It may be that the person who makes you uncomfortable, who openly challenges your actions and ideas, who unapologetically but lovingly debunks your dearly held notions is precisely the communicator you need.
Good communicators are not necessarily those who make you feel good or uplifted. They are the ones who bring you clarity, who get their point across without stomping all over your inherent worth. This does not mean they are warm, fuzzy, or even polite. It does mean that their message comes from a place of confidence and knowledge and care. Sometimes those qualities come wrapped in a package that can leave you feeling exhausted and maybe even a little bit bruised.
That communicator, however, has also left you with insight and clarity that you didn’t have prior to your meeting. It is likely they have also given you some motivation and maybe even a little bit of their grit to move forward. It is like a hard workout with a personal trainer who you know cares a great deal about your health and fitness; they may put you through hell, but once you’ve had a glass of water and a breather, you’ll be grinning ear to ear and looking forward to the next session.
Time is important.
We all know this. We lead busy lives. Our days fly by. Time is valuable. Time is precious. Time is money. We bill hourly and count down minutes.
The premium on time is what makes it so powerful. Time is a gift. It is respect. It is consideration.
You need to give time to get it. While we are constantly on the hunt for time savers, often what we need to do is give more time to the communication process. This is true for speaking, for teaching, for explaining, for convincing. We don’t need to speed up and jam our content into less time, we need to slow down and give the message the time it needs to be delivered.
Give your words space. It takes time to gather our thoughts, to put them into words, to speak them, for the listener to hear them and process them. Breathe. Time is a blessing. It enhances the most important part of messages and demonstrates that you value the conversation you are having.
Taking time may be as simple as slowing down how quickly you speak (contrary to popular belief, making speedy, quick, snappy retorts often does not make you seem more intelligent; in many, many contexts or situations it can make you appear panicky and reactionary or worse). It may mean keeping your mouth shut and giving the other person time to speak. It might require filling the air with silence instead of words – one of the hardest things to do. It may even mean giving a long chunk of time for your message to be digested. Step outside the room, sleep on it, give yourself or the other person hours or days to think about the conversation and build a calm response instead of blurting a fast reaction.
Time is one of the most beautiful communication tools. Make the most of it.
We live in a hyper-connected, info-flooded world. This is no secret.
We have limited space in our brains to take in all the information and connections available to us. This is also no secret.
Limited brain space affects the speaker (or writer) as much as the audience. The onus is on the receiver to decide what is worthy of their attention. The onus is on the speaker to create content worthy of that attention. This doesn’t mean making packing as much valuable content in as little space as possible. It does mean being very selective of what content we do give at any one point in time, and then ruthlessly editing it down until our message comes across clearly, plainly, and memorably.
This hit home today while I was prepping a new set of business cards. There’s so much I want to say about myself and my business, and so very little space in which to do it. Someone needs to pick up the card, have something about it stick in their brain, and then remember my name and one contact method. That’s a tall order for a piece of paper that usually gets a glimpse less than one second long. I’ve got six lines, each less than three inches wide. It isn’t much, so I need to decide what’s important and what’s important has changed. Email, telephone, and website obviously get some real estate. Do I need to give a physical address? Not really – people are going to email or call before they send a letter. How about my Twitter handle? Something that last year earned my derision has proven its usefulness to me and I deemed it worthy of a line. My father would cringe that I would add such a thing, but my business world is very different than his.
Six lines, each less than three inches wide. That’s not a lot of room. Neither is two minutes for an elevator pitch, or ten minutes for a business presentation, or an hour for an educational lecture. Decide your most important point, write down everything that you want to say, and then ruthlessly hack back anything that doesn’t support or drive that #1 point home. Our jam-packed brains will thank you for it.
Throw your audience a bone.
Really. Give them a clue, a hint, an indication that you are opening yourself up to an intimate exchange. All the heartfelt intentions in the world won’t tell the audience you are open to them unless you give them some form of physical cue.
