Effective Communicators Tell the Time, then Build the Clock

To make sound decisions, leaders need command of both the details (the “How”) and bottom-line impact (the “What”) of challenges as they arise. To help their followers make sound decisions and respond correctly to these challenges, leaders must also be skilled at conveying messages clearly, effectively and quickly. Effective communicators know the key is providing information in the right order: Tell the What first; then explain How you got there.

The following anecdote makes the point. At one point in his career Dr. Charles DeMarco, my father, was the chief of medicine for a large corporation in my hometown. At one company planning meeting, he was on the agenda to provide a three-hour overview of a critical safety issue for the firm. Dad had an excellent reputation for ensuring such issues were handled correctly and quickly, so when previous presentations had run long and the day was growing short, the CEO asked him, “Could you shorten up your presentation so we can wrap up the day?”

“No problem,” Dad replied. “Would you like the 30-second, 3-minute, or 30-minute version?”

As you would expect, the CEO wanted the 30-second version. So, looking sternly at the CEO, my Dad said slowly, “OK. Here it is. We have a problem that will cost $50 million dollars to fix . . . plus legal fees.” The CEO paused, cast a pained glance at the other executives around the table, and sighed. “Charlie, looks like we’d better have the three-hour presentation.”

To be an effective communicator, remember this maxim: First, tell the time; then build the clock. Leaders and followers that give too many details (clock-building) usually meet resistance because they rarely get to the point (telling the time). To ensure your message is received, communicate the Whats — the essential or need-to-know items — first. Then, if more details is required or requested, explain How you arrived there. Mastering this technique will lead to captivating, clear and concise messages that make it easy for listeners to focus, understand and engage with you.

But keep in mind, most times people just want you to tell them the time, not build them a clock.

First, tell the time Then build the clock
Content Communicate the critical WHATs Dive deep into the HOWs
Sequence Up front Only if asked for more info
Level of Detail Low detail; the “bottom line” only High detail
Length of Message Concise; 1 minute or less As much time as necessary
Language Clear, simple words; crisp sentences Precise language specific to the situation; lengthy sentences & paragraphs
Example “We have a problem that will cost $50 million dollars to fix.” The details, issues & sub-issues around a complex environmental problem created by the company’s local production facilities.