Sending Clear Messages: Communicating the 'Core Idea'

January 28, 2009

By Kerri Susan Smith

People who know Mike Figliuolo likely were unsurprised when he founded a training and development firm called "thoughtLEADERS, LLC" in 2004. Up to that point, every stage of his career led seamlessly to the next, as he groomed himself in teamwork, delegating, structure, strategy and leadership.

Figliuolo started down this ambitious path early, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, followed by a stint as a tank platoon leader. Next, he taught students enrolled in Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), a period he described as "true people leadership." He spent a few years with McKinsey & Co., then Capital One Financial (COF), and finally, joined Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. (SMG).

"My background is critical to the firm," he explained. "I spent so much time in meetings, listening to presentations that were poorly communicated and left me and other participants unsure of what the message was, what the next step should be and how their research backed up their hypothesis."

Figliuolo was a speaker at the 19th Annual Compete Through Service Symposium, sponsored by the Center for Services Leadership at the W. P. Carey School. Figliuolo's message was welcomed at the service symposium, because many participants have had the same confusing, time-wasting experiences in meetings. Goals go unmet and nobody's career benefits when projects fall through.

"We teach people how to think, using a specific process," he notes.

It starts with a "core idea"

Here's what he teaches clients: first, start with a clear, concise idea of what you want to accomplish, a "core idea."

Let's say you want to invest $4 million in new human resource software. You could verbalize a longer, more expansively defined goal, going on to say that the software "will streamline human resource operations, potentially maximizing efficiency and cutting costs so that three HR support staff jobs can be eliminated."

But why? At this point, remember that your overriding priority is to have every person in that meeting walk out understanding the core idea that "$4 million should go to new human resource software."

Figuring out your core idea comes first, before analyzing data or creating flashy PowerPoint charts. Obviously you're not going into the all-important pitch meeting with just a core idea, though, no matter how concise or clear. The core idea must be backed up with structure and logic in the form of recommendations.

But you've also got to persuade others to personally invest in your idea, and getting that personal investment takes a little thought.

Create a story

For instance, let's say you need the buy-in from six department heads to make the new human resource software a reality. Come up with a scenario in which the legal department could potentially benefit from the purchase. Example: the new software has a background-checking feature that kicks out applicant names appearing on Lexis, a legal database containing, among other things, employee lawsuit filings. This feature alerts users when an applicant who's sued a previous employer comes knocking.

Figliuolo calls this "creating a story." The story provides the argument -- the logical rationale -- for others to come on board. It's an essential part of getting buy-in, because you're pushing the button of a person, who, like you, has departmental priorities.

Let's say you need the support of the sales vice president. Ask yourself: what does she care about most? Her button might be, "hiring effective sales reps who spend as much of their time as possible in the field, selling."

During the pitch meeting, you would mention both scenarios, and ideally, get the positive attention of the directors of both legal affairs and the sales team. Figliuolo calls this "syndicating the story with key stakeholders."

But those stories cannot go unsupported, minus data and analysis, because even the most optimistic decision maker wants some hard facts and figures spelled out before endorsing your core idea. So crunch the numbers, gather the data, and analyze how the information supports the core idea.

"You support your core idea and recommendations by turning them into stories. We are all story tellers; we gather facts to package our core ideas," he continued. "Start with the core idea/goal you are trying to put forward, make the argument for accomplishing that goal, aided by your data and analysis. It is critical that after the meeting, they can say, 'Yeah I see where you want to go and why it is important.'"

Craft the stories for as many constituencies as is necessary, Figliuolo cautions. When he worked for Capital One, "the overriding goal was to reduce our losses. There were many different groups in the division that had lower-level buttons they wanted pushed, but in the end, it all came down to reducing losses. So almost every recommendation I made was directly linked to reducing losses."

Cut the extraneous

When choosing the data to back up your core idea and when writing the stories, remember to cut out extraneous information that will only bore or confuse that constituency, he added. "You want to avoid the extra meetings, the extra analyses, the frustration. You want to be seen as a credible leader, and people want to feel that their leaders know where they're heading," he added.

One of the biggest misconceptions he sees among clients is that storytelling is not a winning strategy in the business world. He calls the thoughtLEADERS process "scientific method in disguise."

All thoughtLEADERS instructors also practice the communication process in other careers, a fact that sets them apart from competitors, Figliuolo said. All thoughtLEADERS instructors use these methodologies in their everyday jobs and therefore can translate the methods into real-world applicable tools and teachings.

A thoughtLEADERS client said that using the process "not only helped me get more recommendations through, it decreased preparation from 30 analyses and five meetings to five analyses and two meetings."

Based in Columbus, Ohio, thoughtLEADERS clients include Nationwide, Heinz, Bain Capital, National City Bank, Oracle, MedImmune, and Mellon. Figliuolo said this thought process can be used by anyone wanting to communicate better, from junior staffer to chief executive officer.