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Meeting Recap: Effective Communication
2008, Q4 (January 28, 2009)
Meeting Recap
What: Effective Communication
When: November 20, 2008

Brian Castelli
Brian Castelli

by Brian Castelli, Carolina Chapter Guest Speaker

We all ~~ even the most seasoned communication professional ~~ sometimes struggle with challenges of communication in the workplace. People we meet make up their minds about us fast. Our client unexpectedly turns to us in the Big Meeting and asks for our opinion. We’re working as part of a team that literally spans the globe. How do we handle these challenges ~~ first impressions, speaking “on the spot” with little or no notice, and mastering the technology of communication ~~ in a professional, effective manner? For each of these three topics, we’ll look at why they are important and discuss strategies for improving our chances of being successful.

First Impressions

First impressions are important because

  • Mom was right
  • People make up their minds about us fast
  • Halo effect
My mom used to tell me to, “Sit up straight, keep your elbows off the table, and watch your language!” For first impressions, she was absolutely right. Sit up straight: The truth is that people judge us by the way we carry ourselves — our posture, our clothes, our hairstyle. Keep your elbows off the table: Use manners, be polite, be gracious. Watch your language: Yes avoid the vulgar, but also make sure that our language is suitable for our audience. Avoid jargon and acronyms unless we define them.

When people evaluate us, they do it in record time. Some research suggests that the amount of time it takes for someone to build a first impression of us is as little as 2 seconds. 2 seconds! This is judging us before we even speak!

Once a first impression is made, it colors the way other people interpret the rest of what we do or say. This is called the Halo Effect. A good first impression creates a clean halo; a bad first impression creates a dirty halo that negatively affects the way people interpret our actions.

How to make a good first impression

  • Relax
  • Smile
    smiling onions
  • Don’t hunt. Fish!
The universal advice we hear about first impressions is: Relax! I don’t agree. I think that relaxing takes away our edge. I think a little nervousness under control is good for us. Athletes, actors, and famous public speakers confess to being nervous even though they’ve been playing or working for years. A little nervousness is a good thing. We can use it to our advantage, to help us focus, and to help us concentrate on what it takes to do a good job.

Do you know the #1 reason people give as to why they like someone? The person smiles. A smile not only changes the look of the face, it also changes the sound of the voice. People who smile are consistently judged as being friendlier, more competent, more trustworthy, and a better leader than those who don’t. We’re not talking about fake smiles, here. People have very good BS detectors. If we want to take a chance on destroying our first impression, fake it.

Hunting and fishing are very different sports. With hunting, there is hiding or searching and stalking. Once the hunter closes in on the prey, BAM!, he gets it with both barrels. With fishing, it’s all about presenting something attractive to the fish, displaying that you have something that the fish want. Note that with fishing, the fish won't bite when they aren't hungry. It's important that when the fish aren't hungry ~~ they aren't interested in our presentation ~~ that we don't turn to hunting. BAM! When it comes to our first impression opportunities with the people we meet, it is far better to fish than to hunt.

When we meet someone, hunting is like delivering a 3-5 minute wall of words. It doesn’t matter if they are hungry or interested. We deliver with both barrels. This can leave our audience with a negative first impression of us. Fishing, on the other hand, means that we still have the 3-5 minute “elevator speech” ready, but we deliver it one piece at a time. This has been likened to playing catch. We toss them the ball and wait for them to toss it back. We don''t hog the ball!

Let’s look at an example that’s very common — we meet someone and they ask us the one question we should always be prepared to answer: “What do you do for a living?”

“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a coach.” (Stop here. Let them respond.)
“Really? What sport?”
“Not a sport. I coach software developers. My job shares a number of similarities with being a sports coach, however.” (Stop here. Let them respond.)

Note that in each step along the way, I’ve left an opening. I’m fishing for a response from them, not to hit them with both barrels. If they are hungry (interested), I’ve made it easy for them. If they’re not, I haven’t wasted our time.

Speaking on Short Notice

Speaking on short notice is important because

  • There is no “private speaking”
  • Thinking on your feet
  • Act like a leader
There is no such thing as “private speaking” — except maybe when we talk to ourselves. That means that we are always on. Every time we speak, we are making a presentation of sorts. This includes both the prepared “formal” speaking opportunities and the day-to-day occasions when we open our mouths to speak.

Acting like a leader...will lead to increased confidence and make you feel like a leader.
Speaking on the spot gives others the impression that we have it together, that we are leaders. Think about the last time you were impressed by a company CEO’s ability to field and respond to questions. Didn’t the experience give you the impression that he or she really had it on the ball? Our ability to speak on short notice strongly influences the impressions people have of us.

