Most business communication sucks. We spit out information and miss the opportunity to influence, inspire, or even mildly entertain because we don’t consider the experience that we’re creating.
The first step is to recognize what we’re doing wrong. Here are the five little white lies we consistently tell ourselves to justify our poor communication.
Think back to a recent message you delivered–to your executive team, your staff, or a customer or client. What percentage of your time did you spend developing your content versus practicing your delivery? If you’re like the people we coach and train every day, you probably spend most of your time preparing the content.
Of course, the message is a massive part of that experience, but the most common misconception is that communication is about words. Communication is not just about words (whether they’re on a teleprompter or in a detailed outline); it’s about the experience that you create. Consider when film director Michael Bay had a teleprompter meltdown at CES 2014.
It’s time to ditch the script and stop sacrificing connection for content. The experience is more than the message. That message comes through you.
Many people make a false distinction between “public speaking” and having a conversation. They think that public speaking is a performance, like playing a role on stage. But why should we put public speaking in a separate category of communication? Is there any such thing as “private speaking”? If you are having a conversation with even one other person, you are engaging in the public act of speaking.
It’s time to stop “giving speeches,” and it’s time to become spontaneous, vulnerable, and human. The very best communicators don’t change from one situation to another. They may dial their voice up or down and use big behaviors on stage, but they are always the same authentic person.
Many of us have calendars that are booked back-to-back-to-back. It makes it pretty tough to prep for our 3 p.m. because we don’t have time anywhere else in our day. What happens? We get into the habit of winging it. As leaders, we’re lucky in that we can usually get away with it. But the difference between zero preparation and a little bit of focus is much greater than the sum of the two.
Many of us only focus on communication when the stakes are high. But are only events with bright lights and a big stage prep-worthy? There’s nothing like an audience of thousands of people to motivate you to prepare. And yet, we’re missing opportunities to influence and inspire everywhere else.
Every interaction is an opportunity and worthy of great communicating. Stop winging it and get into the routine of good communication habits, including prep, for everything from off-site leadership retreats to impromptu conversations in the hallway.
The CEO of a $30 million software startup came to Ben for some coaching in preparation for another round of venture funding. Ben asked him: “Have you ever seen yourself on video before?” The CEO said no, he hadn’t. So we had him give a five-minute presentation in front of a video camera. His voice had almost no inflection, and his expression was flat. He projected overconfidence to the point that he came across as cool and aloof.
We sat down with him and played back his performance in high definition. About 30 seconds into the playback, he said: “Whoa! Hold it! Pause it, please!”
Ben paused the playback.
“Let me understand something,” the CEO said. “As I’m watching myself on video, is that the same as you seeing me give the presentation live?”
“I’m not sure I follow your question,” Ben said. “But if you’re asking me whether what I’m seeing on the TV screen is exactly what I saw and heard when I recorded you live, then yes, I’d say it’s the same thing.”
His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “So, what I’m hearing now is how people always hear my voice?”
“That’s how I sound?”
He was silent for a few seconds–then said, “That’s f-ed!”
One of the most common problems top executives have is that no one dares give them honest feedback. No one dares to say, “Boss, you really stink at this!” Instead, people sugarcoat it: “Great job–that was awesome!” Or, in many cases, they say nothing at all.
You can’t create a communication experience for your audience until you become self-aware. Get communication coaching and feedback–especially video feedback. Seek feedback from your peers regularly and create a culture of sharing feedback across your team.
Many leaders aren’t excellent communicators, and we see a trickle-down effect within their organizations. After years of watching your boss read from behind the lectern, or helping that boss prepare dense PowerPoint decks, we do the same. The result is often an organization or a business with average or below average communicators.
Change is never easy, and it’s even harder when you’re the one who’s leading the charge. It feels risky and vulnerable to go against the accepted company culture. Start by giving yourself permission to change.
It doesn’t have to be the way it has always been. In fact, it can’t be! Use storyteller Doug Stevenson’s mantra: “Safe is a dangerous place to be.” Be bold and get out of your comfort zone to inspire others to more: more ownership, more buy-in, more empowerment.
Business communication sucks. A quick reality check will show you that everything that’s wrong with business communication today can be made right–with a few simple yet powerful tools. You are called to communicate well. This call has never been more urgent. Stop being part of the problem and ask: What white lies are standing in your way to inspiring others and achieving influence?
Ben Decker and Kelly Decker are the leading experts in the field of business communications. They consult on messaging, cultivate executive presence among leadership of Fortune 500s and startups alike, and regularly deliver keynotes to large audiences. Together, they run Decker Communications, a global firm that trains and coaches tens of thousands of executives a year. Their new book, Communicate To Influence: How To Inspire Your Audience To Action, reveals tips and real-world stories that can be applied from the C-suite to the soccer field. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they constantly test and refine communication techniques with their most demanding audience, their three boys.