We’ve measured hundreds of thousands of communication samples from leaders across the globe and identified five major trends shaping leadership communications.
One of our greatest assets here at QC is our global communication database, which contains millions of data points on communication from leaders and professionals around the world, enabling us to build customized benchmarks to show our clients how their communication compares to competitors, peers, and best-in-class communicators.
Our database also allows us to identify, on a broad scale, how communication is evolving. So as the New Year approached, we dug into the data to pinpoint the trends that defined leadership communication in 2016 — and point the way to 2017.
Read on for the full analysis, or view the highlights in infographic form here.
1. In a Post-Truth Society, Trust in Leadership is More Important than Ever
2016 was a year of controversy, from the string of accusations against Theranos’ and Volkswagen’s emissions cover-up to a scandal-ridden presidential election. So it’s no surprise that audiences are looking for leadership they can trust.
We’ve been pleased to see many of our leaders building trust with their audiences by taking responsibility for their messages and offering a transparent look into not only what’s happening, but why and how — and what’s not happening as a result.
For example, Samsung CEO Gregory Lee’s Galaxy Note7 apology was 24 percent more trustworthy than the average crisis communication.
In his letter, Lee established trust by using first-person “we” and “our” language to indicate the company’s responsibility for its mistakes. And rather than dwelling on what went wrong or who’s to blame, he offered detailed insights as to what would happen next, and how:
“We will re-examine every aspect of the device, including all hardware, software, manufacturing and the overall battery structure. We will move as quickly as possible but will take the time needed to get the right answers.”
While the instinct in crafting communications, from crisis releases to earnings calls, may be simply to outline the facts, the most effective messages frame those facts in language that builds relationships and inspires trust from customers, potential clients, investors, and community stakeholders.
Andrew Sullivan and David Beier point out in their October article that transparency and trust are necessary to gain the freedom to operate, and we couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, a company will perform better if it — and especially its leaders — can create trust with all its stakeholders.
2. Persuasive Leaders Harness the Power of Emotion
Recent research has found that more than 60 percent of consumers base their perception of a company on their perception of the CEO. This means our leaders need to know how to influence audiences.
When we analyzed the communication patterns of the global leaders on Fortune’s 2016 list, we weren’t surprised at their persuasive strength. But we were surprised by the kinds of appeals they use to influence their audiences.
When we measure persuasion, based on research dating back to Aristotle, we consider three tactics: appeals to the head (logic), gut (intuition), and heart (emotion). When we looked at the language the world’s greatest leaders use, we expected to see a balance of all three appeals. Instead, we found an unexpected blend.
Persuasion isn’t about logic — it’s about emotion and intuition.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff scores in the 99th percentile for his appeals to intuition.
In his March 2016 interview with Time Magazine, Benioff positioned himself as an expert by noting that he instigated the corporate stance against several anti-LGBTQ bills, but further built his credibility by citing entities much larger than Salesforce that have joined the fight:
“The organizations that had the biggest impact in Georgia were not Silicon Valley companies. We may have started some of this or I may have started some of this, but I certainly didn’t finish it. It was organizations like the NFL, who said to the governor of Georgia, ‘If you do this, we’re not going to consider you for the Super Bowl.’ That’s a big deal. It was people like Disney who said ‘We’re not going to make any more movies in the state of Georgia.’”
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, tugs at our heartstrings.
When Saujani talks about her organization, she appeals to her audience’s emotions through moving stories about the girls she’s encountered in her work. We can see this at play in her 2016 TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection.”
“Take, for instance, two of our high school students who built a game called Tampon Run — yes, Tampon Run —to fight against the menstruation taboo and sexism in gaming. Or the Syrian refugee who dared show her love for her new country by building an app to help Americans get to the polls. Or a 16-year-old girl who built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant in the off chance that she can save her daddy's life because he has cancer.”
Research has shown that embedding key arguments into stories makes them 22 percent more memorable, and Saujani takes full advantage of that, using stories to tug at the audience’s heartstrings and build warm associations with the company and all the good it can do.
3. No More “Fake It ‘til You Make It.” Authentic Voices Rise Above the Noise.
As James Kouzes and Barry Posner say in their bestselling book, The Leadership Challenge, “Authenticity is the true test of conviction, and constituents will only follow willingly if they sense that the vision is genuine.”
This advice extends to communication, as audiences today can spot “phonies” from miles away, and won’t tolerate them. They’re looking for leaders who communicate as themselves rather than putting on a special public persona. Fortunately, we saw plenty of executives practicing authenticity in 2016.
Elon Musk is known for his authentic speaking style.
He may be a renowned visionary, but the way the Tesla founder speaks on stage sounds like the way he’d speak over coffee, as in his keynote at the Tesla 3 unveiling in March:
“When you do your rides tonight, you'll see what we mean. You're sitting a little further front. It feels great. That's what gives you the legroom so that you can have five adults, so the first and second rows have plenty of legroom.”