Feeling follows action. When we cultivate our ability to speak on short notice, we act like a leader. Acting like a leader ~~ even when we don’t feel like one ~~ will lead to increased confidence and make you feel like a leader. Increased confidence will lead to acting even more like a leader and even more confidence.

How to speak on the spot

First, a couple of don’ts.

Don’t apologize.

Many people are so nervous that the first thing they say when they are asked to speak is something like, “I’m sorry. I’m not prepared.” Most of the time, the audience will have no idea that we’re speaking on the spot, but this unnecessary apology is a dead giveaway. When we apologize unnecessarily we immediately signal to our audience that we don’t have it together.

Don’t say too much.

Another common nervous tactic is to cover with too much information. We seem to think that putting up a veritable wall of words insulates us. The opposite is true. We often end up getting off topic or taking the conversation into areas where we’d rather it not go, alienating or boring our audience.

And, of course, the dos.

Do pause.

Pauses have three natural benefits. First they give our audience a moment to process what we’re saying. Our goal, after all, is to ‘’communicate’’! Second, pauses make our presentations sound more interesting, emphasizing important points. Third, pauses give us a moment to think. The brain is amazing. Our brain can speed ahead of what’s immediately happening and help us to prepare what we’re about to say or get back on track. By the way, one of the most important pauses to give us time to think is the one we take before we start to speak. We need not rush to start filling the air with words when a momentary pause might give us the time we need to gather our thoughts.

Do follow a pattern.

Patterns give us a framework upon which to quickly build our presentation. Patterns are a kind of mental outline that we can use to guide our presentation. A quick Internet search will reveal a number of suggested patterns. Two very effective patterns are:

Position, Action, Benefit
Position is what you believe. Action is what you’d like your audience to do. Benefit is what your audience gains by executing the action.

Past, Present, Future
This very simple pattern allows us to focus on the way things were, the way they are now, and the way we’d like to see them in the future.

Let’s consider a simple example. Let’s assume that we’re asked to speak about the beach. Here are two samples using the patterns.

“I love the beach! (Position) I would like you to come with me to the beach this summer. (Action) If you do, you will come to enjoy the wind, sun and surf as much as I do! (Benefit)

“I didn’t go to the beach for the first time until I was 20 years old. (Past) These days I go to the beach as many as 12 times a year. (Present) I hope some day to own my own beach house. (Future)

Mastering Technology

Mastering technology is important because

  • We can’t see them – and they can’t see us
  • Blackberry addiction
  • The curse
In our globally-diverse working environments, we frequently work with people we’ve never met. Our interactions are devoid of the normal clues of body language and facial expression. The natural tone and inflection of our voices are limited by the frequency range limits of the phone system. All of this adds up to strip out a significant portion of the rich information available in face-to-face communication.

Since we can’t see our audience, we also can’t see what else they might be doing. Are they typing on their laptops? Are the thumbing their Blackberrys?

The curse of all this is that our companies and clients have spent significant amounts of money on this technology, and they expect us to use it! They expect us to succeed! This is the curse of technology!

Tips for mastering technology

  • Use pictures and webcams. They can help restore some of the contextual clues that are missing when we’re talking on the phone.
  • Smile. Your voice changes when you smile. You can enhance the dynamic range of your voice when you mix facial expressions — as you normally would when sitting face-to-face.
  • State your name when you talk. Voices are difficult to recognize. Do your audience a favor and say, “This is Brian in RTP. I wanted to ask…”
  • Move the phone with care. Mute the phone before moving to avoid subjecting the people on the other end of the line to a bunch of static.

Assume everything you type will be made public. Some people forward the most unexpected things!

  • Assume everything you type will be made public. Some people forward the most unexpected things!
  • Fit your use of slang, acronyms and shorthand (g2g, lol, etc.) to your audience. For someone you are exchanging messages with for the first time, go over the top with words. As you come to know them, you can shorten the messages by being less formal with shorthand.
  • Re-read and use spell check. You can save yourself from embarrassment by re-reading before hitting send. Automatic spell check is one way to make sure you pause to re-read.

Instant Messages
  • Everything for E-mails applies for instant messages. They also suffer from some of the same limitations.
  • Check if this is a good time for the other person. Don’t assume that because they are online they are available. Be patient.
  • End well. Don’t leave them hanging.

Last Impressions

The first impression is the most important — until it’s done. After that, it’s the next impression that takes over the top spot. It’s those second, third, and fourth impressions that allow us to redeem ourselves (if necessary), to establish normal work patterns, and to build relationships. As we apply the techniques and principles covered in this presentation, we can work to make sure that our last impressions are good ones.

Brian Castelli can be reached at info at briancastelli dot com. End of article.

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