Former press secretary Mike McCurry on how to be a good communicator

04/12/2013 01:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2013

In this highly charged political era, characterized by instant communication and frequent miscommunication, the need for federal leaders to be clear and credible is extremely important for effective governance. Michael McCurry, President Clinton's former press secretary and a veteran of more than 30 years in Washington, spoke with Tom Fox about how to hone your communication skills. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up its Center for Government Leadership.

How important is good communication to effective leadership?

Communications is now central to the functioning of the American presidency, and at the presidential level, there's no replacing the power of the bully pulpit. Communications is also increasingly vital for the performance and success of people in all walks of life -- corporate executives, high-school principals or the mayor of your town. If they cannot communicate effectively, they're not going to be effective in their role.

What are the keys for becoming a skillful communicator?

I have a presentation I call "The 5 Cs." The first is credibility. You have to be authentic and come across as a straight-shooter providing factual information, because if you come across as a spin-doctor, you'll lose your audience. The second is candor. People need to be willing to address shortcomings, which becomes critical when addressing something that's gone wrong in a crisis environment.

The third is clarity: How can you crystallize the message that you're conveying so that it is as vivid and understandable as possible? This is especially important in government because so much is driven by a vocabulary that's leaded down with acronyms and language that's not user-friendly. The fourth is compassion. Understand the person on the other side of the issue and why they think the way they do. The fifth is commitment, which is not easy. There are some people who are naturally gifted as communicators like President Clinton and some who have to learn how to do it more effectively, requiring a commitment of time and resources.

What are some of the biggest mistakes federal leaders make when communicating to their employees and to the American public?

Typically, they are using vocabulary, acronyms or abbreviations that are unique to the process of government and not accessible to the average citizen, and sometimes not even accessible to their own workforce. Also, sometimes policies are in a grey area and not always clear. I ran into this a lot in the White House. When there's lack of clarity in policies, there's a lot of hedging in the answers and that can confuse various audiences that need to hear the message.