The simple idea that will transform your communication

It’s been refreshing this month to speak to a group of brand new communication students, introducing them to some concepts of human and business communication.

One that clearly struck a chord was the idea that we all bring our own world view to any form of communication; we’re heavily influenced by our own background, culture, preferences, upbringing and many other factors that colour the way we perceive information and apply its meaning to our own actions.

While not everyone has studied communication theory, I reckon most of us, at some level, understand that people are inherently different and look at things differently. But I wonder how many of us truly apply this to the way we interact with others every day.

Keeping this in mind whenever you’re speaking to someone, emailing or talking on the phone, can make a big difference to how you get your message across and absorb the true meaning of what they’re saying to you.  

If we don’t do that, we risk miscommunication, confusion and frustration - and how many times have we seen that happening in a workplace or within a family!

It’s useful to remember during any communication that:

They’ll be interpreting your message through their own unique lens

Whoever you’re communicating with - a colleague, your manager, a customer, a supplier, someone in the community, a friend or family member – they’ll bring their own special set of circumstances to the interaction. Every element of your communication, verbal and non-verbal, will be triggering memories and experiences for them that will completely determine how they interpret your information.

If your communication is clear and precise, you’ll be giving them pointers that will help them comprehend your message. But if you’re vague, waffly or use overly emotive language, you’re likely to be sending them off on a tangent without even realising it.

Being aware that they’ll be interpreting your information from their own point of view can help you keep your own messages clear and to the point, expressing exactly what you need to say.

You’ll also bring your own world view

When we’re communicating, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap in that moment of thinking the world revolves around us and that it’s all about the message we want to relay. But remember, you’re bringing your own set of cultural and other experiences to the way you convey that information.

Just being aware of this can make a huge difference to your approach. Each time you begin an interaction - whether written or verbal – and knowing you come complete with your own set of baggage, you can in that instant choose to shift your mindset and open up your vision to really see the other person and their point of view.

How many unpleasant conversations or heated emails could be defused if we just took that simple step? As I heard a wise person say recently; “communication isn’t about words, it’s about people”.

It’s about people sharing meanings, and rather than just transferring words from one person to another, great communication is understanding that the flow happens from communicator to communicator, each bringing their own experiences and negotiating a shared meaning. 

Next time you write an email or make a phone call, visualise the other person and think about their likely viewpoint. You don’t need to step wholly into their shoes - you need to bring yourself to the interaction as well - but try to appreciate that you both bring your own world view.

Do this and you’ll both get a better result from the communication, while also building your own skills for the future.

What you can learn from the rudest person in the room

I was at a function with my husband a few weeks ago and we met up with an industry contact who we hadn’t seen for a while - someone I had a reasonably close connection with on a past project.

He greeted my other half, Mike, like a long lost friend, and I leaned forward expectantly, poised to join the conversation.

Then this weird thing happened. The other guy squared his body to face Mike and directed the entire conversation at him, never making eye contact with me or acknowledging me in any way.

I opened my mouth numerous times to inject myself into the discussion but there was never an opportunity. He just kept talking, completely blocking me out.

At first I thought I was imagining it; after all, this person knew me and I couldn’t think of any reason why he wouldn’t make visual contact with me. Then my mind started to take over; “Do I have lettuce between my teeth and he just doesn’t want to look at me? Has he had a fight with his wife and I remind him of her? Is he just rude and ignorant?”

I couldn’t immediately answer those questions (except the lettuce one, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case) but whatever the reason, he didn’t give me the slightest acknowledgement. So there I stood, the shag on a rock, throughout the conversation.

I was pretty annoyed when I thought about it later. I’m not usually precious, but this was blatant ignorance, arrogance or something else. It got me thinking, though, about the importance of body language and how easy it is to unconsciously shut somebody out of an interaction.

You see, I don’t really believe this guy was being deliberately rude - he just had no idea what he was doing and how he was coming across. Pondering further, I wondered if I have ever been guilty of the same thing - perhaps when speaking to a large group or running a training session where it’s challenging to make everyone in the room feel included.

