It’s easy to forget, but every great communicator seems to know it intuitively: there are two steps to every act of communication.

·       Sending—a speech, an email, a TED Talk, a Tweet.

·       Receiving—everything else that happens.

Scanning over a list of history’s great communicators, we notice that it’s not just the sending that matters. It’s the knowledge of how a message might be received by one’s audience.

From Elizabeth I speaking to an army full of 16th century men with 16th century expectations to Steve Jobs changing the conversation entirely, here are a few of the most important business communication lessons to find from great communicators:

Use Communication to Reinforce Structure

Steady, Monty. You can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss.

So said Dwight D. Eisenhower, when fiercely criticized by General Bernard Montgomery.

Unlike Patton, Eisenhower wasn’t a fierce disciplinarian. But in a command structure like the military, some lessons in communication get distilled down to their essence. Eisenhower understood that his position wasn’t the result of title alone; it had to be enforced with his style of communication and his sense of professional boundaries.

When you’re in a managerial position, it’s important to remember the same lesson. Don’t assume the position is enough to command the respect and admiration of the people around you. How you interact with them will determine how they feel, because all communication is a two-way street. And it’s a street that needs to remain open.

Stay Positive by Changing the Conversation

Steve Jobs was so effective a communicator that Bud Tribble once described him as having a “reality distortion field.”

That “distortion field” was on full display when users were having troubles with the latest iteration of the iPhone, the iPhone 4. Jobs offered full refunds on the cell phone and made the following statement:

We're not perfect. We know that, you know that. And phones aren't perfect either. But we want to make all of our users happy. If you don’t know that about Apple, you don’t know Apple. We love making our users happy.

In an instant, the conversation changed. Critiques of Apple no longer focused on the iPhone 4, but on Jobs’ comments. Just how accurate was it? Was it really all Apple cared about? The flubs with the iPhone 4 were largely forgotten and Apple rolled onward.

Transform Challenge Into Purpose

To say Maya Angelou’s childhood was difficult would be an understatement. The story is long and painful, dealing with abuse and violence so strong that Angelou lost her ability to effectively communicate for years.

It didn’t stop her.

Angelou’s biographical story would eventually serve as the material for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and serve as the inspiration for growth. A woman who once struggled to find her own voice eventually turned her passions into a talent that spoke up for countless others.

Focus on Feeling

Ever send an email that was perceived in a completely unexpected way?

Sometimes we forget that communication isn’t just about the sending; it’s also about the receiving. And someone who perceives the intent behind a communication the wrong way can receive a message that was never sent at all.

If you find yourself in a position of leadership, remember what Maya Angelou once said:

People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Good communication in business is about managing people as much as it is about clarity. You’ll do best when you incorporate both feeling and substance in your messages.

Frame Your Own Story

When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, there was little precedent for a historical figure of her stature. She was born into a society that valued women less than men, and she knew it. Yet Elizabeth was an effective communicator who never let other people tell her story for her.

She determined to tell her own.

When England was threatened by its powerful rival Spain and its now-infamous Armada, Elizabeth had to face the prospect of delivering a speech to entire armies of men. Rather than shrink from the moment, she assured them that she could create her own:

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.

Perhaps Elizabeth didn’t truly think herself a “weak, feeble woman.” And there’s nothing less royal about being a queen as there is being a king. But she possessed a large sense of history and understood that she couldn’t merely send the message; she had to factor how the message would be received. And she knew how she must have looked to a 16th century army.

She acknowledged their perception of her and proceeded to change their minds—all with a few powerful sentences.

Communicate from a Predetermined Objective

Winston Churchill’s famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches,” serves as a fine summary of what made his communication so effective: it was always done with a goal in mind. Churchill wasn’t a great orator for the sake of oratory; he lived in perilous times when, as author Andrew Roberts puts it, “every word mattered.”

The famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech is effective even if you only listen to the words. But it served a specific purpose. At the time in which the speech was given, Britain was teetering on the brink of destruction. Having just executed a remarkable evacuation at Dunkirk, the speech served the purpose of clarifying Britain’s resolve: unlike what had just happened in France, war with Britain would be different.

Churchill timed the speech at precisely the right time. He understood intuitively that speeches were just one part of communication; the other part—the important part—was how they would be received. This one was received with a new national determination to resist the threat.

Don’t Use More than Necessary

We’re a distracted generation. In some demographics, the average individual sends and receives hundreds of text messages per day. We don’t always need more words.

It’s tempting to use your communication skills to add flowery language to your emails or impress people with your public presentations.

But what if you could do it all with less?

The Spartans once accomplished all they needed to accomplish with one word. Phillip of Macedon was at their doorstep when he sent a message threatening Sparta, detailing the various ways in which he would inflict damage “if I bring my army into your land.”

The Spartans’ reply?


That single word relayed so much laconic confidence that Phillip never made good on his threats. Sparta remained safe.

If brevity is the soul of wit, it’s also the soul of effective communication. Don’t use more when less is more clear.

Key Takeaways

We’ve covered a broad range of business and history, but there are a few things that the great communicators seem to understand:

·       Communication is a two-step process. An impressive speech alone is not great communication. Context matters. So does the opinion of those listening to the speech. When Elizabeth I acknowledged how her army must have felt, she displayed a keen sense of awareness that allowed her to reframe her role in English history.

·       Be proactive. Communication should come with a goal. A meeting for the sake of holding a meeting just causes eye rolls. You have to have a vision for what you want to achieve and use communication for the means of its achievement.

·       Keep it tight. We’re all distracted enough. The less you can use to communicate the same point, the better.

What are some of your favorite lessons in communication? Share them below.