Adopting a Communication Mindset
Consider your communication mindset as a platform—every time you deliver a message, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal, written or spoken, you’ll stand on your communication mindset as the basis for all you do. Your communication mindset will ask you to think strategically, analytically, and empathetically about your audience and what matters to them. It will ask you to clarify the work that your communication is meant to do. And it will invite you to make choices about the words, channels, visuals, and multimedia assets that will comprise your message. It is not only a starting place, but the foundation for all effective communication. So let’s dive in.
Know Your AIM
Order is important here … crucial, in fact. We must begin first in the shoes (or seats) of our audience. Once we know who we are addressing, we have to clarify our intent; what do we want them to do, think, or feel as a result of this communication? Only by clarifying Audience and Intent can we move on to Message.
Let’s explore each of these elements in order. Let’s begin with Audience.
#1 Audience: The Starting Point for All Communication
LinkedIn and Google searches top the online examples; finding information about individuals, groups, or firms with whom you plan to communicate has never been easier. It’s relatively simple to find company bio pages, recent conference presentations, or public blog sites. Those who dig a little deeper may find their way to Glassdoor to research a firm or leader; this site often offers more subjective information, as its entries are largely provided by former employees—many of whom may have a bit of an ax to grind.
Leveraging personal contacts makes up the second, often deeper, round of analysis. Can I find somebody in the audience to serve as a “mini focus group” for my message? Can I test out a few phrases or stories with a sample audience before I use them on my actual audience? Further, if I can find somebody who has recently spoken to this group who’s willing to share that experience, all the better.
On that note, here’s a tip about your “gatekeeper” when you first approach a new organization: mine your conversation with that person effectively. If someone at the firm is arranging your visit, pepper that person with questions at both a macro and micro level. Everything from “What has marked the success of recent speakers?” to “Do the men in your office wear jackets and ties to work?” is fair game.
#2 Intent: Your Reason for Communication
Certainly there are numerous ways to describe the goal, objective, or outcome of a communication. I like their choice of “Intent” not simply because of the great acronym it creates, but because of the clarity of the word. It’s both the intention in my mind as a speaker or writer, and the action in the minds of the audience. It’s not simply what I want the audience to think, say, or do, it’s what they choose to do as a result of the communication.
Whether we are designing and creating a web page, delivering a TED talk, proposing marriage to our spouse, or sending a tweet about an upcoming theater production, we need to be crystal clear on our intent before we open our mouths or hit send on our keyboards.
#3 Message: Delivering on Your Intent with Words That Matter
If audience is the “who” and intent is the “why,” message is the “how.”
The channel for your message is the medium you choose for your communication. If you need to scale your communication to a broad audience, maybe you’ll choose to prepare a talk that can be filmed and shared on YouTube; or you might choose to write a blog post that you can publish broadly, such as on Medium or LinkedIn. Consider what medium will be most approachable for your audience: earning your colleague’s buy-in right before the big meeting might be a job for a Slack message or a chat in the hallway, whereas a thank-you note for a job interview might be best accomplished through a handwritten note
Some questions to ask yourself before you make this choice: How far do I need my message to go? How long do I want my message to “last”? How formal is my message? What medium is easiest for my audience to access, use, or understand?
Managing Your Anxiety
Chances are, when you think of managing your anxiety, the phrase “power poses” comes to mind. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk and subsequent book, Presence, detail her fascinating research into the connection between our minds and our bodies to manage anxiety. The power poses she describes in these resources have been popularized worldwide, and for good reason. Cuddy establishes that we feel powerful when we expand our bodies; when we take up more space, we immediately feel more confident. In fact, doing so has been shown to lower cortisol, the stress hormone, by as much as 25 percent. So not only do we feel more powerful emotionally, but our bodies require less compensation to deal with the stress of leading.
Anxiety can be a gift that increases your energy and motivates you to speak from a place of excitement. But where it’s not serving your message, remember that you have the keys to open this gateway between nervous communication and comfortable communication.
Speaking with Conviction
Before we can begin to speak, we need to manage our anxiety about speaking so that we can do our best—and feel comfortable in the process. And once we open our mouths, we’re actually communicating in three important ways:
- Verbal (what we say)
- Vocal (how we say it)
- Visual (what they see)
Think of anxiety management and VVV working like the different parts of an orchestra. You’ll still make beautiful music when only one of these elements is excelling, but approaching mastery of all of them together creates the kind of harmony that makes for truly compelling communication.
Verbal, Vocal, Visual: Your Recipe for Successful Communication
#1 Verbal: What You Say
Ironically it may take quite a bit of time to craft a concise, clear message that conveys our ideas authentically and persuasively—but it is so worth the effort. The more care a leader spends crafting and editing a message to make it clear, the easier it will be for the audience to understand and act upon the message. As you prepare your communication, be intentional about the first words you’re going to say. Will you begin with the problem you’re solving? The solution you’re offering? How will you open to capture (and keep!) your audience’s attention? Then, be equally intentional about the final words you’ll speak. What are the last words you’ll leave with the audience to make them act, think, or feel differently? And finally, how will you transition between the different sections of your presentation so that there’s a sense of cohesion?