It’s easy to get comfortable and only focus on the people right in front of you or the ones who are nodding in agreement, while cutting out those who look disengaged and are fiddling on their phone. For all we know, they’re taking notes or have had some crisis at home and need to take messages. We can’t assume what’s going on with other people, but we can control our own behaviour.

This one person’s poor showing has been a wake up call to make sure I’m fully present when I talk to others. If I’m speaking to a group, I’m committed to going out of my way to include every person and making them feel part of the conversation. I don’t want to make anyone else feel the way I felt when that guy ignored me.

How about you? When you’re speaking to colleagues, presenting in a meeting or just having a conversation at home, see if you can consciously choose to behave in a way that makes that other person feel important, included and the focus of your attention. There’s a very good chance they’ll be more open to receiving what you have to say - and that’s a great basis for positive communication. 

The results are in: reputation = long-term survival

Has your organisation fully grasped the importance of contributing to its reputational health every day? If not, it’s probably time to start.

We all know that in this social media age, people have a vast array of ways to express their views about what you’re doing, good and bad. More and more research is now catching up with community behaviour, showing businesses and organisations that actively build reputation and work on resilience are most likely to succeed in this reputation-driven economy.

A new report released by Harvard Business School takes this one step further, describing reputation and resilience as key ingredients that determine whether companies will survive tumultuous markets.

Regardless of whether a business operates in a developing or developed economy, the authors say there’s one element in common; an organisation’s reputation is crucial for its long-term success. The report looked at reputation as a combination of three factors - prominence, perceived quality, and resilience.

The third, resilience, really comes into play in emerging markets. As one writer said, “when you’re negotiating in a turbulent environment you feel reassured if the entity you are transacting with is likely be around tomorrow”.

The many business leaders interviewed as part of the research shared a common message. Most found there was a direct return in investing in their reputation, including attracting talented staff and having customers appreciate what they stood for. They also reiterated that reputation takes generations to build and can be severely damaged by just one incident.

Interestingly, the report concluded that reputation has both offensive and defensive elements – making it valuable to organisations during positive and negative economic cycles. The authors remarked: “Very few strategic constructs can work in both good times and bad.”

Your reputation can make or break you, but particularly at times of turbulence and change (which is just about all the time these days). According to the research, at its very core reputation provides stability and having a favourable reputation can give your customers and clients confidence in you and your future. The authors suggest this very stability provides a springboard for organisations to make changes in an ever-changing environment.

While you can’t control your reputation - it’s made up of what other people think of you and your business - you can actively contribute to it by the words you speak and how people directly experience you. That’s never been more important in an age when anyone can make unfettered comments across global channels. It’s vital to do everything you can to ensure those comments are positive.

How to be a powerful communicator when the stakes are high

Think about the last time you had to have a tricky conversation with someone - you know, one of those occasions when you'd rather be in a dentist's chair than having to broach a sensitive subject. Has one come to mind?

The memory of this day is burned into my brain; It was the time I had to face up to a very difficult manager. Let’s not beat around the bush here; he was a workplace bully and I'd had a very difficult time with him for a boss. I often felt uncomfortable speaking to him and now here I was, having to break it to him that I was leaving the organisation.

I knew he would react badly because that was the way he operated. I had a fair idea that he’d rant, rave and yell and that there was a better than even chance he would actually try to have me removed from the building without serving out my notice. As I managed a fabulous team at the time, I felt very strongly about fulfilling my notice period and doing a proper handover to my successor.

As you can imagine, the days and hours leading up to that conversation were an anxious time. While I’ve worked in communications in one form or another for my entire career I had never approached a conversation with a full communication strategy in mind. In this case, I made an exception – and I’m very glad I did.

We all have situations when the stakes are critical, when we must have a conversation about a sensitive topic and we know the other person isn’t going to like it. Most of us avoid conversations like this, but they have to be had.

Here’s what I learned from that experience – insights I’ve taken with me and put to good use in the years since. I’m a huge fan of preparation for any communication activity, but we generally don’t think about rehearsing for a critical conversation because we can’t control what the other person will do or say. However, it is possible to prepare and practise your overall approach.

