The VP of finance for a major multinational company recently came to me with a problem. “I’ve been trying to start a conversation with the VP of marketing, and he won’t talk to me,” he said. “Whenever I try to ask him what he thinks about my ideas, he doesn’t respond.”
I asked him to describe the marketing VP to me. As he talked about his personality, I thought of a potential solution: “Don’t ask him what he thinks about your ideas,” I said. “Ask him what’s wrong with them.”
A few weeks later, I heard back from my client. “Your advice was amazing!” he said. “We spent two hours discussing issues, and he wants to meet with me every week now!”
Why did I give him that advice? Because as he described the marketing VP to me, I realized what type of speaking approach would most likely resonate: one that appealed to his colleague’s problem-solving personality.
While psychological research has progressed quite a bit since Edward de Bono released his influential book Six Thinking Hats in 1985, I find framework still offers a handy set of metaphors for adjusting your speaking style to fit listeners’ thinking styles and personalities (though I typically prefer sticking to just five). Here are five ways to frame your message, riffing on de Bono’s 33-year-old idea, according to the people or person you’re communicating with.
1. Problem Solvers
A “black hat” approach to speaking is all about solving problems. When you’re addressing someone who thrives on figuring out puzzles (like that VP of marketing), you need to focus on what’s wrong with something–usually in solutions-oriented, technical terms.
Let’s say you’re tasked with giving a presentation about productivity. With a black hat approach, your key message might be, “By reducing the gaps in our sourcing systems, we can increase productivity.” Then you’d go on to point out what those gaps actually are, and guide your audience toward brainstorming ways of closing them.
2. Data Geeks
Analytical thinkers typically require a slightly different approach. The “white hat” approach to speaking is objective and straightforward. Rather than emphasize the problem areas, you lay out all the relevant information you’ve got–focusing on data and analysis. You’ll also want to rely more on charts and statistics to get your message across than you otherwise might.
So if you’re taking a “white hat” approach to your productivity presentation, you’d analyze your team’s output in terms of amount of hours saved, money saved, and forecasted benefits–all backed up by hard facts and concrete numbers. Your key message might be, “By improving our system, we can increase productivity by x and contribute y to the bottom line.”
3. Team Players
Sometimes you’re speaking to people who aren’t exactly number crunchers but think in terms of shared purpose and teamwork. In that case, your goal is to connect with the hearts of your listeners with an emotional appeal that inspires belief, propels action, and instills a feeling of togetherness.
A “red hat” approach to the productivity issue would be more of a pep talk; you’d discuss how increasing morale and building team spirit can increase productivity. Your key message might be, “By working together, we can conquer new frontiers and build an organization that keeps getting better and better.”
4. Creative Types
The “green hat” approach to speaking focused on creativity. If your listeners are “outside the box” thinkers, you’ll need to use visual imagery to get your audiences to imagine possibilities they may not have even considered.
In your productivity presentation, you’d want to discuss potential innovations that could help increase productivity. Rather than analyze the past, you’d brainstorm programs and initiatives you could try in order to boost productivity in the future, encouraging your team to think inventively. Your key message might be, “By innovating, we can propel the organization to better results and discover new opportunities we haven’t even imagined yet.”
Finally, if you’re speaking to glass-half-full thinkers who are good at looking at the bright side, you should do the same. Stress the positive and focus on what’s ahead–like a bright beacon guiding everyone to safety and security.
Taking this “yellow hat” approach for your productivity presentation would mean focusing on what’s going right already, and where it’s bound to take you if you stay the course. Your key message might be, “By capitalizing on our strengths, we can catapult our company to new heights with our customers.”
As de Bono himself realized, these strategies are all about being flexible. Our personalities are highly contextual–more tendencies than fixed properties–and people change “hats” all the time. Your room full of yellow hat optimists might turn into black hat problem solvers when the going gets tough. So always think about what your message is, and to whom you’re delivering it. You’ll find a little color can go a long way.