MES invited The Brief Lab’s Lead Instructor Charley Thornton to speak at the MES Fall conference to help senior IT leaders improve their communications skills. Thornton describes himself as a passionate storyteller and musician who is fascinated by what people hear or don’t and what moves them to action. He teaches leaders to communicate more effectively so their words inspire people to get things done. He started The Brief Lab in 2006 and since then has interviewed and advised hundreds of executives. He is an Evans Scholar from Northwestern University where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in drama.
Midsize Enterprise Strategies: You are speaking at the upcoming MES Fall event. What’s your message to these CIOs and IT leaders?
Charley Thornton: That strong, direct communication is an elusive but attainable skill. It majorly impacts individual careers and team performance. One of the marks of a great communicator is their ability to cut through the clutter and get to the most important point – to be brief. This is not easy to do but it is vital – especially in today’s work environment.
MES: As your company name states you are focused on helping executives and leaders be more effective by being brief. Why do so many of us have such a hard time with brevity?
Thornton: There are many reasons but I think there are two that are especially important today. One, we like to be very busy--moving fast with lots to do. And two, we’re constantly consuming tremendous volumes of information. These two things put together create a deadly combo for communication because it means there is almost no time for focused, clear thinking. Even if we do get a few minutes to clear our heads, most of us opt to immediately distract ourselves instead. Look around a waiting room sometime. There is no silence anymore. This is a problem because when leaders don’t think before they speak, they don’t transmit clarity, teams get mixed signals and performance suffers.
MES: Is it true that some of your methodology you share with business leaders works for the Navy SEALs? What are the key takeaways from teaching SEALs?
Thornton: Yes, we work with a few Navy SEAL teams as well as other elite units in the Army and Air Force. It’s a privilege to work with all of these groups. I’m struck by how extraordinary and at the same time ordinary these soldiers are. In one sense, they are clearly wired differently than most people. They see obstacles differently. The bigger the challenge, the more determined they are to conquer it. I remember one soldier who told me that he took up ultra-marathoning because he was a below-average runner in his group. He later won a number of competitive races in the event. It’s rare to meet people like that in daily life, but it’s very common to meet them in these units. At the same time, I’m struck by how ordinary they are – not much like the Hollywood stereotypes. This is especially true when it comes to communications. They feel held back by the same things that face a lot of us – too many meetings, too many emails, too much info. They are not immune to these factors.
MES: What gets in the way of business leaders being brief in their communications with employees, partners and customers?
Thornton: We don’t have time or a consistent approach to prepare for these important conversations. We hurriedly collect our thoughts as we walk into the meeting and then we wing it. We need a way to prepare in minutes and know that we’re prepared to set appropriate context.
MES: In your years of training, what would you say is the enemy of brevity for business leaders?
Thornton: In the spirit of brevity, see my answer to question 2!
MES: Do you think technology and IT industry executives have a bigger challenge communicating succinctly and effectively than in other industries?
Thornton: Absolutely. It’s very common for smart people with sophisticated technical knowledge to struggle to simplify concepts for others who aren’t experts. This is a challenge for any industry where detail-oriented people are a premium.
MES: You must have a favorite story of an executive or someone you trained who really mastered your methodology and went out to great success. Can you share a story or two?
Thornton: I’ll share one that happened recently. I was working with the operations team at one of the major broadcasting companies. They’re job was to support advertising sales. One of the top sales leads called the head of operations and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing over there but I just had my weekly ops meeting and we got more done in 30 minutes than we used to get done in 60.’ I love hearing those stories. It’s amazing what people can do with a simple process and a little effort.
MES: How does a leader impress upon his team and staff members the importance of being brief so they don’t have to endure longer-than-necessary meetings?
Thornton: Define what the team will gain. Set a clear standard. And then – this is the hard part – set a good example.
MES: Have you ever encountered someone you could not train to be a concise communicator?
Thornton: I think everyone can improve with enough work. We don’t claim to cure anyone–just to provide a process that works. The ones who don’t change are often the ones who don’t accept that they have an issue to begin with.
MES: The question everyone is dying to ask you: Has all your training turned you into a brief and succinct communicator (personally and professionally) or do you catch yourself at times straying from what you teach?
Thornton: This is easy - I still struggle with this all the time. I think most people do. I have gotten better. But it is certainly a journey. I still find ample opportunities to geek out about things that interest me--work, music, my kids. But I try to make sure the other people in the conversation share my passion. If they don’t, I keep it brief.
Thornton periodically posts blogs on the art and science of being brief. They are a good read.
Have some thoughts on the value of being brief? Contact Robert Demarzo at email@example.com.