Get in the right state

Regardless of the situation, you are always in total control of how you feel and react. Preparing for an important conversation starts with making sure you’re in the calmest state possible. We all have different approaches to achieving this; do whatever works for you. It might be deep breathing, listening to music, meditating, going for a walk, taking time away from other people in the hour immediately before the meeting, reading some inspirational statements or saying affirmative statements to yourself. You definitely don’t want to be rushing into the conversation unfocused and harried. Stay in control by managing your state immediately before the talk.

At this point you won’t know what the outcome will be, but you can go in with a positive attitude; expecting something good to come from the situation. Sometimes we need to play-act a little to ourselves to create a positive mindset; imagine the difference if you walk through the door with a glower on your face, compared to being able to summon up something positive at the start of the conversation. The other person will immediately sense your mood, and it will help set the tone of the interaction.

Whether you truly believe you’ll get a positive result or you’re quaking in your boots, you can still set your mindset in a constructive frame.

Be clear on what you want

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You need to start with the end in mind when you go into a conversation of this nature. What do you want to walk away with? What is negotiable and what's a show-stopper for you?

Starting with an unclear objective is an invitation to the other person to imprint their needs and wants over the top of yours. No doubt there’ll be some give, take and negotiation; you might not get everything want, but you need to be clear on your goal before you start.

Being clear stretches to visualising the positive outcome in your mind. Imagine yourself walking out, feeling relieved and upbeat about the result of the conversation. Even if you don’t feel it deep down, you have the power to hold these images in your mind and they will colour your words and actions. Your clarity and positive approach will be written all over your face and directly influence your body language, tone of voice and the words you choose, which in turn will contribute to the result.

If you go in already visualising a negative outcome, there’s a pretty good chance that’s how it will play out. See the possibilities and opportunities rather than the negatives.

Know who you’re talking to

There are different styles of communication, and everyone has their own habits. As part of your preparation, think about the person you’ll be speaking with; what do you know about them and how they like to receive communication?

Are they a person who likes a little formality or do they prefer to keep things casual? That might influence the setting you choose for the conversation (if you have any control over that part of the interaction). Do they like humour or is it better to keep it serious? Have you noticed they tend to think in pictures? If so, you could use visual references such as “what does this look like to you?” “The way I see it…” etc. Do they like to have diagrams or data as part of a conversation?

The more you know your audience and tailor your approach, the more receptive they’ll be to your message. Remember, effective communication is always about the audience, not the person initiating the communication.

Know your key message and stick to it

I’m the worst offender at this; so often I’ve gone into an important meeting or conversation not having thought through exactly what I need to say. Even the shortest amount of preparation will help you get a better result. Ask yourself; if I walk out of this meeting and the other person takes only one of two things away, what are those messages? Be clear about them, write them down if you need to, and make sure you actually deliver them on the day. This is where practice helps. Stand in front of a mirror and say the words out loud (yes, you’ll feel like a goose, but it will be worth it).

If the going gets tough during the conversation, you might need to resort to the broken record technique and calmly and patiently repeat your key message, slightly rephrased each time. You can’t do this if you don’t know what that message is.

Watch body language

Be proactive in the way you approach the conversation. Don’t slouch, but lean slightly towards the other person - not too much or you’ll come across as aggressive.

Make healthy eye contact; look them in the eye but don’t stare them down. Say your piece calmly, and allow them to say theirs. Demonstrate active listening by nodding in appropriate places and confirming you have heard them by repeating back key points. If you don’t agree, you can acknowledge the validity of their opinion and restate yours by saying something like “I can understand what you’re saying, I have a different view and it’s this…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Back to that conversation that kept me awake for the weeks leading up to it. For the first time in my life, I consciously focused on mindset preparation before a meeting. As a result, I was able to go in feeling almost detached – it was like an out-of-body experience, with me observing myself and my then boss with an objective eye.

I'd identified and practised my key messages and knew exactly what outcome I wanted, and I convinced myself to feel confident about getting there. You see, I knew that he would be angry; in fact I planned on it. It was like I had a little tick box in the corner of my mind, so if he did explode in a rage I could mentally tick that off and move on without being derailed by it. I had another mental tick box for the moment I expected he would try to have me thrown out of the building.

