You may be aware that I am a bit of a Seth Godin fangirl. It takes a great deal of restraint for me to not share nearly every one of his daily blog updates here on my own blog (Twitter is a better vehicle for sharing that sort of thing). Every now and then, though, there is one that is so good that I need to put it up here so that those not yet converted to Godinism read his words of widsom. Like this:
or sleep near a train station.
Don’t ask a cab driver for theater tips.
Never buy bread from the supermarket bakery…
and don’t ask your spouse for honest feedback about how you look.
Don’t do business with a stranger who calls you at home during dinner.
Think twice before you ask your ad agency how many ads you should run.
And never eat the macadamia nuts in the mini bar.
Proximity is not a stand in for expertise.
Think on that last sentence. Equating proximity with expertise is a common stumbling block in many industries. It is rife* in professions where members believe themselves to inherently be Jacks-of-all-trades. Librarians, for example, are extremely prone to this, so are doctors. In these cases, the “proximity” is their professional qualification, and it causes them to look inside their own professional body for people to occupy just about any kind of role necessary.
Going for proximity, regardless what form that proximity takes, is rarely a good strategy.
*Rife, not ubiquitous. There’s a difference.
(Forgive me a moment while I brush the dust off my keyboard)
I’m a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde when it comes to how I gear up for a bit of advocacy. When I’m around my friends or family and telling them about the Thing That Annoyed Me, and how I will be standing up for myself, I’m all bluster. It really can get quite ridiculous; the more irritated I am about a situation, the more verbose I become. I rant and rave and pull out every ten-dollar polysyllabic word in my arsenal. With sweeps of my arm and flashes of my eyes, I illustrate the full, colourful degree of my vexation.
This is a good tactic for me. Not only does it let me get all my emotion out, it also allows me to puff up my chest and get nicely wound up. Without a good winding up, I may back out of my plan to stick up for myself and my expectations. This terrifies my mother, who often worries that my standard approach to lodging complaints is to march in, eyes and guns a blazin’, and rain holy hell on the first customer service agent I encounter.
Thankfully, Mom’s notion of my style of lodging complaints is false. God forbid I actually go out-of-doors and attempt to confront the irksome party while in full rant mode. That would be disastrous and would more likely result in me being carted away to the asylum than refunded my money. I am a firm believer that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and while a story of someone standing their ground and demanding satisfaction is entertaining, a calm demeanour and helpful attitude is much more effective.
The problem with the “stick it to ’em” approach is that it makes the person on the other side of the counter quite defensive. It doesn’t matter if the defensiveness is borne out of fear or irritation – either way, it makes that person less willing to help you. But applying honey to your tone and words does not mean simpering or becoming a patronizing twit. Rather, it involves taking the attitude that your feedback is helpful and the person you are speaking to wants you to be happy and is willing to cultivate goodwill.
The key is to go in without fear of reprimand but also without fomenting anger. By all means, you can be annoyed; a bit (note: a bit) of irritation in your voice can help get your point across. Instead of intending on going in there and making the target of your complaint see things your way, go in with the intention of helping that person improve their service for their customers. This can be difficult to do when you feel wronged or ripped off, as I had in my most recent experience.
In order to keep my cool, I first get very clear about what it is I am complaining about. Write the situation down, focus on the particulars that you are angry or upset about, and stick to those points. This falls under my advice to always keep your main point at the top of your mind in any conversation. If you find yourself getting off track or expanding your complaint to tangentially related or unrelated things, focus back on the thing that initially prompted your ire.
Next, make the following assumption: The person I am/will be speaking to does not know about or is not directly responsible for my lousy experience. They are simply the person who gets saddled with my complaint.
This assumption helps me to depersonalize the encounter. Recall how I’ve spoken about needing to depersonalize high-emotion interactions so that you do not become angry or defensive? Well, this is the same idea only you are doing the depersonalization for the customer service rep. You are not angry at them, per say, you are angry at the situation that brought you here. If you are complaining about a specific individual and have the option to deal with someone other than them, for Pete’s sake, exercise that option and talk to someone else. This will redirect your anger away from the person you are complaining to.
