It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

by Matt Grimshaw
November 24, 2016

Being able to influence people is a core skill for leaders and managers. To be a successful manager you have to be able to influence how your team thinks and feels, their decisions and behaviour.

This type of influence is a practical skill and art. Regardless of the strength of your content or what you know, it’s a manager’s ability to connect and engage with their team that really affects how their messages are received.

The research evidence backs up the old adage: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Yet very few front line managers receive training designed to develop the practical skills they need to be effective communicators.

Here are our top three tips for managers looking to improve their ability to communicate and influence their team.

1) Staging

This is a video of world famous violinist Joshua Bell busking in a Washington DC subway. Bell is playing a $3.5m violin and three days before he’d sold out the Boston Symphony Hall at $100 a ticket.

Bell played in the subway for 45 minutes. Over 1000 people walked past, 20 donated money and only 6 people even paused to listen. He made a total of  $32.

Why? Well this is a great demonstration of the importance of staging. It doesn’t matter how great a performer you are, people will take their cue from the context or setting to decide whether you’re worth paying attention to.

Managers need to make deliberate choices about where and when they will communicate to make sure they have the desired impact on their team.

A quick example from one of our restaurant clients on how influential staging can be on people’s behaviour. We were working with restaurant managers on the impact of their shift briefings and we observed two distinct patterns depending on where the shift brief took place. When the team gathered in the kitchen area for the brief, the hum of the extractor fans created a womb-like white noise. On the subsequent shift, the team treated the kitchen like ‘home base’, gravitating towards it and physically spending more time there. In contrast, when the shift brief took place on the restaurant floor, team members seemed to develop much more of a sense of ownership over this space and on the subsequent shifts spent more time interacting with customers and moving between tables.

2) Body language and tone of voice

The principle of cognitive ease is one of the central tenets of behavioural economics. Put simply, the easier and quicker your brain processes a piece of information, the more ‘true’ or convincing people believe it to be.

At The Pioneers, our view is that people process information from a presenter’s body language and tone of voice quicker and more easily than the actual content of what’s being said.

Imagine you’re a manager who wants to instil confidence in your team that they can hit next week’s sales forecast. If your body language is closed and diminutive, and if you’re barely audible, sound shrill or stumble over your words, then your team will have a clear first impression that you don’t believe in what you’re saying. Once people have this impression, it becomes the lens through which they interpret what’s being said. If there appears to be a conflict between the content and the delivery, then we are hard wired to defer to how it’s being said not what’s being said. In other words, our brains are set up to place more trust in the messages we receive from body language and tone of voice, than from the content of the words.

3) Repetition

There’s a limit to the amount of new information people can take on board at one time. If you want people to learn something new or to change, it’s very unlikely that they’ll pick it up at the first time of asking.

And yet most managers tend to drastically over-estimate their ability as teachers and communicators and the ability of their team to learn and assimilate new information.

Most managers assume that when they speak they automatically have their team’s attention. In busy operations the reality is that most of the time, team members come to meetings pre-occupied with other concerns and with limited scope to take on board new information.

In an effort to make their lives easer, managers also tend to cluster their communications into longer, less frequent meetings.  In a typical monthly meeting, a manager might mention 10 or more action points. When a month later, nothing seems to have been done about 6-7 of them, they start to blame their team for not delivering rather than relying on how they could change their approach to become more effective.

Our advice to managers is usually to say less, more often. Above all, managers need to reconcile themselves with the need to repeat, repeat, repeat. As a general rule, if you haven’t got bored of saying it, then your team probably haven’t got it yet! Effective team managers need to be patient, disciplined and consistent communicators who take every opportunity to reinforce their key message.


If you’re interested in finding out more about the role of storytelling and the importance of good storytellers in large organisations, follow this link to our free white paper on ‘storytelling and the engaged organisation‘.

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