The lesson in a coffee cup that will make you a better communicator

As I arrived, bleary-eyed, at the busy airport terminal for an early morning flight, I had only one thing on my mind – caffeine.

I hadn’t been to this airport before. After going through security I headed straight to the one coffee shop in sight.

There was a queue for ordering, but it could have been worse. A horde of peopIe converged on the cafe after me, and I was relieved I'd reached the line-up just ahead of them. By the time I clasped eager hands around my coffee, the queue snaked away from the cafe's counter across the terminal space.

It was only then, when I moved away from the crowd, that I realised the space opened up to a whole food court containing numerous coffee shops - with no queues and very few customers.  I’d had to battle the hordes for somewhere to sit but here, at these previously hidden outlets, there were plenty of seats.

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I had to chuckle at myself. When I entered the terminal, I was so fixated by my quest for coffee I could only see the one cafe.  Like a sleep-deprived sheep I'd headed straight for the crowd, believing it was my only chance at a caffeine hit before boarding (and after all that, the coffee was only average). I didn’t look further than what was right in front of me, even though logic would suggest a city airport would have more than one coffee shop.

So what does coffee have to do with communication? This incident reminded me of a common trap for many of us. Whether at work or in our relationships with friends or family, we can fool ourselves into believing we're good listeners; skilled at extracting meaning from others. What we're more likely to do is latch onto the obvious comment or facial expression in front of us, when there could be a whole host of other meanings lying just beneath it.

In Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny and Ron McMillan, the authors describe the "path to action" we commonly take when communicating. We see or hear something, then tell ourselves a story about it based on our own back story and experience. That story might be very different from the facts, but that doesn’t stop us.

We then allow the story to fuel our emotions. We think we’re reacting to the situation when we’re actually reacting to the story we’ve told ourselves. That reaction then leads us to take a particular course of action, which might be completely at odds with the facts at the heart of the matter.

What stories are you telling yourself that get in the way of healthy communication? It's important to clarify the facts first, before your story leads you to do or say something that takes the situation in the wrong direction and potentially harms the relationship.

If I hadn’t spun myself the line that the airport cafe must be the only one in this hemisphere, I would have avoided a lengthy queue and enjoyed a better coffee in a quiet environment. 

Outstanding communication skills are much more than a "nice to have" if you want to succeed in your career, in business and in life.  Rather than wasting time on misunderstandings, be the one who takes the communication back to the facts.

Get curious, clarify, truly listen to the other person and aim to reach a shared meaning rather than firing yourself up on your own version of the story. Not only will you build your own credibility, you'll be adding a huge amount of value for those around you.

The downside of too much or too little leadership communication

I once had a boss who had a visibility problem. He believed he was good at giving orders from a distance, but lacked connection with his teams.

He had good reason for thinking that way. He spent most of his time in his magnificent office, behind two beautifully crafted timber doors. It was easy to admire the workmanship in those portals, because they were usually closed. Not surprisingly (to everyone but him, it seemed), staff gave his office a wide berth.

As the newly-arrived communications manager at the time, I was asked if I could help. At the risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, I suggested that an open-door policy would be a good start.

The response I received was interesting, to say the least. “I tried an open-door policy but it was a disaster. Everyone kept wanting to see me!” he lamented.

It was clear from that conversation the problem wasn’t the closed doors; it was the attitude of the person sitting behind the closed doors. He might have said he wanted better relationships with his teams, but he preferred the distance created by physical and other barriers.

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Great leaders need strong visibility in their business. With all the digital platforms available today, there are many ways to engage with employees across the organisation. But how much communication is too much? Is punching out the occasional blog too little?

I heard a great analogy recently. Imagine you're at a dinner party, seated between two very different guests. On one side you have the reluctant conversationalist; a reticent type who mumbles in monosyllables. It takes all your resolve and enthusiasm to keep the conversation going.

Seated on the other side is the blabber; you know the type, the person so full of how awesome they are they can’t wait to share it with you - including everything they’ve done for the past year.

Which way do you turn at the table? Which neighbour makes it easier to build rapport? An early exit from the table seems the most appealing approach. 

Leaders can fall into the trap of being one of these types of party guest; either reluctant to engage so people feel they have to drag information out of them, or oversharing to the point that it's overwhelming and uncomfortable. Like those fairy tales say, it’s a matter of getting it just right.

