How to Speak for Your Work

Posted 05.15.2019

A lot of us grew up with the idea that if you just do good work, it will speak for itself. That’s not true in large organizations full of busy people all focused on their own agendas. If you’re a leader in that kind of place, the work doesn’t speak for itself; you have to speak for the work.

How do you do that without coming off as an annoying braggart? There are seven questions you need to answer when you speak for the work:

What is the work? This may sound obvious but it’s not as simple as you think. In the age of ever shorter attention spans, you need to get really good at describing what your work is and why it matters in a super succinct way. A good rule of thumb is if you can summarize it in the length of an old school tweet – about 140 characters – you’re probably hitting the mark. The goal is to lead with a great summary that hooks people’s attention and makes them want to engage and learn more.

Who does it matter to? Now we’re getting into some stakeholder mapping. Who are the different players inside and outside your organization who have a stake in the success of what you and your team are working on? One size does not fit all when you’re speaking for the work, so you need to get clear about the people you’re going to need to tailor your message for.

Why does it matter to them? Where you stand depends on where you sit. If you want to really connect with people when you’re speaking for your work, you must focus on understanding and addressing what’s most important to the people you’re speaking to. That’s going to vary from person to person and group to group. Take time up front to learn about their goals and make sure you’re tying your work back to the things they care the most about.

What progress have you made? Most people like to hear good news more than bad so start with that. Share the headlines on the progress you and your team have made since the last time you reported in. Tell the time; don’t build a watch. Avoid getting too weedy and into the details.

What obstacles have you overcome? This is where you can establish some context and show off the chops of your team. Highlight one or two of the major problems you and your team have had to solve and what you’ve learned in solving them. There’s likely some good information in there that others can learn and benefit from. Talking about obstacles overcome also provides you a chance to publicly recognize high performing team members.

What are your next steps? The last two questions have more or less focused on the rearview mirror. This one is about what you see coming up down the road. Put a marker out there and let people know what you intend to do next. Doing this creates an opportunity to confirm that you’re on the same page. It reassures people that you have a plan to move forward. And, it sets you up for the ask.

What kind of help do you need? Close out the “speak for the work” conversation by asking for help. Your request could be something as simple as, “Please give me a heads-up if you come across anything you think we should know about,” to something more substantive like an approval decision or money, people or other resources. You usually don’t get if you don’t ask, so ask. If you’ve done a good job of speaking for your work, you’re more likely to get a yes.

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