Note what I said there: physical cue, not verbal cue. This distinction is important. We humans are very sensitive to the silent messages given through our facial and bodily expressions. Words are secondary; telling someone repeatedly that you are interested or open will not result in intimacy if your face doesn’t match those words. Actually, if your physical expression doesn’t match your verbal expression, the person you want to communicate intimately with will likely start to distrust you. Incongruence tends to set off our alarm bells.
What sort of expressions help create intimacy?
1) Those that indicate interest in the person or people you are communicating with: focused gaze, slightly widened eyes, and a slight forward lean or cocked head are all cues of interest.
2) Those that indicate sincerity: emphasis with movement and physical energy with slight body tension show that we are investing energy in what we are saying. That investment usually indicates sincerity; we mean what we say, otherwise we wouldn’t put so much effort into it.
3) Those that indicate vulnerability: an “open” position (chest unprotected by arms, books, etc.), shoulders down, head in neutral and throat exposed (as opposed to the chin tucked in, protecting the neck), hands visible, palms frequently displayed. Intimacy exists when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Physically demonstrating vulnerability instead of defensiveness invites people to be comfortable with us.
Being able to give these physical signals on cue is an exceptionally useful communication skill. Ultimately, your goal is to give these cues in a manner that is still natural to your own communication style. Get to know your own expressions: when you are interested, how wide do you open your eyes? When you are being emphatic, how do you move your hands? Do you always raise your right eyebrow when you find something intriguing? Stand in front of a mirror and chat with yourself out loud. Rehash a recent conversation that you wish you could have again. Deliver that witty reply you thought half an hour after the moment had passed. Deliver your Oscar acceptance speech. See what your face and body do. Then, re-create those expressions and practice them. Get to know how your face muscles work and how your hands feel. Now apply those expressions to new material such as a book you are reading. Read out loud and apply your personal expression style to the text. If you can only manage to do this in the bathroom with the shower running, go for it. That’s usually where I practice.
Remember: our bodies communicate so much. Intimate communication is free exchange; let your body demonstrate your desire for that freedom. Don’t tell your audience how you feel – show them. Even better, show them how they should feel. They’ll respond accordingly!
Layered meaning makes conversation so much more interesting. While plain-speak is generally the best way to conduct most business – after all, one’s goal should never be to stymie your clients or colleagues – there are opportunities where you can have some fun in a conversation and imply the Things that Cannot Be Said Aloud. Euphemisms and layered meaning enables you to say impolite things in a manner acceptable to polite company. It reminds me of the snide jabs exchanged across society dinners you read about in Jane Austen’s books.
The beauty of euphemisms is that they are remarkably adaptable to your needs. You can dial the clarity, drama, or comedy up or down as needed. Furthermore, the fact that euphemisms require interpretation means that you can give veiled opinions and allow the other person to make of it what they will. When you can’t call someone an “unbelievable douchebag,” you can say they are “determined and honest.” Someone who feels the same way as you about said douchebag will understand exactly what you are getting at. Someone who for some unfathomable reason likes that douchebag will probably acknowledge your comment as a fair observation on that person’s personality.
Coming up with good euphemisms requires a good vocabulary, a good sense of timing, and solid control and deployment of appropriate facial expression. Delivering a euphemism with a deadpan voice and expression can result in a very different implication from one delivered in falsetto with a clenched tooth smile. Because it can be easy to slip from a well-delivered euphemism to outright sarcasm and nastiness, understanding the mood of your audience or conversant and whether or not it is a good time to use this conversational tool is paramount. I usually keep heavy euphemism use to situations that are relatively casual or light in tone. I’ve also deployed them specifically to break tension and acknowledge elephants in the room without actually putting a neon sign over said elephant. Attempting this in circumstances that require absolute plain speak and clarity would not be appropriate, nor would it be suitable in extremely serious situations.
