A major goal that I assign to all my clients as well as to myself is that of creating intimacy with your audience. I’ve had people react to this instruction with everything from nervous eagerness to fear and apprehension. The difficulty with intimacy – aside from the fact that it increases our own vulnerability, which I will address later – is that it is a very complex concept. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to attempt to break down and address the nuances of communication and intimacy.
So here we go – welcome to installment #1: introducing intimacy. Here is a run-down of some of the issues I’ll be exploring further in this series.
Intimacy in communication has nothing to do with romance, attraction, or with the communicating parties even liking one another. A sense of connection is what makes an exchange feel intimate. When this connection (or the perception of it) is achieved, your message will stick with your receiver with far greater strength than it would otherwise. If you really, really want to get through to someone, you need to seek intimacy in the communication, and different circumstances may require in different kinds of intimacies or different tactics to achieve it.
A sense of intimacy can be felt by only one person and still have a powerful effect. Because it is an individual feeling, it can be experienced by members of a large audience just as readily as people in small groups or in one-on-one conversations. When you are the primary communicator, the perception you should be most concerned with is that of your audience, whether big or small. You can feel all the warm fuzzies you like, but if you haven’t triggered a sense of connection among those receiving your message, than you have not created a sense of intimacy. It’s the opinion and the feelings of the receiver that matter.
While the experience of intimacy on the part of the audience is always genuine, a very adept speaker or performer can fake it for the sake of their audience. While demonstrating a desire for connection that you might not actually be feeling is mentally exhausting, there are many circumstances where you may need to fake it for the sake of your audience. There are some key physical, vocal, and facial expressions that demonstrate “reaching out” to an audience or receiver. Being able to realistically demonstrate these on cue when you are not feeling overly connected to an audience takes a great deal of practice. When we look at these skills further, I will yet again be railing at you to spend some solid practice time in front of a mirror.
One of the trickier issues with intimate communication is what level and type of intimacy is appropriate in which situations. The degree of intimacy in communication that is appropriate between co-workers is markedly different than that between managers and employees. Similarly, the type of intimacy that occurs with a motivational speaker and his audience is generally quite different that that between an academic lecturer and her audience. It is well worth taking time to think about what degree of personal connection you would wish to experience as both audience and speaker in differing social and business roles.
Language plays a key component in both the effectiveness of creating an intimate communication as well as keeping the intimacy appropriate to the situation at hand. At times, your audience needs to you be involved in the message at a personal level; sometimes they really need to you be more objective and distant. Language and vocabulary is the golden key that allows you to navigate these circumstances and still create the intimacy you need. Words have power, and discreet differences in meaning, context, and timing may result in massive differences in the level of trust, comfort, and connection between you and your audience. Know when to mince your words and when to leave them whole. Find authors known for extensive vocabularies and wordplay and read their works; your own word hoard and dexterity will grow. You will come to know which words will help create a feeling of intimacy with your audience and which will turn them right off.
Next instalment: your audience experience of intimacy and getting out of your own head.
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!
How many messages do you encounter in a day? Discounting the ones that come from your own head (and lord knows those can be interesting), how many bits of info do you process on a daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute basis?
Let’s dig a little deeper: how often do you consider the tone of those messages? This is a pretty important question when it comes to evaluating the suitability or reliability of information. In our hyper-marketed world, the emotional tone of professional communication is one of the first – and most effective – tactics in generating an overall message.
It is difficult to divorce emotion from communication; after all, we’re emotional beings and our daily experiences are largely understood through the emotional state in which we perceive them. Heck, the entire pathos branch of rhetoric is based around appeal to emotion. When creating a message, I always consider the sort of emotional effect I’m going for. Appealing to your audiences feelings is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s another tool in your toolbox.
I draw the line, however, when emotional appeal becomes overly exploitative. This is very easily seen in advertising directed at a vulnerable audience base. Fear-based selling is common and nearly unavoidable. It sells products, services, and media outlets (think of the use of disaster and fear-based stories on most cable news channels). It is ruthlessly leveraged against audiences whose circumstances involve some form of instability or unpredictability.
As I’m preparing for the birth of my first child, I’ve been rummaging through plenty of pregnancy-related magazines. Expectant mothers and fathers are concerned about the health and future of their child, which makes them ripe for fear based advertising. In one issue of Fit Pregnancy, I counted no less than six advertisements for cord blood banking, three of which occupied entire pages, and one of which was a spectacular two-page spread. All of these ads featured messages such as “secure your family’s future” and warnings about the likelihood that the child will develop a severe or terminal illness. One particularly dreadful ad shows a picture of a baby’s foot, with each toe labelled thus:
While it is reasonable for services such as cord blood banking to use illness information to sell their product, the way these ads communicate the risks borders on cruel. I believe that ethical communication involves educating your audience about different sides of an issue, not whipping them up into a panic that leads them to a blind purchase.
In today’s blog post, Seth Godin summed up top level business practices as having focus on “respect and dignity and guts…”. Most fear-based communications is neither respectful, dignified, nor gutsy. Don’t fall into the trap of relying on fear to communicate your message.