In conversation with:
Karen Boalch, Associate Director, Macquarie Group
With a 30-year writing career spanning journalism, politics and business, Karen was a prime candidate for our Communications Wisdom series.
An Associate Director at Macquarie Group, she crafts communications for senior leadership. She was previously Press Secretary to the NSW Opposition Leader and NSW Treasurer.
And to balance all that seriousness, she writes a satirical sports blog at www.kazblah.com.
1. What’s the toughest message you’ve ever had to write or deliver? How did you handle it? Would you do things differently now?
Working in politics, I sometimes had to write speeches about policy directions I didn’t agree with. I had to write one that was anti-euthanasia when I was pro. I actually learned a lot and it challenged some of my views. It made me more open to the nuances of the issue.
Communicating on behalf of others, it’s inevitable you won’t always agree with the message. It’s a matter for your own judgement whether you feel compromised by that.
2. What’s your favourite quote or saying about communication?
Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave a Monty Pythonesque response at a news briefing about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction in 2002. It’s a great example of how not to communicate. Still cracks me up:
As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
– Donald Rumsfeld (2002)
3. How do you approach influencing someone more senior than you?
I’ll often canvas ideas and opinions from others first, which can uncover angles I haven’t considered.
I try to present the problem or issue succinctly, the pros and cons of the various approaches that can be taken, and then open discussion.
I’ll recommend a preferred option but I’ll be prepared to adapt it as the discussion progresses. It’s not a good idea to be wedded to one path – it can blind you to other, perhaps better, options.
4. What are your favourite strategies for motivating people to action?
Enthusiasm is a great motivator. If you can show people you are genuinely excited about an initiative, I find there’s a better chance they’ll get behind it.
Working in a team, where everyone has a clearly defined role and the opportunity to contribute, also inspires people to action.
5. What’s your secret sauce? When you sit down to write an important message to your team or clients, what process or method do you use?
The first thing I want to know is: who’s the audience? How many are there? What’s their background? Why are they there? That determines much of the tone and content.
6. Does that process change when you’re under pressure with a short deadline? How?
I often write better then because it makes you cut to the chase!
7. What principles do you swear by when presenting to a live group?
I prefer to learn the script rather than read from it. That’s not always possible but it does make for a more natural delivery and a better connection with the audience. I like to be personable and share examples from my own experience.
Gauge the audience and be prepared to adapt your content if they’re not engaged.
And use humour – but don’t tell jokes!
8. What makes someone an extraordinary communicator? What characteristics, personality traits, experiences or otherwise ‘add up’ to make them so?
I’m a sucker for someone who uses words well but nothing beats a person speaking authentically about something that matters to them.
9. Some people say emotions are irrelevant at work: ‘Focus on the facts!’ What’s your take on that?
I think that’s crap. Yes, facts are important. They cement an argument. But we’re subjective beings. We react. We make decisions every day based not just on fact but on feeling. Advertising, opinion polls, financial markets – all are driven by sentiment. So you’re throwing out a very powerful communication tool if you excise emotion from your work.
10. Who, or what, taught you the most about communication?
My mother taught me the importance of honesty. Journalism taught me to write economically. Politics taught me how to persuade. Business gave me an eye for detail. All are necessary to good communication.
11. Nature or nurture? Can people learn to be great communicators, or must you be born that way?
I would go with nurture. Good communication probably comes more naturally to some people but it’s definitely a skill you can learn.
12. What advice would you give people who aren’t confident communicators or want to improve?
Communication is part message, part delivery. Study how others craft their message. Watch TED talks. You will see speakers explain very complex subjects simply. They will often use personal examples. They engage their audience.
Practise your delivery. In front of a mirror, your family, your team.
For something a bit different, take an acting class. It gets you out of your comfort zone. And a large part of communication is performance.
13. Who do you personally know that you admire as an extraordinary communicator? What makes them so good?
A CEO I have worked with. Their great strength is in building a narrative, weaving seemingly unconnected threads together into an overall theme. It’s quite a talent.
More about Karen:
Karen Boalch, Associate Director, Macquarie Group
Her satirical sports blog: www.kazblah.com.
Know an extraordinary communicator? This series taps and shares the hard-won insights of exceptional communicators. Who do you admire? Please connect us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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