#2 Vocal: How You Say It
Without a doubt, the best way to assess your own vocal communication is to record yourself speaking. It’s easy to make a quick audio or video recording of yourself on a smartphone or a computer. Try speaking about your ideas, your goals, your company, your projects, or your challenges. Then evaluate your vocal success against five important metrics:
- Filler words
How’s your pace? Are you speaking so quickly that we can’t understand what you’re trying to say? Or are you speaking so slowly that we’re waiting in agony for your message to conclude? Vary your pace a little bit. Faster speeds can create energy in your presentation. Slowing down can add impact to an important point or make a certain statistic or story more memorable.
#3 Visual: What They See
We want to focus on five core aspects of visual communication that all great presenters should master:
- Eye contact
- Physical movement
- Speaking space
First and foremost—more important than any other element we’ll discuss within visual communication—is sustained, direct eye contact with the people you are addressing. It’s important that speakers arrive at a place where they can feel comfortable holding four to seven seconds of direct eye contact with the audience.
Too many speakers start their presentations with their arms tucked in closely by their waists; then, when they gesture, they sometimes end up looking like the T-Rex trying to reach for prey: A for effort, but not much range. If you’re able to keep your arms down by your sides, you’ll find that when you do gesture, you’ll naturally bring your gestures upward, offering you a bolder and more interesting range of gestures.
Depending on the environment in which you’re delivering your pitch or talk, you may have the ability to incorporate physical movement into your presence, perhaps moving from one place on the stage to another. Physical movement is not only an excellent way to be more interesting to your audience, but also a useful channel for offloading some of that nervous energy you may be feeling as you present.
Writing for Impact: Active, Brief, and Clear
The email you write will be read by the CEO before you ever meet. More people will see your slide deck than will ever sit in an audience at your presentation. Writing matters more than ever now in business, and yet it’s one of the hardest things to get people to focus on.
First, we have to be able to identify the passive voice in our writing. Second, we have to replace the passive voice with something more energetic and engaging. The distinction between these two sentences easily illustrates the distinction between passive (1) and active (2) voice:
The ball was kicked by Tim.
Tim kicked the ball.
The active sentence puts the protagonist at the beginning of the sentence. It more immediately answers the question, “Who did what?” Not only is that sentence more concise and engaging, but it gives credit to Tim. Consider how easily the first sentence might be shortened to “The ball was kicked,” completely eliminating Tim from the equation.
The attention spans of our readers are likely not what we would hope them to be. At best, they are unpredictable.
As a leader, each of us wants to be known as someone whose message is clear, concise, and unambiguous, and it takes time to write that way. But if we invest the time, our readers won’t have to. And it’s far more likely that they will make it through our document, grasp our message, and remember it.
If you’ve succeeded in writing actively and briefly, your writing should now be clear. To make sure, think back to the AIM framework. Ask yourself: After reading this document, will the audience take the action I want them to take? Is it clear what I’m asking them to do? Is there any thought, phrase, or sentence that will cause the reader to stumble? If there’s a point in an email where a reader has to re-read a paragraph for clarity, it’s not the reader’s failing—it’s the writer’s.
The Power of Editing (Others’ Work and Your Own)
Taking a second or third look not only at your own work, but at the work of others, can improve your ability to spot opportunities for concision and clarity. With enough practice, good editors will be able to spot the patterns of bad habits in their own work, and over time, they’ll be able to eliminate more of these habits on the first pass.
Think of your drafting period as a time to get out all your thoughts with your audience, intent, and message in mind. Most of us are much more effective editors with the benefit of distance from the document. When you’re finished writing your shitty first draft, get up, stretch your legs, have some coffee. You’ve earned it. Then, in an hour—or even better, in a day—return to your document with fresh eyes, armed with the following set of recommendations for evaluating your work.
It’s In Your Hands Now
Here are some tips on how best to implement what we’ve offered here:
- Start small and then expand. Don’t attempt to reshape all that you write and deliver. First set a few immediate attainable goals, then set further goals once you’ve begun to see some success.
- Consider this book to be a buffer. You don’t have to try everything we suggest, and you don’t have to like everything you try.
- Partner with somebody. If you cannot invest in a coach, at least try to create an accountability partnership with somebody else to hold you to your commitment communication mastery. Consider establishing a reading circle for this book at work and move through the book systematically with others.
- With every email we write and every talk we deliver, we get incrementally better and better. That’s what mastery is all about. Perfection is impossible, but growth is always attainable.