And in fact, both of my predictions came to pass; he did erupt in anger and asked me to leave the building immediately. I mentally ticked my two boxes, then simply kept broken-recording my key messages. I was amazed at how calm I was able to stay.

While the scene certainly wasn't pretty and we didn't part great friends, by the end of the conversation I had the outcome I was seeking. I had delivered my resignation calmly and professionally in spite of his response. I had kept my dignity intact, and I was able to then sit down with my team to explain that I was leaving, and work out my notice so I could finish up in the job appropriately.

It was a stressful encounter, but to this day I’m so grateful for the experience. It taught me a great lesson about my personal power in any situation, as long as I’ve done the planning and my mindset is in the right place.

We can all do this in high stakes conversations. These steps are worth trying next time you need to have one of “those” chats. It’s far healthier than trying to communicate sensitive information by email or some other means, or avoiding the encounter all together – and you’ll learn amazing things about yourself along the way.

 

Image - courtesy of Shutterstock  www.shutterstock.com

5 Reasons Why Some People At Work Have The X-Factor

Have you ever felt a sneaky pang of envy because someone at work has been promoted ahead of you or scored a great project? Maybe they’ve been put in charge of a team and you’re left as one of the worker bees – or, if you’re in business, there might be someone doing similar work to you who seems to hit more home runs.

Even if you’re technically brilliant at what you do, if you don’t have that extra something that gets people on side, you’re likely to be watching opportunities slip through your fingers and into the grasp of that other person.

There’s no doubt, some people are born with it. They’ve had that charisma since toddlerhood and it’s with them for life. For the rest of us mere mortals, being able to engage – even captivate - other people is a learned skill. The great news is, we can all learn it.

The pay-offs can be huge. It’s no secret that people prefer to do business with those they like. Liking someone at face value is a stepping stone to deeper trust and respect, the kind of relationship you need if you’re going to win more business or get those golden opportunities.

What does it take to inject a bit of x-factor into your business life? These five behaviours come naturally to charismatic people (the rest of us need to work that little bit harder):

1.    They see the conversation from the other person’s point of view.

Many people take an "I"-centred approach to communication. Every experience is seen solely through their eyes. Most sentences to come out of their mouths have a heavy dose of “I” and “me”.

Those who lock themselves into this type of communication are rarely aware they do it, but it’s obvious to everyone listening! Nothing builds a stronger barrier than having a conversation that’s all about you; the other person just happens to be in the same physical space.

They’re likely to be feeling uncomfortable, alienated, bored or downright annoyed. This is not the way to win hearts and minds.

Charismatic, influential communicators know at their core that effective interactions are all about the others in the conversation. They frame their communication as if looking through the other person’s eyes, using language and examples that make sense to the other person. This is basic stuff, and it’s amazing that most people don’t do it.

It can be interesting to consciously listen to yourself when you converse, and look at the way you write emails. How many times do you say “I” or “me” without any reference to the other person’s perspective?

If you’re guilty as charged, set yourself an exercise to focus on the other party to the communication. You might be surprised at the different response you get.

2.    They make great eye contact.

Most of us learn to make good eye contact when speaking in public, but that lesson can get forgotten during everyday interactions.

Some people get eye contact very wrong. They either avoid it, looking decidedly shifty as they stare at the floor or gaze around the room, or they fix an unblinking death stare on their unfortunate victim. There’s nothing like that rabbit-in-the-headlight-gaze to lower the comfort level of a conversation.

I marvelled at this when I was a television reporter. During on-camera interviews I would hold the other person’s gaze while I was talking to them. Some people clearly found this excruciating and couldn’t maintain natural eye contact throughout the process.

Want to be perceived as open and honest? Be prepared to look the other person in the eye regardless of the topic of conversation; but rather than staring them down, look away occasionally too.

3.    They smile and use body language to really listen.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the research that shows how little our actual words impact the overall effectiveness of our communication. Our tone of voice and body language make up the vast majority of tools we have to get our message across. Yet, most of the time we operate from a default position where we’re not conscious of what our body is doing and whether it’s helping or hindering our message.

I’m not suggesting fake or overdone gestures, but be aware of basics such as whether you’re leaning towards or away from the other person, whether your feet are pointed towards them or off to another part of the room, and if you are smiling and nodding at appropriate times.

