I remember how much fun Valentine’s Day was in elementary school. The teacher would hand us a sheet of paper with a heart divided into different areas, ask us to write down the names of people or things we loved, and provide the reasons for those choices. Somehow, this simple exercise would turn into a beautiful Valentine’s Day story for someone special to me. I remember completing this exercise multiple times during my childhood, and I loved it. Why? I was writing from the heart.
Somewhere along the way, however, my love for storytelling faded. As I got older, writing from the heart became a lost art. Facts, references, sentence structure, and punctuation became the drivers of any writing exercise. Over the years, corrections on book reports, essays, papers, and presentations – what author Nancy Slomin Aronie calls “disciplined grammar” – slowly eroded the love I once had for writing. In her book, ”Writing from the Heart,” Aronie goes on to describe the “damaging effects done to writers in school.” In part she blames it on this shift in emphasis – from simple, heartfelt storytelling to a sole focus on writing structure and rules.
I couldn’t agree more with Aronie. The art of storytelling – or writing from the heart – is lost in school and we see the effects later, in business. Most leaders and executives are more concerned with showing how much they know rather than telling an authentic story. It’s not their fault. They were taught that way.
By no means am I suggesting that we throw proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling out the window – although we do sometimes by the nature of how we communicate these days. What I am suggesting is that – no matter what’s being communicated – we should also remember the elementary school principle of writing from the heart. We need to have balance.
Think about it. Our brains are made for that balance. We often hear that the right side of our brain is used for creative endeavors like storytelling. Clearly, however, the left side of the brain is also essential, since it is home to the two main language areas, known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. In other words, the left side of the brain is more active in speech production than the right and is critical to how we put our words together in the first place.
So how do today’s leaders and executives effectively use both sides of their brains to balance “disciplined grammar” with “writing from the heart”? Here are three ways to achieve that balance for any communication.
Use a Structure for Storytelling
Structure is a writing concept we’re taught in our formative years that remains central to effective storytelling. Our 3D Message Pyramid® uses a pyramid structure to help today’s executives and leaders simplify their narratives, while balancing both facts and stories.
At the top of the pyramid is a headline – one or two engaging sentences meant to make the audience lean in and listen to the rest of what you have to say. Once you give them the “big picture,” you need to support it with one or two points – what we call the “facts and data” layer of the pyramid. And because people process information intellectually and emotionally, it’s important to achieve that emotional connection I’ve been talking about – to make the information “come alive.” The next layer in the pyramid does just that. By providing an example, a story, a visualization, or an anecdote, you give your audience an “aha” moment, helping them experience an emotional connection to the story. Once that’s done, the last layer of the pyramid, known as the “bottom line” is used to reinforce the most important message of your story.
Communication science tells us that developing this pyramid three times, with three different messages, is the best way to structure any communication. That applies whether it is a speech or presentation or content for a meeting or important one-on-one discussion. The pyramid structure is designed to engage both sides of your brain – and helps you tell your story.
Speak in Plain English
Today’s business executives – even those who are brilliant, talented people, with multiple advanced degrees, at the top of their fields often speak in a language that only they fully understand. What too often comes out of their mouths is riddled with corporate jargon, buzzwords, complexity, and obfuscation. Why say “I’m out of pocket” when you can just say “I not available”? Or “Let’s drill down some more” when you can say “Let’s look at this in more detail”? What they fail to appreciate is that real power lies in simple, transparent language – using their authentic voice – as opposed to trying to “sound smart.”
Think about how you would actually speak if you were talking to your uncle at the dinner table who works as a plumber or your best friend who runs a flower shop over coffee – neither of whom ever worked a day in corporate America. In other words, plain English. This is not talking down to your audience; it’s talking directly to them without the “biz speak” that gets in the way of a real human connection. Remember – if someone needs a “corporate biz speak dictionary” to understand what you are saying – you need to start over and write in plain English.
In my previous blog, “What Today’s Business Leaders Can Learn from a “Powerless” Woman Who Spoke Her Truth,” I shared how employees, customers, and other stakeholders expect transparency, integrity, honesty, and compassion from today’s leaders. As a leader, you must communicate your core beliefs and values; speak with passion in words that are relevant to your audiences; mean what you say and say what you mean. This is not something that just happens; it requires practice. If you practice repeatedly, using your own natural words and your own personal delivery style, you will come across as credible and confident. You’ll make an emotional connection that will be more meaningful to your audience – and may even motivate or inspire them in unexpected ways.
With these three simple strategies, executives and leaders alike can strike the right balance when communicating – to win the hearts and minds of any audience, any time.