His easygoing speaking style doesn’t sound overly formal or rehearsed, and gives the impression that his words match his beliefs and actions.
Tim Cook uses an authentic tone to discuss serious issues.
In his February 2016 privacy letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook demonstrated the authenticity audiences demand from their leaders.
“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that's simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”
Cook’s message is serious and his tone honors that gravity, but, like Musk’s, his genuine style goes a long way in building a connection with an audience.
4. In a Charged Political Climate, Leaders Speak for their Companies, Communities, and Social Values
In 2016 we saw our leaders and executives focusing not only on their business results, but on the communities they work in and belong to. This is likely inspired by the rise of CEO activism in our charged political climate, with leaders using their platforms to take stands on social issues.
Executive activists use 15 percent more inclusive language than the average executive.
Inclusive language is made up of plural pronouns that make the audience part of the message, as well as words that evoke a sense of collaboration, openness, and engagement. This language makes the audience feel like part of the movement, and instills a sense of responsibility to help enact change.
For example, in his July 2016 open letter to employees following a spate of violence perpetrated by and against police officers, Nike CEO Mark Parker used three times as much “we” language as the average written communication, making it clear that the problem belonged to the community as a whole.
“We stand against bigotry. We stand for racial justice. We firmly believe the world can improve. […] We cannot solve all these profound, longstanding and systemic issues. However, one thing will always be clear: discrimination in any form and racial injustice are destructive forces. And talking about these issues can help find peace and paths forward. I firmly believe we are at our best when we engage and listen to those around us, in our communities at home and at work.”
Community-oriented language isn’t only for activists.
Though we first noticed the trend among executive activists, we’re seeing more and more leaders focus on community in a variety of communication settings. As audiences continue to demand authenticity, they also expect their leaders to be relatable members of the community, and they want to be included in the message.
And leaders are smart to include them. After all, as research has shown, people are more likely to take action — or support a brand — when they feel as though they’ve got skin in the game.
5. The 2016 “Trump” Card: Clarity
The need for clarity isn’t new, but it’s so critical we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention it. And we’d also be remiss if we didn’t share data on the greatest communication event of 2016: the presidential election.
A loose-cannon candidate, Trump took the media, and most of the political pundits and analysts, by surprise when he won the Electoral College by a landslide in November.
And his strongest trait? Clarity.
Trump’s campaign communications were 1.5x clearer than the average political communication, and 10 percent clearer than his opponent’s.
While his logic wasn’t always traceable, Trump’s messages were clear. His simple vocabulary (he spoke, on average, at a 5th grade comprehension level) and repetitive style stuck with people, and his memorable descriptors and uncomplicated language made those messages stick.
It goes without saying that Trump’s rhetoric is problematic in other ways, and we would never recommend our clients use him as a role model for their own communications. Fortunately, there are plenty of corporate leaders whose clear communication style is an example for the rest of us.
Warren Buffet’s latest report is 40 percent more clear than the average shareholder letter.
Financial communications are among the most difficult to make clear — especially annual shareholder letters. But this spring, we measured more than 2,000 shareholder letters from Fortune 500 CEOs, and found that our best leaders can make even these notoriously dense documents crystal clear.
“Our equity in Coca-Cola grew from 9.2% to 9.3%, and our interest in American Express increased from 14.8% to 15.6%. In case you think these seemingly small changes aren’t important, consider this math: For the four companies in aggregate, each increase of one percentage point in our ownership raises Berkshires portion of their annual earnings by about $500 million.”
Buffett doesn’t hedge or sugarcoat his points. Instead, he delivers his message in a frank, candid tone that eliminates any doubt in readers’ minds as to where he stands.
If Buffett can distill a year’s worth of initiatives and results into one easily digestible document, you can, too. And, in fact, you must.
At Quantified Communications, we urge clients to focus on clarity in all their executive communications because no matter how good the news or how inspirational the message — no matter how transparent or authentic or persuasive — your communication will be ineffective if it’s unclear to the investors, customers, or community stakeholders who hear it.
We’re in a new age of leadership communication.
Communication matters. That’s nothing new. But the landscape and audience expectations are changing fast.
Once upon a time, a c-suiter might give two speeches a year, and the communications team would have the resources and time to conduct a thorough message test on both. But now, executives are expected to engage more openly, more frequently, and across more channels than ever before, and the standard for communication is higher than ever.
Fortunately, our 2016 data indicates that our most prominent corporate leaders are up to the challenge.
As you begin crafting messages and communication strategies for the upcoming year, we encourage you to keep these five trends in mind to increase your influence and propel your organization and its leaders into a stellar 2017.
To find out how QC can use our communication analytics platform to help your leadership deliver best-in-class messaging, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.