If you want to improve your use and timing of euphemisms, I strongly recommend paying attention to classic stories of manners such as those by Jane Austen, checking out Oscar Wilde’s work, and watching lots of skilled comedians (I particularly like Rick Mercer, Jon Stewart, and Ricky Gervais). Practice your vocabulary-fu by taking straightforward statements and changing the words around so you express the same thing in a completely different manner. Then, practice doing so with different vocal intonations and facial expressions – preferably in front of a mirror. Like anything else, you will improve with practice.
Have fun with euphemisms. They are remarkably fun communicative devices!
It’s funny how a system that supposedly increases productivity and streamlines communication needs strategies for dealing with communication pile-ups. Heavens knows I’ve fallen prey to email clutter; my inboxes are horrid messes filled with emails that will never be read more than once, messages that I still haven’t replied, ancient discussion threads, and other sins of electronic communication.
Erin (The Unclutterer) highlights some of the most important points I relate to my own clients regarding effective email communication. Her article goes into detail, but I will provide my own summary here.
Of the utmost importance is determining whether or not email is the appropriate medium at all. Very often a huge amount of time gets wasted sending emails back and forth when that same issue could have been resolved with a five minute phone call. Picking up the phone does cause some people anxiety – I’ve written about my own phone anxiety before – but for heaven’s sake, pretend you have a spine and just pick up the phone. It isn’t as scary as you think it is, and will save you time, effort, and stress in the long run.
Next, understand exactly what it is you are email about. Pick one or two specific issues and stick to those topics. If you aren’t certain what it is you are addressing, it might be better to pick up the phone. Maybe you need to sound off on a few different ideas. That’s a perfectly acceptable reason to contact someone, but that process is usually better when done in real time.
Third, keep your email concise and to the point. Unless you are writing a social letter to your friend, don’t use it as an opportunity to chat. When dealing with business, attention and time are valuable commodities, so don’t waste either with pointless pleasantries Be polite, and then show respect to your reader by addressing the issue without needless embellishment or tangents.
Finally, write an adequately descriptive subject line. It is with staggering frequency that I see business emails with no subject line, with banal and unrelated subjects, or even with subject lines that were rendered obsolete several exchanges ago. Your reader should know precisely what it is they will be reading about with a quick glance at the subject line prior to clicking on the email. That way they can plan how they are going to go through their email list and get their head into the correct context before even opening the message. This makes a huge difference in sparing time and energy in our daily communications.
Apologies to Erin for ripping off the subject of her excellent blog post, but the content was so similar to what I cover with my clients that I couldn’t resist bringing it up here again. If you haven’t yet seen the Unclutterer blog, check it out. She has lots of excellent insight into organization that can create a very real difference in both your home and business life.
“Content is king!” has been a blogger battle cry for some time now. With so much information flying from every corner at audiences, attention has become a precious commodity and a powerful currency.* All bloggers and online info provider (myself included) like to think that our content is high value, high impact, unique, or otherwise special in some way. After all, we’re smart people – we know that content is king.
So why, pray tell, do so many bloggers fall back on the ultimate excuse for lazy content provision, namely The List?
You know what I’m referring to: the internet list. The piece of pithy work that will tell you the ten best, the eight reasons, the twenty most wanted, the five hottest XYZs. These “articles” promise to shed light on matters complex and mundane. They will give us direction and the ability to make better decisions. They will boil down our questions and dilemmas into a series of bullet points summarizing the good, the bad, and the ugly of just about any conceivable topic. We info consumers reflexively click on the promising link, reading list after list and taking in drivel that, despite its repetition and homogeneity, continues to sucker us in. I’m as guilty of this as the next person.
Here’s the rub: what lists provide in terms of readability and ease of creation, they almost always lack in actual content. When was the last time an internet list promising you “10 ways to lose weight for good” actually gave you any substantial information in terms of current research? Has the “Top 20 Tech Trends” list introduced you to some truly innovative products that are not quite market ready? I’m willing to bet that the greatest degree of development presented on that one was the latest iPhone iteration and its main Android competitor. You think of the topic, there is an internet list about it masquerading as a valuable article.
