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Leading: Seven genres of business communication

June 27, 2017 -  By

The essence of leadership lies in a person’s ability to communicate ideas and information in a manner that inspires and guides others. Business communication is more art than science and lends itself to being classified into genres, as with other art forms. The applicable genre for the art of business depends upon the situation.

I’ll explore seven distinct genres here.

Aspirational. Communication begins with an idea, perhaps even a dream, to which its creator gives substance. As an idea takes shape, a leader seeks to share it with others who can help him or her make it real. What does the organization aspire to become? What difference will it make in its industry, even the world? And why should others care enough to buy into it? Many potentially great ideas fail right here, if they lack crystal clarity of vision or purpose. Aspirational communication is like the first few chords of a hit song, or the opening scene of a Broadway play; does it grab your attention and do you want to hear and see what follows?

Inspirational. Exceptional leaders excel here. Inspirational communication is the art of the story; it’s where hearts and minds join hands and feet. Leaders must enable team members to visualize the goal, but they also get others excited about the work required to achieve it. The leader must understand what will motivate team members not just to start, but to keep going through tough periods. It’s not necessary for the inspirational style to be like a Knute Rockne locker room speech to be effective. But it is necessary for the leader to connect individual effort with a vision of collective success. Giving team members the ability to visualize success by achieving their own goals, while helping the company reach its goals, is where the inspiration happens.

Strategic. A great idea deserves a plan that will breathe life into it. The leader is responsible for conducting this ongoing exercise through strategic communication. “How” to get there and “what” to do along the way can take many forms. Gathering stakeholders with different perspectives and abilities is a great way to unearth and explore the options. This genre is arguably the most difficult because it contains the most variables. Deciding what not to do can be as important as the focus on what the organization should do. It’s up to the leader to facilitate these conversations and then document them for reference and improvement.

  • What are we already great at doing (internal strengths)?
  • Where are the gaps in our abilities (internal weaknesses)?
  • What untapped opportunities can we seize (external opportunities)?
  • How could our outstanding plan be disrupted (external threats)?

Strategic communication reveals these things and more. The art of this genre lies in threading the elements together into the writing of a cohesive piece of music.

Relational. Once the plan is formed, the leader must figure out how different people and work groups fit together. What’s the work flow? Who does what, when and how often? Relational communication is ongoing, necessary and challenging to do well. This is the genre of memos, team meetings and task forces. It’s the art of orchestrating diverse contributors to play well together; it’s what a conductor does to synchronize an orchestra’s music. The leader needs a sense of timing and teamwork for relational communication to be effective and must tailor the message to the intended audience.

Directional. Leaders occasionally must direct certain things to be done at definite times in specific ways. Directional communication can be the stuff of effective procedure, but it can easily turn into “command and control,” especially if other forms of communication are lacking. A leader must understand how and where this tactic should be used. To the person (or teams) on the receiving end, it can be perceived as the barking of “direct orders” or alternately can be understood as the conveyance of “crucial actions” in fulfilling the mission. Leadership intent and style comes through loud and clear in this genre.

Transactional. There’s a lot of work to get done in a thriving business and no shortage of priorities. Transactional communication often takes the form of reporting, and it’s up to the leader to determine which activities are necessary to report on, how often and to whom. This is the genre of key performance indicators (KPIs or metrics), which provide an ongoing sense of business activity and directional performance. Clarity of communication here is indeed an art form.

Financial. This genre is the language of business. If you’re a musician, you read music; if you’re a producer, you read scripts; if you’re a business leader, you read financial statements and related analysis. The more financials you study, the more fluent in financial communication you become. This language may feel like ancient Greek to some, but even for those versed in modern financial language there are so many different dialects, it can be daunting to interpret. It’s a leader’s job to assure that the language is translated to simple words and clear meaning, so team members at all levels understand how the organization is performing. If financials sit on a spreadsheet, or in a desk drawer, they can’t communicate to anyone; financial communication is the leader’s responsibility.

The fascinating thing about all of these business communication genres is they are each quite different, yet fully complementary. Leaders need to appreciate all these art forms and develop an eye and ear for them through active use. If one area of the seven genres becomes dominant, to the exclusion of others, the leader becomes one dimensional, too, and the business suffers. Each form has its time and place; together they produce beautiful music.

Embrace the seven genres of communication—and enjoy the journey!

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