Learn to communicate before you absolutely have to

Confident and authentic communication matters – and it is never more evident than when things go wrong. Take the example of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Since the scandal about the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica broke, Facebook and its face to the public have been very reluctant to speak or show themselves to the public. Yes, there were messages on social media etc. and yes, eventually there was a good old-fashioned conference call with Mark Zuckerberg. With this reluctance from the company to communicate, politicians, media and the public asked ever louder for Facebook, i.e. Zuckerberg, to give testimony in Washington. Hearings in a Senate and a House of Representative’s committee are now imminent.

It looks like all the missed opportunities to address the way the company and its founder communicate are now coming back to haunt Facebook and its founder. By all accounts, Facebook/Zuckerberg will have to face a pile of pent up questions and frustration from years ago that they neglected to engage with at the time. And they will have to do so at the most inconvenient time, when an immense scandal is already shaking the company to the core. Facebook the company will have to fundamentally re-think the way they communicate with others, and it needs to do so quickly.

According to the New York Times, Facebook has a team of 500 people internally plus external crisis communications managers working to contain the communications disaster. And yet: the person people want to hear from most, Mark Zuckerberg, is conspicuously incommunicado. So what is Mark Zuckerberg doing? He is getting a crash course in public speaking in a confident and authentic manner, according to the same article by the NYT.

Some people are born great communicators. But for the majority of us, becoming good speakers requires hard work and years of practice. Zuckerberg is said to be uncomfortable with public appearances, which puts him in the bracket with “the rest of us”. No doubt, Zuckerberg has a great team to coach him through the next days, weeks and months. But like his company, he faces a very steep learning curve which he needs to tackle at a time of great pressure, and he needs to get on top of it quickly.

Unwillingly, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have given the world a great example why communicating matters and if you are not a born orator, why you need to learn it while the times are good so you can rely on your communication skills when things go wrong.

Becoming a better speaker isn’t rocket science. There are lots of practical skills you can learn and practise. With practice grows confidence which improves your speeches and presentations. This confidence makes you less defensive and permits you to speak from the heart, this lends authenticity. If the butterflies in your stomach or outright panic are still causing problems, there are ways to address those as well – and all in good time at an easy pace, if you address the situation early on.

Does this matter only for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world? No! We all have situations in our daily lives where somebody upsets us or we don’t agree with something. This could be at home with your family or at your football club. If we can’t find constructive ways to articulate our thoughts and feelings in good time, they will pile up until they blow up, often in a manner that harms both us and the person involved. The result can be devastating to friendships and relationships.

For managers it matters even more. Managers set the tone how a team or an entire company communicate. Facebook/Zuckerberg illustrate how the company head’s reluctance to appear and communicate publicly can shape the communications culture of an entire company and its employees. If this communication style is not constructive, the company risks alienating the people it relies on: employees and clients. If the company fails as a consequence, not only the manager suffers but all the people who worked for them and trusted them.

There are some very tough lessons in the Facebook scandal – they would have been so easy to avoid.