Some leaders strike a great balance. Rather than posting continuously in a one-way information barrage through the business communication channels, they mix it up by sometimes posting content and at others asking questions and engaging with those who put forward their views. On other occasions, they show support by simply liking what others post.

It used to be part of the communication team's role to produce content on behalf of the business leader (I’ve done plenty of that myself over the years). These days, those who support leaders give them a far more valuable gift by building the leader's capability to engage in their own right; creating their own posts and conversation initiatives rather than having professional communicators do it for them.

If you're a leader, be visible in the right proportions. Communicating with people in your own authentic voice builds credibility and respect; both vital in this reputation-driven economy.

Are you "staff first" when it comes to communication?

I spoke this week at a conference on internal communication, and also had the benefit of listening to other leaders in this vital field.

There was a common theme in the room; communicating with employees is the glue that holds your business or organisation together. Yet it’s often a forgotten element, both in day-to-day activities and when major projects or changes are on the horizon.

Currently, I’m involved in a project that didn't start well. When it kicked off, communicating with staff was the last thing on the business’s leader's mind. When I suggested he should take a staff first approach, he looked at me like something radical had come out of my mouth.

People in your business are your most powerful reputation ambassadors. They should be the ones you talk to first, before you go to outside audiences.

An interesting topic at the conference was the growth of email tracking platforms for communication within organisations. There are many of these tracking programs, including PoliteMail, Convo, TailoredMail, and Bananatag to name just a few.

I don’t propose to recommend or critique any of them, but their brand promise might appeal to those looking to improve engagement with teams inside their business.

Whether we like it or not, email is still a key plank of the way we reach employees. We all whinge about it, yet for many of us it's still our go-to channel. Having a method to track emails serves some useful purposes.

1.     Gathering statistics

Internal communication is traditionally the poor relation in the broader communication family. Getting solid data on what employees are reading and when, can be powerful when it comes to seeking more resources or tweaking your approach to internal communications.

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2.     Allocating resources

If you know what’s working, where and when, you can better decide how communication resources are allocated. That’s very valuable at a time when communication staff have never had more to juggle and more pressure to protect the reputation of the business.

3.     Reducing email overload

This is the one that really resonated with me. Is there anyone out there who’s not drowning under emails?

Research by the Radicati Group in February this year estimated the number of emails sent worldwide every day is now 205 billion - which means nearly 2.4 million emails are sent every second! No wonder we’re all overwhelmed.

Tracking your internal communication emails lets you know who has opened and read your message. If it’s an important piece of information (and if it’s not, why are you emailing it?) you can use another means, like a phone call, to follow up those who don’t open or read it. Even better, you can leave alone the people who have already got on board with your message.

This simple benefit of a tracking tool could be useful in any business where email content has been cheapened by an oversupply of meaningless or less important messages.

 

Whether you have a tracking program or not, the over-arching principle remains the same. Communicating with your team is critical. You can’t hope to have an outstanding reputation in the outside world if you don’t communicate first with the people who matter most; those inside your business.

You can't simply be good at what you do; you must be known for it as well

Most people would agree that having a positive reputation - individually and as a business - is critical for survival in today’s economy. Once lost, a personal or professional reputation can take a lifetime to rebuild.

I’m enjoying reading The Reputation Game by David Waller and Rupert Younger. Their insights are a reminder that we have various reputations, depending on the audience we’re dealing with at the time.

It’s possible to enjoy a great reputation with one group, for example your staff, yet have a less-than-perfect reputation with other audiences, such as the broader community or the business world. It’s important not to assume that just because you’ve got a good reputation in one area, it's replicated across all audiences.

Waller and Younger also point out that there are, in fact, two types of reputation; your capability reputation and your character reputation.

Your capability reputation is what others think of your ability to do what you do; your skill set, experience and expertise. Your character reputation, on the other hand, is what they think of you as a person.

It’s possible to have completely different reputations across these two areas at the same time. For example, at work you could be known as someone who’s brilliant at their job and always delivers results, but on the personal front you might be considered abrupt, disorganised or even distracted or over-emotional. Conversely, you could be renowned as the nicest person in the business, but unreliable when it comes to getting things done.

The same can be said for a business as a whole. An organisation can enjoy a fabulous reputation for products or services and at the same time be known as difficult to deal with. Or, they can be a joy to buy from but the products themselves leave a lot to be desired.