This trend has been brutally evident on the LinkedIn groups I am subscribed to. These groups, which are aimed at communications professionals, are frequently used to promote members’ blogs. Many LI discussions are actually links to blog posts. The number of blog posts that present god-awful lists like “25 Things to do in a Job Interview” containing drivel such as “Be 10 minutes early for the interview” is staggering. What I find more extraordinary is that these lists are populating the daily discussion boards of groups dedicated to communication. Surely we can find more interesting things to write about!
Unfortunately, The List is a rather popular type of online article. They contain information that is comforting in its simplicity and familiarity and they don’t tax our ever-shortening attention spans. I’ve come across many advice articles on blogging and freelance writing that openly advocate generating List-type posts when you can’t think of anything good to say, when you are pressed for time, or when you want to crank out content stat. Apparently these articles are such an easy sell in terms of freelance website content generation that they are considered one of the better types of articles to shop around. But when audience attention is the highest form of payment, what statement does generating fluffy List articles say about our opinion of the value of our audience’s attention? That it isn’t worth generating content with real value? That our garbage, I-don’t-know-what-to-write work on which we spent a minimal amount of effort is worth our audience’s time? I think that it doesn’t say much for the writer’s opinion of their readers.
This rant does make some very generalized statements and certainly cannot be applied to every List type article out there. There are some that are highly entertaining and have great comedic value. I will also admit that I have seen some that provide excellent content, well written with valuable information. But for every one good List article, there are fifteen dreadful ones.
Don’t fall into the trap of using lists as an easy way to generate content. If you have something good or important to say and a list is the best structure to present it, then go ahead, but make sure you take the time to create something of substance. If content is indeed king, make damn sure your emperor is actually wearing clothes.
*Hat tip to Seth Godin
“Hey, we need you to fill a space in our program. This speaker just backed out, see, and it’s too late to find someone outside the organization to fill their space. The presentation needs to be related to Topic XYZ. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine – you’re so good at winging it.”
I shuddered every time I got a request like that – and those requests (or similar) happened more often than I would have liked. The core of the problem was the impression that one’s ability to “wing it” was tantamount to an almost mystical capacity for speaking at length about any topic at any moment with no notice. This is a false impression: “winging it” – aka improvisation – takes practice. It takes huge amounts of practice, as well as a deep knowledge of the topic about which you are improvising.
What improvisation is not is simply cobbling something together out of thin air at the last minute with no real effort.
During a middle eastern music and dance show last night, my dance mentor gave a wonderful summary of how a skilled improvisor works. Middle eastern solo dances are generally improvised. When the dancer is performing with a live musician, it is understood that a significant part of the music will be improvised as well. Dancer and musician play off one another, and the quality of their interaction is a considerable indicator of their level of skill. They are able to do this sort of improvised performance because of their level of understanding of the songs, musical structure, and physical technique they are working with. My mentor used the analogy of a Christmas tree to explain the art of improvisation:
Every year you put up a Christmas tree. The tree is set up in the same place in the house and many of the decorations will be old favourites that are pulled out every December. Instead of the tree looking the same year-to-year, however, it is always different. Ornaments are hung in new places, new decorations are added, and sometimes old ones are left in the box. But the fundamental structure of the tree stays the same. Improvisation is like this. The musician and the dancer can improvise because they understand the underlying musical structure, the beats and rhythms they are working with, and the overall skeleton of the song they are working with. The result is a performance with the technical precision of a choreography and the intensity and passion of spontaneity.
This analogy can also be applied to other forms of performance art. Jazz and blues musicians use their knowledge of songs and specific rhythms to enable jam sessions where different musicians will go on lengthy improvised solos while the others continue to provide the backup sounds. Despite the fact that the solos are not pre-planned, they work within a structure that allows the musician freedom to play while informing the other players when to swoop back in and bring the song back to a cohesive whole. This takes a great deal of knowledge and confidence.
Speakers who develop their improvisation skills follow a similar pattern. They have deep knowledge of the content about which they speak (their song), and they have excellent understanding of speech structure and composition (their rhythm). Because of this, they are able to seemingly pluck fully formed speeches, presentations, and arguments out of the air, much as the dancer and musician appear to perform a carefully choreographed performance piece on the fly.
