A young man, fresh from receiving his MBA, went back to visit his old college professor to ask him a question that had always puzzled him. He asked, "What do you think is the most important quality for someone who wants to become a business leader?"

The professor answered communication, without hesitation.

"The leader who can't communicate can't create the conditions that motivate, and the genius who can't communicate is intellectually impotent," he added. "The organization that can't communicate can't change, and the organization that can't change is dead."

My good friend Nido Qubein, president of High Point University, shared the above example with me.

Mark McCormack, the late founder of International Management Group, now IMG, and a writer, said something similar: "A manager's personal style — how good he or she is at exchanging information — contributes more to a department's efficiency than the results of any structured or organizational brilliance."

The word communication comes from a Latin word meaning "to share." We share ideas, thoughts, information and concerns. Communication can start friendships or make enemies.

And if we don't communicate effectively, we have wasted our time.

As a business owner, author and speaker, I constantly preach that clear communication is of utmost importance. Confusion is bad for business.

Research psychologists tell us that the average 1-year-old child has a three-word vocabulary. At age 2, most children have a working knowledge of 272 words. A year later, that number more than triples. At age 6, the average child has command of 2,562 words.

As adults, our word accumulation continues to grow. We can speak up to 18,000 words each day. But that doesn't mean those messages are clear or correctly received. In fact, words can often obscure our messages instead of clarifying them.

Don't confuse using big words or technical jargon with sounding more intelligent. Fancy language does not equate with clarity.

From time to time, you should re-evaluate your performance in these fundamental areas: speaking, listening, writing, leading meetings and resolving conflict.

  • When speaking, ask if there are questions about what you said. Ask, "Was that clear?" or "Does that make sense?" Invite your audience to restate what you said, and listen to their perception of your message. If you hear something other than what you thought you said, use other words.
  • Listening also involves work; it is so much more than hearing the words the other person says. Watch for signals, ask for clarification if needed and repeat or rephrase their messages to make sure you understood them correctly.
  • Writing often presents opportunities to review your communication before you share the final product with others. I have a "kitchen cabinet" of trusted associates whose opinions I seek when preparing my columns and books. If the writing is unclear or potentially offensive, or if it could be interpreted differently than I intended, they are sworn to challenge me.
  • Leading meetings requires organization and discipline. Prepare an agenda so you can keep on topic and not waste time. A final recap is a good reminder of any decisions or actions that need to be accomplished.
  • Resolving conflict often requires combining all the above communication skills.

Effective communication is a necessity for every occupation I can name.

Here's another story to illustrate my point: A geography teacher was lecturing on map reading. After explaining about latitude, longitude, degrees and minutes, the teacher asked, "Suppose I asked you to meet me for lunch at 23 degrees, 4 minutes north latitude and 45 degrees, 15 minutes east longitude?"

After a long silence, a student answered, "I guess you'd be eating alone."

Mackay's Moral: A few little words can teach big lessons.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.