When considering your branding - whether personal or organisational - remember the two  types of reputation and the fact that you can be perceived differently across different audiences.

Of course, reputation is what other people think of you. It’s their collective perception that makes up that elusive dimension that precedes you and sticks like glue . But, you can influence your reputation by what you do and say and how others directly experience you.

Waller and Younger indicate that people tend to be more forgiving of flaws in your capability reputation, but your character reputation is truly precious, volatile and easily changed for the worse. That explains why businesses that have gone through highly public crises for bad behaviour can still enjoy a positive reputation for their strongly branded products or services.

Take every opportunity to build  capital across the full scope of your reputation, every day. It’s something many people take for granted  - but they'll certainly notice when it’s not there.

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How Simple Skills Get Communication Cut-through

There's been plenty in the media lately about the gender pay gap and the challenges faced by women in leadership roles.

It was refreshing to hear powerful messages recently from a senior leader in the NSW government who's been quietly getting on with the job, taking on a series of male-dominated roles during her impressive career.

As she explains, she didn't always know she was the first woman to go into a role; it was only when she got there that she realised she was actually blazing a trail.

What particularly impresses me about this leader's style is the care she takes in getting to know individual staff even though she manages a large agency. She describes how she makes it her business to have a one-on-one with every staff member in her extended team, even driving long distances to meet with individuals based at remote locations.

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She always asks them five questions:
1.     Tell me about your job
2.     What do you like about your job?
3.     What don't you like about it?
4.     How can I support you in your role?
5.     What can we as an agency do better to deliver the services we’re here to deliver?

Asking and really listening has enabled her to build a powerful profile of the agency's capabilities along with a strong network of support. She can make confident decisions based on direct information from those at the coal face.

Often in the digital age we rely on technology to do the communicating for us - but nothing beats face to face communication, however inconvenient it might seem.

Being able to look into the other person's eyes, read their body language and make a personal connection cuts through much of the noise that gets in the way of emails and other more distant forms of interacting.

It's clear to me why this manager has enjoyed such a successful career and no doubt has an even brighter future. She also shared a wonderful quote (and I hope I’m expressing it correctly).  Written in her autograph book when she was a child, by her grandmother,  it goes like this:

“Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.”

 

Should Skydive Australia have taken the red pen to this statement?

When it comes to crisis communication, where does a business draw the line between empathy and "business as usual"?

Skydive Australia (Skydive the Beach Group Limited) a successful and reputable young company, has found itself a key player in Friday's skydiving tragedy at Mission Beach in Queensland in which three people died.

The incident, which is now being investigated, is believed to have involved a collision between a solo skydiver and tandem skydivers.

It’s interesting to note that while Skydive Australia has been quoted in media reports, its own public communication channels remain largely silent about the tragedy.

The company’s Facebook page makes no mention of it. The Skydive Australia website contains a sole statement - difficult to find in the Investors section - which acknowledges the tragedy and sends "heartfelt condolences" to the families of those who died, then moves immediately to expressing how the company is looking forward to recommencing operations shortly at Mission Beach.

At the same time, its website home page expounds that “we’re energetic, experienced and committed to making your skydive a safe and memorable experience you'll never forget.”

At its most basic, effective crisis communication needs to include three elements: 

  1. What happened
  2. Empathy for those affected
  3. Action steps - what happens next

I believed that at this stage it's simply too soon for the company to express eager anticipation about recommencing operations at Mission Beach. A critical incident is not business as usual. How a business responds amid such a tragedy often determines how quickly it re-establishes reputation and builds valuable resilience tools from the lessons learned.

When the operators of Dreamworld talked about plans to reopen the amusement complex after last October's tragedy which claimed four lives on the Thunder River Rapids ride, they were widely criticised and the reopening plans were quickly put on hold. So far at least, Skydive Australia has been fortunate to escape such media scrutiny.

That may be because there's a community belief that skydiving is inherently more risky than taking an amusement ride. It might be because some of the players in the Dreamworld tragedy were seen as “tall poppies” and became media targets – not helped by the fact that they got it so wrong immediately after the event.

In any case, Skydive Australia would be wise to learn from the Dreamworld tragedy. Go softly, go slowly, and remain humble. Acknowledge the facts of what happened; don't ignore them in your public communication and don't be over-eager to restore usual operations.