If you’re sitting in a meeting room across a table from someone – and there are only two of you in the room – be aware that you have a physical barrier to communication. If you can, move your chair to the end of the table nearest the other person to enable you to talk diagonally across the table end.

Remember, it’s a fine line between a respectful distance and getting too close. We’re going for warm and friendly, not suffocating and sleazy.

4.    They approach every situation having already seen a positive result.

The power of visualisation is well documented. Yes, you can visualise positive outcomes for your life on a large scale, and you can also use this technique for very down-to-earth situations including specific conversations.

Here’s how it works: imagine you need to talk to someone about a sensitive or unpleasant subject. You’re probably dreading it, and already imagining it going pear-shaped. Now, try a little brain-washing on yourself and focus on seeing the conversation in a positive light. Try to play out the whole scene in your mind, and make sure the ending is exactly the way you want it. Even if you don’t believe it, give it a go.

Going into that meeting having imagined a positive result, will influence everything about your approach. Your tone of voice, mannerisms, the words you choose, how you use your body, will all be influenced by your mindset which in turn will affect the immediate outcome of the conversation. I have seen this demonstrated many times by participants in my workshops.

You obviously cannot control what the other person says and does, but they will respond to your cues. You will have much more influence over the outcome than if you go in passively, or with a negative mindset.

I love the story about the opening of the first Disneyland, when someone purportedly remarked to Walt Disney’s wife that it was a shame that Walt hadn’t lived to see the momentous opening day. Her reply? “Oh, but he did!” Even while Disneyland was still a dream, Walt Disney saw it in its completed state. That coloured his every action and, in turn, influenced everyone around him.

We can apply this to our everyday conversations and get better results.

5.    Rather than whinging, they find solutions.

If someone gets a great opportunity there’s a pretty good chance it’s not by accident. Perhaps they’ve put their hand up or shown they’re willing to take a risk. Maybe they put forward an idea when everyone else had a blank look on their face. They suggested something at the right time, or weren’t afraid to challenge another opinion.

Nothing pollutes a business environment more quickly than an infestation of whinging. Rather than adding to the cesspool, be the one who breaks free of it and comes up with solutions. Who knows, you might even motivate your colleagues to get on board. You're certainly more likely to stand out in a positive way if you're a source of inspiration.

 

Some of these ideas are simple, others take more practice. They can all be implemented in baby steps. It’s a matter of being conscious of the way you interact with people and choosing to try something different.

Naturally, you need your technical skills and expertise; froth and bubble alone will quickly subside. However, there’s no doubt that pumping up your charisma quotient will have a positive impact on your business and career. 

How avoiding cheap words gives you better business relationships

A year ago I was invited to quote on providing services for a large government project. It was a complex brief, and a lot of elbow grease went into my submission.

Then…nothing.

Time went on and I was busy with other work. I followed up the submission once or twice and received the “we’ll get back to you” treatment. I well and truly lost interest, chalking it up to what appears to be a communication norm these days; non-responsiveness.

Guess what? A few weeks ago a letter arrived (yes, a printed one!) letting me down gently to the news that, unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in my submission. What a massive surprise!

I have to give them credit; at least they eventually got back to me – not that I was hanging out for a response 12 months on. It’s an interesting observation, though, that the more communication channels we have in our information-saturated world, the less we seem to consider it necessary to exercise some of the more courteous behaviours like responding to people.

I hear similar comments from those around me; whether it’s an invitation to an event, a job application or general business communication, people don’t reply like they used to. In an age when it’s so easy to answer by flicking back a response or posting a comment, words have never been so cheap. Their value has plummeted further than the Aussie dollar.

And with those cut-rate words comes a slump in accountability. Following through, getting back to people, taking responsibility for actions and being willing to admit to mistakes seem to be viewed by many as old-hat.

It reminds me of a story I heard from a friend with a long and somewhat colourful career in many industries. He once worked for a giant telco where a colleague spent years using a false name to sign large contracts (the name was pretty obviously fake, at that). When my friend asked him why, his response was, “I don’t want those bastards holding me accountable for anything!”