Third, know what action the person you are complaining to can make to satisfy you as a customer, and ask directly for that action. The person you are speaking to should not have to magically divine your heart’s desire. They don’t necessarily know if you want a refund, or exchange, or additional services. Being straight forward about what you want them to do makes it significantly easier for them to respond to your complaint as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ask for what you want.*
And finally, remember to breathe and relax. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? Well, my constant harping about the power of breath and relaxation absolutely applies here. There is a reason why we describe people as “huffing and puffing” when they are worked up. If you are about to initiate a confrontation about a lousy customer service experience, give yourself a second to breathe, focus, and go in with a more neutral mindset. It really does do wonders.
*Of course, you might not get what you want, but at least the person you are complaining to will know what will appease you right off the bat.
One of the keys to being able to ramble out a good, solid off-the-cuff or spontaneous speech is introspection – and lots of it.
The purpose behind this introspection isn’t to indulge in endless navel-gazing. That’s what Facebook and Instagram are for. This self-reflection is to develop an acute awareness of your values, your personal drivers, and your thoughts on life, the universe, and everything.*
When making spontaneous speeches, we need to rely on tidbits of information that we hold in our head. There isn’t time to ponder and compose an answer, and we may be lacking data critical to making an informed argument. We can, however, always give our opinion on matters. This is where the introspection comes in: if we spend time thinking about how our own brain works, we can address subjects from a personal angle. This may not result in a speech with heavy hitting evidence and data to back up your opinion, but it will result in something (relatively) thoughtful. You can speak to how you think about the topic or situation, about what affects your views and opinions, about how it relates to your own context. And – prize of prize – you can do so with sincerity because you are ultimately revealing a part of yourself to your audience, and you take the time to think about yourself and your context.
Speaking is about sharing. We don’t always have the luxury of being able to share facts, but we can always share a piece of ourselves. But in order to share ourselves, we must understand ourselves first.
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.
During today’s indulgence in YouTube-hosted business advice, I received an excellent bit of wisdom from the ever-charming Marie Forleo. She stated that we should not be afraid to sacrifice “short term revenue for long term gains.”
This advice resonates when it comes to communicating with other people. So often, we are focused on the short-term “revenue” – which I’ll call “wins” – in our conversations and interactions. These wins are those little quips, digs, or snappy comments that give us the feeling that we’ve gained a rung on the argumentative ladder. These are intoxicating moments where we think “gotcha!” Maybe the dig made the other person acquiesce to our point of view. Maybe the other person didn’t say much at all after that and the argument, debate, or conversation stopped.
Behold, the short-term win! But did you actually win, and if so, what was it you gained?
Did the dig, the quip, the gotcha moment cause the other person to understand your point or your side? Did it help drive you towards the goal of the conversation or increase your understanding of the topic at hand? Or did it just cause the conversation to end?
Often, our communication goals can be rather long-term. Sometimes, the thing we hope to resolve in a short encounter actually takes a considerable amount of time to work through. In the real world, productive arguments are less like a political leadership debate and more like an ongoing negotiation. You give a little, you get a little, and as the negotiation pans out, everyone usually comes out ahead. That is the long-term gain.
The difficulty here is that the negotiation approach inherently takes time, compromise, and the suspension of our ego. We want to win; it feels so damn good to win! But it is very likely that the short-term win created a new tense dynamic in the conversation that actually derails your end goal.
When hashing out differences with someone else, keep things in perspective. Do you want to harangue them into a corner, shame them into silence, to belittle them into admitting you are right? Or would you rather get them to see where you are coming from, explain their own position, and then have the two of you come out of the encounter with a better solution – or at least a richer understanding of the issue?
I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.
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!
Today’s post is much shorter than usual.
When engaging in business, in communication, or in anything else, please remember the following:
Shortcuts rarely are.
Terrible grammar aside, the above is very, very true. Shortcuts rarely save you time. They rarely save you money. They rarely spare you any work. In fact, saving any of those three things via a shortcut happens so infrequently that you should count on spending more time, more money, and doing more work than you would have if you just did it the right way the first time.
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.