Should Skydive Australia have taken the red pen to this statement?

 

Dr Neryl East is a speaker and trainer on reputation credibility and communication. www.neryleast.com

Blurred lines, quick posts and your career

Have you posted something on social media that you've later regretted?

Maybe it caused you embarrassment - or perhaps it had more serious implications.

However much we try to play it down, the actions we take online have a direct impact in our offline world - as one employee of a small business recently discovered.

Here are my thoughts on the blurring of lines between our public and private lives.

 

 

Tame those flapping hands and have better conversations

A few weeks ago I returned from an overseas trip and was feeling seriously jet-lagged, but had to go straight into a meeting with a client. I was tired, my head was fuzzy and I’m the first to admit I didn’t perform at my best.

When I reflected on it later, my words were adequate but I realised my body language reflected everything I was feeling and it must have transferred directly to the others in the meeting. Fortunately, it didn’t affect the outcome, but I just didn’t feel good about the way I communicated in that situation.

This week I listened to a program by body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman. It was a great reminder about how important it is to know what our bodies are saying, every time we communicate.

It's relatively easy to pay attention to your body language on specific occasions, for example if you have to make a presentation or speak at a meeting. But what about the rest of the time - conversations in the corridor, speaking on the phone (when your body language has a direct impact on the quality of your voice) and all your other interactions  throughout the day?

To ramp up your communication performance, try tuning into your body language more frequently.

1.     Your body language is either working for you or against you.

When we communicate verbally it’s a full body experience, and the way we use our body can either make our message more clear or get in the way of the communication.

Your conscious and unconscious movements and expressions are a direct reflection of what’s going on inside you. You could be using words that sound confident but if you’re not feeling it, everything about you will be telling the opposite story.

Sitting up straight, breathing deeply, making sure you put yourself in a position to face the person or people you're speaking with, good eye contact, nodding and using other overt signs of active listening help form a stronger connection.

2.     Foot action

It’s not just your facial expression and hands that give you away. Do you realise your feet are also sending messages about what you think about the other person and how you’re feeling during the interaction?

I wonder how many times you’ve been in a meeting and curled your feet underneath your chair, so they point directly away from the person speaking. In some situations you might just be making yourself more comfortable, but feet  turned away can be interpreted as a sign that you’re not interested in what the other person has to say.

This is a good one to watch when you’ve having one on one conversations. Pay attention to what your feet are doing. Angle them towards the other person (I’m generalising here; I realise this is considered offensive in some cultures, so specific sensitivities always needs to be layered over this advice) rather than away from them. This means your entire body is painting a picture of total focus, radiating that what the other person is saying is the most important thing to you in that moment. This is what forms solid business relationships.

3.     Keep the bird wings under control

Some communication experts teach highly choreographed hand gestures. My approach is that if you get your mindset right, your body will reflect those feelings and emotions, and your hand gestures will be a natural extension of your thoughts and words.

Be aware though that there is a “trust zone” at your waist level. Focusing your gestures on either side of your waist and just in front will help you come across as a credible person.

Some of us can't help ourselves when it comes to big hand gestures and that’s okay, but if you spend the entire conversation looking like a fledgling bird trying to take off, you risk creating a perception of being scatty or disorganised, or at the very least you'll distract your listeners and they might tune out.  

 

Having been reminded about the importance of body language basics, I had a meeting with another client this week and what a difference! I paid attention to the way I sat, ensured my eye contact was flawless and kept my hands on top of the table as much as possible, in full view of the other people. This harks back to our primitive past - being able to see the other person's hands makes them more trustworthy because our instincts tell us they're not about to pull a weapon or take some other untoward action.

Body language as a topic might have been around for a long time, but it never gets old. The more you're aware of what your body does when you’re communicating, the better communicator you'll be. That will increase your credibility and your performance at work.

Tell More Stories At Work And Watch Things Take Off

I had the joy this week of attending a workshop delivered by Troy and Zara Swindells-Grose. If you haven't heard of them check out their website, Humour Australia.

Troy and Zara have something unique. They’re professional comedians and, among other things, help business leaders tell better stories.

I've been a story teller all my life in one form or another, yet this was a great reminder of the power of telling stories in business every day.