Amazingly, no-one picked him up on it and he got his wish of never being held accountable for the contracts he signed.

Do you know people, businesses, government departments like that? They mightn’t exactly have fake names or false social media profiles, but their words count for little and they don’t step up to be held accountable for what they do. Generally, those types hide behind arms-length communication rather than building the solid relationships that have never been more important in our furiously-paced digital environment.

To further your career or business, you need to build credibility. Start with airtight relationships with the people in your network - and those beyond it - who matter most.

That’s not going to come through hollow words and lack of response. It’s more likely to be born of direct contact, meaningful conversations and honesty.

Let’s take care not to get swept up in other people’s bad communication habits. It’s important to get back to people when they ask for something, close the communication loop (oh, and perhaps don’t take a year to do it!)

Our words don't need to be cheap. Used well, they’re a rich and powerful tool, helping us succeed and make a positive difference to everyone around us.

 

Image: courtesy of shutterstock.com

How To Kick Goals This Year By Backing Team You

I was catching the train to an early morning meeting in the city this week, joining everyone else in their corporate uniforms; variations of suits and laptop bags, heads bowed, phones firmly planted in faces.

The doors opened at a station and in she stepped, immaculately dressed and groomed. Like most passengers she was holding her phone in her hand, and as she moved into the carriage the device slipped from her grasp and clattered to the floor.

Her response was a loud “whoops-a-daisy!” – which drew smiles and giggles from those around her. Do you remember that scene from the movie Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant lets out a similar exclamation and is paid out for it by Julia Roberts?  As Julia’s character points out, "No one has said 'whoops-a-daisy' for fifty years and even then it was only little girls with blonde ringlets."

Who knows how many years ago those words were implanted as a go-to phrase in our well-heeled train traveller’s mind. Was it something her mother said to her, or maybe a grandparent or teacher, or was it a saying she picked up from other kids as they repeated what they’d heard from those who influenced them?

Whatever the source, that particular string of words became lodged in her bank of reflex actions, so that all those years later it was the first thing to come out of her mouth well before she thought about it.

It’s no secret that we all have the experiences of our formative years imprinted within us. Those situations might find instant re-enactment through innocent phrases as in the phone-dropping scenario, or their long-lasting effects might be revealed in more negative ways; behaviour that doesn’t serve us, mannerisms that undermine our confidence and credibility now that we’re operating in the business world. Perhaps it’s an underlying belief that if we’re to succeed, we need to make everyone like us. Or, it could be a nagging idea that everybody is out to take advantage of us or we aren’t good enough to put ourselves forward for new opportunities or business ideas.

We’re operating in an environment driven by reputation and credibility. While our reputation is what others think of us, it starts with self-belief. If we don’t believe we can do it, how can we expect anyone else to back us and our abilities?

Negative stuff will stick if we let it. I had an art teacher at school who laughed at my enthusiastic - and apparently very ordinary - attempts at painting. The result; I stopped trying to draw or paint in any form. Even much later, when I recognised it as a belief imposed by someone else that I innocently accepted at the time, it still had a strong hold on me.

What mental habits have you picked up along your journey? No doubt many of them are harmless, but some might be hindering you from nailing what you really want to achieve.

Sometimes we’re not even aware we have blithely accepted someone else’s negativity as truth. If you were to record all the conversations you have with yourself during the day (now there’s a scary thought!) what would the main themes be? Do you think you’d be encouraging Team You, or simply mimicking the common (usually negative) phrases you heard in the past that are now part of your continuous feedback loop?

Undoing a lifetime of habits might sound like a tall order, but we can take the relatively simple step of just being aware of what generally comes up in our thoughts and words every day. Being aware enables you to take small actions that can mean a big difference to your confidence. That confidence will translate into your behaviour, transforming your relationships and expanding your credibility bank.

Don’t let your version of ‘whoops-a-daisy’ trip you up in your business endeavours. Embrace the positive elements you’ve picked up so far in your life, and weed out the ones that detract from the awesomeness of you. Make 2017 your Year of Credibility.

The one thing I’ve learned about Christmas (and it’s not written on a card)

The last time I spoke to my mother was December 2014. She had called me in her usual cheery way to make final arrangements for Christmas day.

