astra blog). The solution, recent research finds (*1), is 3Cs.

That’s the balanced melding of content, context and colour.  Here’s why they matter – and how.

Power of Leader Communications

Leadership is a hot management topic.  If you have lifetimes available, check out all those airport pot-boilers, academic texts, blogs and manuals.

Leadership’s exact definition generates extensive debate.  But we know that it:

  • Is linked positively to business performance – both operationally and financially
  • Requires effective leader communications of a clear strategic vision.
  • Can generate positive reputation, attract talent and win wider stakeholder support.

‘How’ – Content and Context

But ‘effective’?  That ‘how’ is seriously murky.  Magic, charisma, dark art?   Or carefully-structured crafting?

Effective leader-communicators (or their speech-writers) integrate three major dimensions (3Cs).  Each dimension, suggests recent analysis, is mutually reinforcing.  Each must also break the sterility of management ‘wordzak’ (my coinage, cp. ‘muzak’).

First content or ‘meaning-making language’ (posh: ‘locutionary’).  This layer is more than facts alone. Content confirms starting points (organisational ‘beliefs’).  Creates shared ‘mental models’ to help us engage.  And finally highlights simple goals that everyone can grasp.  Compare:

  • Classic wordzak: “This year our priority is to deliver unsurpassed customer satisfaction”.
  • 3C Clarity: “Customers make pay-days. Every time we touch a customer (even by simplest email) we can make or break those pay-days. Customer satisfaction means their satisfaction with every contact, every day.”

Second context or direction-giving language (posh: ‘perlocutionary’).  Context dispels ambiguity in leader communications. It identifies tasks that put content into practice.  And it usually links rewards to goals:

  • Wordzak: “We will deliver satisfaction by focusing on continuous innovation at the boundaries of service”.
  • 3C Clarity: “We recognise that every client has special needs. So every day we all learn and share more about meeting those needs.  Together we adapt and improve.  And we understand that the more we contribute, the more we progress as individuals.”

How – Colour

Content and context take us a long way.  But fully effective leader communications requires orchestration.

So third and finally comes colour, the feeling or empathetic language (posh: ‘illocutionary’).  Colour is often notable by its absence.  Sometimes superficial.  Sometimes cringe-making.  But, properly wrought, it adds controlled and motivating emotion.  If, as leader, you want others to ‘believe’, you must yourself ‘believe’.  And you must show it personally:

  • Wordzak: “We will create a service of which we can all be proud and which will be a shining example for others”.
  • 3C Clarity: “For me every time my ‘phone rings, I’m conscious that everything we do is potentially ‘on the line’. To me, every failure feels personal. That way customers sense that we ‘get it’.  That we don’t just tick boxes.  That, if they need us to, we’ll throw those boxes away.  That’s satisfaction.”

Three Cs in Practice

So next time you craft leader communications – formal or impromptu – check:  content, context and colour.  Good and bad examples equally welcome here please.


(*1) The underlying theory here is MLT – motivating language theory.  See Mayfield, J. et al (2015), “Strategic vision and values in top leaders’ communications: motivating language at a higher level”. International Journal of Business Communication, 52 (1) 97:121.  Originally: Sullivan, J. (1988), “Three roles of language in motivation theory”, Academy of Management Review, 13 104:115.

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