Leadership Tip: Avoiding Dead Air Time

December 04, 2017

Connecting is the leadership ability to identify with and relate to people in such a way that it increases your influence with them. Connecting demands constant attention on the part of the leader so that people stay tuned in to the vision, values, and priorities of the organization. The trick is to keep the connection going no matter what transpires.

KEEPING OTHERS TUNED IN

Before baseball games were televised, radio stations across the country competed against one another for market shares of the listening audience. Watching the game on-site from the grandstands, a correspondent hammered out its happenings in Morse code and sent real-time updates via telegraph to radio stations across the country. At the receiving end, a telegraph operator translated the encoded reports for a broadcaster, who then announced the play-by-play action as if watching the game live.

One young announcer faced a sticky situation when his telegraph machine momentarily malfunctioned during the middle of a ballgame between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Knowing his listeners would switch to another radio station if he stopped broadcasting, the young man improvised to buy time. He acted as if the current batter was fouling off pitch after pitch after pitch. He described one foul ball as nearly being a home run—flying over the fence only a foot wide of fair territory. He elaborately fabricated another story about two boys tussling over a foul ball hit into their section of the stands. After ad-libbing for a few minutes, the announcer started to sweat. He knew the charade would have to end soon. Just as he was on the verge of confessing to having lost communications, the telegraph wire came back to life. Relieved, the young broadcaster resumed the broadcast—finally able to relay the game’s actual proceedings.

The quick-witted young announcer was none other than Ronald Reagan, future president of the United States. Reagan’s aptitude for connecting with audiences garnered him the nickname of The Great Communicator. This simple illustration from his days as a radio broadcaster is packed with insights on connecting with people.

1) Be Creative

Ronald Reagan cleverly used his imagination to keep his audience tuned in to the broadcast of the ballgame. He found an inventive solution to an unforeseen difficulty. Communication without creativity quickly ends in disconnection. As a leader, your challenge is not merely to disseminate information but to capture the imagination of your people.

2) Tell Stories

Foul ball. Another foul ball. Yet another foul ball. That was the basic content of Reagan’s improvised announcing. However, Reagan succeeded in extending the radio broadcast because he turned each pretend foul ball into a colorful story. A player narrowly missed a home run, two kids got in a scuffle fighting over a souvenir, etc.

Packing information in a story extends its shelf life. In other words, principles fade but stories stick. If you want people to remember what you say, convey it in a narrative way.

3) Give Frequent Updates

The worst outcome for any radio network is to have dead air time. People listen long when all they hear is silence. Reagan knew that to keep his audience engaged he had to give frequent updates.

In any workplace, people want to be in the loop. They like to be informed about what is expected of them, about how they are performing, and about any changes on the horizon. When they feel stonewalled by leadership, or simply neglected by those in charge, they rapidly lose motivation.

4) Don’t Be Afraid of Repetition

Ronald Reagan described one foul ball after another while waiting for an incoming telegraph with news about the baseball game. He was not reluctant to repeat the same thing again and again. As leaders, we get in such a hurry to push forward that we sometimes forget that it’s okay restate our vision. Indeed, repeating it is never a waste of time. On the contrary, retelling the vision is crucial because 1) your organization experiences turnover and newcomers need to know the vision, 2) people are easily lose sight of the big picture, and 3) an enlivened vision energizes an organization.