“I’ve made the cake and pudding,” she announced, referring to the culinary staples she produced every year that were a favourite in the family. We discussed other details; who was bringing the prawns, the bonbons, the cherries, and whether we’d risk it and set the tables up outside or believe the weather forecast and stay indoors.

A few days later – exactly one week before Christmas - Mum died. She’d been feeling “a bit crook” (in our family parlance) and ended up in hospital for tests. After a while hospital staff sent Dad home, telling him to come back after dinner when Mum would be feeling better. He reported to me that she would be home in a few days, and I planned to visit her over the weekend.

Dad left the hospital and drove the short distance home. He’d just got there when the phone rang, heralding the terrible news that Mum was gone. There were no last words or goodbyes, no opportunity for final arrangements.

Just nothing - and the empty expanse of Christmas now stretching out before us.

There were other factors too. This happened in the same week as the Lindt Café siege in Sydney. Because Mum died so suddenly there had to be an autopsy, but Sydney’s morgue was very busy and the abrupt death of an elderly lady wasn’t considered a priority.

I spent Christmas Eve arguing with morgue staff about whether they would release Mum’s body so we could go ahead with her funeral the day after Boxing Day. At about three minutes to their closing time on Christmas Eve, they agreed to release her.

I also spent the few days before Christmas calling Mum’s vast network friends (details neatly alphabetised in her Teledex). Every one of them reacted with shock and denial, as they had just received her Christmas card in the post. She sent them out each year like clockwork. “No, she can’t be gone – I just opened her Christmas card this morning!” or variations of the theme, over and over.

I explained the circumstances as patiently as I could. By about call number 20 I had the spiel perfected.

Hardly surprising, then, that our Christmas Day was subdued. The family gathering was more an opportunity to finalise funeral details. But what we did have were Mum’s Christmas cake and pudding, lovingly and efficiently made in advance. She never got the chance to ice the cake, so my sister took on the challenge of replicating the icing with that special, familiar flavour.

Those traditional treats usually vanished quickly in our household, but this time I wanted to keep the last traces of Mum’s Christmas efforts forever.

Everyone has a story at this time of year. Maybe yours is full of joy and expectation, with all the sentiments encouraged by the advocates of the festive season. For many others, this is a time of sadness, loneliness or painful reminders of loss.

What I’ve learned is that the close of one year and the dawn of another is a gift; an opportunity to regather and plan for all the wonderful possibilities that will unfold over the next 12 months.

I didn’t have a great Christmas two years ago. The whole experience made me reluctant to even look at a Christmas tree, let alone feel excited by it. But it has taught me that inner strength has a marvellous way of showing itself when you most need it. While I haven’t decorated my house or sent any cards this year, I’m looking on Christmas with a sense of optimism for my life, my health, my family and my business.

Life is fleeting, but it can also be wonderful. How we shape it is up to us. You have an opportunity to reflect on your 2016 and craft an incredible 2017.

I encourage you to seize that opportunity - and if the sentiments of the season drive you a little crazy, use that energy to drive you forward into the future you deserve. 

Switch On The Spotlight To Boost Your Reputation

In today’s social media world, reputation is more precious than diamonds. If anyone wants to know about you or your organisation, they can track you with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

While you can’t control what people think or say about you or your business, you can contribute to your own reputation by making sure your internal house is in order. For example, do your values, words and actions all line up?

Demonstrating consistency is essential to earn trust, and that’s a fundamental building block for a healthy reputation.

Understanding your external environment is also critical for building sound reputation capital. That might sound straightforward, but many people and businesses overlook this and end up blindsided by negative issues.

Lets look at a couple of examples.

Be aware of what’s going on inside your business

Recently, I was speaking with a high-level business advisor who is often called in to help struggling organisations. He told me about a large utility company whose board couldn’t work out why the place was bleeding money when they should have been making a healthy profit.

He didn’t need to be Einstein to quickly identify that two senior managers were having an affair. The pair would disappear for several hours each day – which was bad enough – but they were also syphoning money off to fund a luxury apartment for their dalliances.

