The Art of Effective Communication – Lessons from Colin Powell

This past Sunday on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd interviewed former Secretary of State Colin Powell to get his perspective on the Iran nuclear agreement that has grabbed the headlines over these past several weeks. As a retired four-star general and statesman, Powell is someone eminently qualified to render an opinion on the provisions of the agreement. The bottom line – he thinks it’s a pretty good deal.

However, it is not Powell’s opinion that I find instructive; it is the manner in which he comes to that opinion and communicates it that I find worthy of study. I am, let’s just say – blown away – by his presence that, to a great extent, is created by how he communicates. Communication is fundamental to building a base of credibility which becomes a launching pad for leadership effectiveness.

I had the opportunity to see Powell and Deepak Chopra at the Sage Summit this summer in New Orleans. They engaged in an animated discussion about the importance of small businesses and effective leadership. The interaction of these two personalities was a wonderful mix of discussion, humor, and personal values.

I used the Meet the Press interview to sharply focus on Powell’s communication capabilities. He conducted a clinic in the art of communication and I took note of four specific focal points that are worthy of consideration:

  1. Tone of voice

In his work Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes, Dr. Albert Mehrabian contends that 38% of a message is conveyed by tone of voice compared to only 7% that is conveyed by words. Powell’s voice is measured and animated, calm yet enthusiastic to make his points. The tone, as is the message, is one of certainty.

  1. Body language

Powell is poised and engaged with the interviewer. His body language not only supports his message, it is his message. (Mehrabian claims that body language, facial expressions, and gestures account for 55% of the message.)

  1. Use of metaphor

Powell describes the current state of Iranian nuclear development as a “super highway” with “no speed limit.” The purpose of the agreement is to narrow down future development to a “single lane.” These images make clear what he sees as the potential impact the deal can have.

  1. Clear statement of his point of view

Powell frames his response by first stating, “I think it (the agreement) is a good deal.” He then describes that he has “studied” the outline of the major points as well as “studied the opposition.” This sets the stage for rendering an informed judgment that describes both his data source and his rationale.

The threat of nuclear proliferation and use of nuclear weapons are serious, global issues. I do not want to trivialize their importance. Nor do I want to suggest that you should agree with Powell. What I am suggesting is that he demonstrates the art of effective communication that opens up discussion, debate, and dialogue. As someone in or aspiring to a leadership position, Powell gives all of us lessons worthy of closer scrutiny.





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