Troy and Zara pointed out that stories are a superbly effective way to bypass the parts of the brain that might otherwise resist your information. A story that's well told and has a clear and relevant message can link to your listener’s emotions and embed your message right in their heart, rather than going over their head. Stories also stimulate learning and persuade people to take action.

You might be wondering how story telling can have a place in your business world. The simple fact is, stories are everywhere; funny, poignant, dramatic, inspirational, take your pick.

You have your own stories from your past, your dreams and there are also the countless anecdotes that spring up throughout the day; what happened to you on the way to work, what the guy said when you were buying coffee, something you saw on social media. Even sharing these types of stories can lighten the mood of a meeting and help others feel at ease. It can enhance your connection with people, build rapport and help you drive your important information home.

Your story doesn't need to be complicated; it can be done and dusted in a matter of seconds. Troy and Zara shared some simple story structures such as:

  • situation
  • complication
  • resolution

Or, you can just speak from the heart about something you've experienced.

Next time you need to speak in a meeting or have a business conversation, think about what a story might bring to the interaction. Who knows, everyone present might walk away with a smile on their face.

In this serious business world, that has to be a good thing.
 

 

Why Word Vomit Gets In the Way Of Your Credibility

While waiting for a flight out of Lisbon, Portugal last week we stopped for coffee at an airport café.

After placing our order my husband, Mike, was surprised to hear the shop assistant say “you won’t get coffee here”. Confused, he falteringly responded “but isn’t this a coffee shop?” Fair question, I thought!

An awkward couple of seconds followed before another shopper intervened, leaning in to tell us “the coffee machine is broken”.

While this was a run-of-the-mill language issue that’s a normal part of travelling, it’s also a great example of the subtleties in the English language. English is rich in shades of meaning. We have a huge range of words and phrases to choose from.

In the business world, the word choices we make have a major bearing on the effectiveness of our communication. Yet, many people choose language that puts up barriers to understanding rather than opting for clarity and precision.

Poor communication gets in the way of good business operations, causes friction between people and can be the determining factor in whether you get a promotion, or win a new client. In today’s economy your success as an individual - and the success of your entire organisation - is driven by reputation. While you can’t control what others think of you, you can influence it by being the best that you can be and building your skills as a credible communicator.

 

A person who communicates with credibility has strengths across three areas:

1.     Conversation

Have you noticed that some people just have the “x factor” - they seem to effortlessly jump into any conversation and immediately form a connection. They’re totally present in the situation, focusing on the others in the discussion and using phrases and examples that make sense to everyone involved.

While it could be suggested that in this tech-driven world the art of conversation is dying, I’d argue that there’s never been a more crucial time to sharpen your skills in this area. Being able to connect and engage with individuals and small groups is a critical factor for anyone wanting to succeed in their business or career.

There are many resources to help you become a better verbal communicator. I love the writings of Leil Lowndes - here’s one of her cracking blogs about speaking on the phone.

 

2.     Presentation

Most of us have suffered through an awful presentation or a dry and seemingly pointless meeting. It doesn’t need to be that way. You mightn’t be called on to perform on a stage to thousands of people, but being able to present with confidence and credibility at a meeting or in a group marks you as a stand-out.

Credible communicators are comfortable in any sized space and with any sized audience. They understand that being a good presenter means putting the audience first – choosing language that forms a connection rather than focusing on trying to sound clever.

If you struggle when speaking in front of people, make the decision to build your skills. There are many programs, books, coaches and online resources to help you – or simply start practising and making a conscious effort to improve.

 

3.     Written Communication

I was reminded only this week in a blog that many people write poorly because they ignore a very important principle; all communication - including the written form – is most effective when expressed from the audience’s point of view. This often gets forgotten in the business world, yet putting it into practice can transform your written communication, whether it’s email, formal reports, social media, or any form of the written word.

If you don’t think you’re a strong writer, there are plenty of ways to improve. Start by paying attention to your reader; who are they and what do they most need from you? Think about the best way to make a connection with them before diving into what you have to say. Every word counts; they don’t have the benefit of hearing the tone of your voice or reading your body language.

 

Getting serious about your skill level as a credible communicator will make a significant difference to your professional success. Do your own personal audit; how do you rate in the credible communication stakes? When you communicate, do people get your message every time, or is there a language barrier?  Which of the three areas do you need to work on next?

Less word vomit, more clarity and precision – let this be your new mantra. You’ll get a massive boost when it comes to work, relationships, and life in general.