He also discovered that an enterprising employee had built a false wall inside one of the organisation’s technical departments. Anyone visiting that section would have walked past without noticing that something was amiss, but one of the rooms in fact extended beyond the false wall. Everyone was shocked to learn what lay behind it.

The employee had turned part of the building into a drug laboratory. This semi-government utility was, in fact, facilitating a drug dealership that was supplying the local community. The story went even further. Once the drug lab was shut down, the employee who instigated it was seriously assaulted by some of his customers who weren’t impressed at having their supply cut off.

This is an extraordinary story with a serious message. Many organisations don’t actually know what’s going on right under their nose. They behave like ostriches with their head in the sand. I see this myself when I’m called in to manage issues and crises. Make no mistake; building a great reputation involves taking an honest look at what’s going on within your walls and addressing it, warts and all. This applies to businesses and organisations of any size.

We should never underestimate the potential for people to do things we would never dream of doing. It’s easy to assume everyone behaves the way we were brought up, but unfortunately that’s not realistic. An outsider coming in to the utility organisation could easily identify where the issues lay, yet leaders on the inside had tried and failed to put their finger on the problems.

So, take a good look around. Ask the right questions and you’ll be able to uncover potential problems before they turn into disasters.

Remove the blinkers in your external environment

I once did some work with a local council that had a huge project happening in their region – the construction of a major bridge that was being funded by their state government.

The bridge was built in a spectacular location and when it was finished there was a lot of publicity and community interest. Visitors to the area were keen to take photos, while others wanted to walk or cycle across the structure. Commercial car manufacturers wanted to film television commercials on it. However, there were no parking areas at either end of the bridge. Overnight, a relatively quiet regional area became the home of traffic jams, cars blocking roadways and angry local residents. Just as quickly, the whole thing became a PR nightmare for the council. 

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Their response was, “it’s not our fault. We didn’t build the bridge, we didn’t ask for the bridge, we didn’t fund the bridge, it was simply built in our geographical area.” All valid points, but none of them diminished the problem. Planning for the bridge had taken years, and it was hardly a secret. Rather than being proactive and planning for facilities that would be needed in association with the bridge, this organisation took a blinkered approach and then had to deal with the consequences.

Sadly, this type of situation is common. Even though it’s obvious something in our external environment is going to affect us, we wear our blinkers and fail to recognise the likely impacts. The fall-out is usually so much worse than if we’d identified the potential issue and taken action.

Often, we jump into branding and storytelling mode without having a good look around our organisation. Remember, the first step to building reputation capital is awareness. Be proactive in heading off problems before the headache takes hold.

Check out what's happening inside and outside your organisation. You might be amazed at what you discover. 

Reshaping The Role Of The Communication Professional

The world is one giant review agency.

Innovation has empowered people with internet-enabled devices to say anything about your business, and there is little you can do to stop that.

When I first started working in corporate communication, I was a “reputation gatekeeper”. No communication of any importance passed in or out of the organisation without first coming to me for vetting.

Added to that, many businesses preferred to practise a “decide and tell” approach, where they operated behind closed doors and occasionally emerged with a carefully crafted positive message to fuel their reputation.

Those approaches won’t cut it today.

With the growth of social media and other forms of digital communication, there’s no such thing as a reputation gatekeeper. Businesses are under constant scrutiny and information is flowing to and from every pore of the organisation.

The idea of the gatekeeper has truly been blown wide open. So, what description fits the role of today’s communication professional?

The best way we can serve our organisation is to embrace our new responsibility as a facilitator - the conductor of a reputation orchestra, if you will. Alongside managing an endlessly expanding array of communication channels, we must establish an environment where each section of the business understands the importance of reputation and their own roles as reputation ambassadors.

A business or organisation can’t control its reputation, which is made up of what other people think. But that reputation can be influenced – by how the business behaves, what it says about itself, and how it demonstrates its values each day.

Whatever their role, the people who make up your organisation now hold the keys to your reputation kingdom. Give them the tools and skills they need to tell their stories.

Far from being obsolete, communication experts have never been more essential. You're no longer a gatekeeper; you're an influencer, advocate and leader. Grab that conductor's baton and give it a good whirl.  

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