Clear communication is critical in building relationships, and you need these relationships to develop advocates for your program. As a leader, you will communicate with many people in many situations from one-on-one to (eventually) large groups (more about this in my blog on Space Relations). You also communicate with yourself, often as the initial step in reaching others. Communication is a giant topic with extensive subtopics.

In an online article, Marlene Chism identifies three communication mistakes which are at play in any professional situation. She states that “one of the most valuable tools leaders have for driving results and improving performance is conversation.” No matter what channel you choose and no matter your message, there are always three parts: the sender, the message, and the receiver.  If any part is muddled the message won’t get through. 

Obviously, you are the sender.  Unless you are speaking for a group and haven’t made it clear that you are presenting information that is not necessarily your own belief, there is rarely any confusion about the sender.

The message is another matter.

Aside from the need to tailor the message to the medium and the receiver (which I’ll discuss another time), you need to be sure you are not inadvertently bringing confusion. To ensure message clarity, you must avoid mistakes that can affect all communication no matter which method/medium you use.

Lack of focus is the first blunder.  Are you trying to communicate so much that the channel is completely clogged?  If the receiver can’t make sense of where you are going, they often stop listening. Too many examples and too much background information become overwhelming to the person you are addressing.

School librarians often make this mistake in speaking with their administrator.  They are so anxious to be sure the principal understands the basis for the proposal and to demonstrate they have fully thought it out, that not much of the goal gets through.  Administrators are drowning in details as is. They don’t want or need to assimilate all of yours.

To fix this, identify the bottom line.  State what you want from the principal and for what purpose.  Consider it an elevator speech—no longer than a minute.  Then say, “If you need more information, I will gladly supply it.”

Many of us have this same problem with the conversations in our heads. School librarians wear many hats and sometimes it seems they all require attention at once.  In an effort to take care of all it, your brain swirls thinking of one thing then another without following any one them all the way through. It’s exhausting and non-productive.  A solution to this is to stop, separate all the responsibilities and assign priorities to your tasks. Then work your way through them.

Chism refers to meetings that don’t get anywhere. You probably have attended way too many of these. In Leading for School Librarians I discuss “Making Meetings Matter.”  Among the suggestions are for the leader to learn the purpose and intended results, create and send out an agenda in advance and invite feedback from those who will attend, review the goals so everyone knows where you are heading, and close with action steps that need to be taken before the next meeting.  Focus is what makes the meeting productive.

Putting Tasks before Context is the second block to effective communication. If you start dealing with the details before you have explained and solidified the overall plan, no one will understand where you are going. This is related to lack of focus, but in this case, it is about the sequence.

Back to that conversation with your principal.  If you want to launch a Makerspace or a school-wide reading program, don’t begin with the activities you will include in the Makerspace or how you are getting stakeholders to participate.  Start with the goal – why you need the Makerspace.

It’s similar to creating a strategic plan.  First, you look to your Mission and Vision (hopefully you have them for your library).  Then identify two or three goals that will meet a need and promote that Mission and Vision.  Only then do you develop the action steps for each goal.  You need to know the “why” before you begin the “do.”

The same is true for how you are communicating with yourself.  If the to-do list you create in your head or on paper has you going from one thing to next like the Energizer Bunny, you may get them done, but they won’t add up to solid progress because they were not the outgrowth of a solid plan.  It all becomes busy work. You need to talk to yourself – clearly – about why something needs doing and how it relates to the bigger picture before scurrying around to get it done.

Lack of a “By When” is the final communication error.  Whether it’s you, a teacher with whom you are collaborating, or someone on a committee you are leading, if there’s no set completion date people assume they have loads of time.  Time enough to forget about the task.  Anything that is accomplished tends to be slipshod. If you have not communicated any urgency or priority level, the individual/s is left to assign it themselves.  Your listeners have no idea of the task’s relative importance.

In our internal communication, we plan something in our heads (or on our to-do list) without a due date to give ourselves an out. It keeps us from being accountable. You don’t have to meet your self-assigned deadline, but you do need to know if you missed it – and why.

Focus, Context, and Due Dates will keep your Communications clear.  And being a good communicator is an essential quality of a leader.

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