Here’s the kicker: this takes practise and study – lots of it. Skilled improvised speech requires the speaker to be highly knowledgeable about their chosen topics. Information must be gathered and absorbed. Related subject matter must be absorbed. Opinions need to be formed, vetted, re-formed, and tested. Think back to your university days – that is the kind of study undertaken by many a storied speaker. Equal work must be then put in on speech crafting itself. Having imaginary debates, re-scripting past conversations, studying classical rhetoric, scripting speeches and presentations, studying the techniques of master public speakers, and joining groups like Toastmasters are all ways to practice speech crafting.
Next time you watch someone give a brilliant spontaneous speech or watch a presentation and are mesmerized by the speaker’s skill, don’t chalk up their performance to some innate ability to effortlessly “wing” speeches. Rest assured that they work hard at what they do. They work extremely hard. Successful improvisation isn’t a skill that you do or do not have; it’s built up with hard graft. It is, however, something totally accessible to you and to anyone else willing to put in the work. Once you know your song/topic and rhythm/structure like the back of your hand, you’ll be able to create brilliant improvised speeches as well.
Despite all best efforts, some people are simply difficult to communicate with. You’ve likely met a difficult communicator; no matter how hard you try, they seem to miss chunks of conversations. No matter how clear the note, they still twist the message. No matter how explicit the instructions, they still manage to screw them up. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of communication you use, how quickly or slowly you speak, how many metaphors or descriptions you provide, or how transparent and clear-cut your writing is.
I’ve got a few ideas of my own as to why certain people are persistently difficult to communicate clearly with:
1: They habitually fail to pay focused attention to the person or item at hand.
This is a big problem in an age where information flies at us a mile a minute, where we are in a perpetual state of stimuli overload, and where people are proud that they can “check emails and have a conversation at the same time” (hint: they can’t). After a while, having a fractured attention span that wanders from one thing to the next – even if it is only wandering to the chattering in the person’s own head – becomes habitual. This is a habit we need to break. Focus and attention span is something that can be improved through concerted effort and mindfulness, but it is possible. This is something that I myself am working on improving, and while it might not be easy, it is rewarding.
2. They have an agenda they are pursuing.
Realistically, we are all pursuing our own agendas at all times. These agendas can be completely benign (I’m hungry, so I’m going to bring this conversation to an end so I can eat), altruistic (I want to help this person), or more…suspect (use your imagination). Depending on the urgency and prevalence of that agenda, communications can very easily be twisted to ensure that the person hears or reads what they need to hear or read at the time. With some people and in certain situations or organizations, this can colour just about any communication instance.
3. They do not feel you have anything of interest or worth to say.
This is pretty self-explanatory, and can be due to myriad issues. At any rate, the person simply becomes accustomed to filtering out what you say. This can be seen in situations where weak leadership has lead to mistrust or downright dismissal of just about anything a manager could have to say.
4. They’re paranoid.
We’ve all encountered at least one person who interprets just about anything directed at them to be either an insult, a threat, or at the very least something that contains subtext of which they must be deeply suspicious. I find this is usually paired with either whipcrack tempers or with timidity and low confidence.
5. It’s not them…it’s you/me!
This is a tricky one; if it seems like everyone is impossible to communicate effectively with, or if you never have a good reasonable chat with a person, the issue might be looking at you from a mirror. Look for the common denominator – if you have trouble with everyone, is it likely that the whole world is made up of crappy communicators except yourself? If you are the only person in an organization who persistently has a major communication hang-up with a particular individual, does that mean that the individual is a good communicator with everyone except you? Admitting that the problem may be us is difficult, but the good news is that means it is possible for us to change the situation. Maybe you need to get to know the other person better and develop more understanding of their mannerisms. Maybe you need to improve certain areas of your communication style to ensure you are giving the message you need. Either way, changing ourselves is a lot easier than changing other people!