Communication Tips

I was recently asked to deliver a brief presentation on communication tips for a business networking breakfast in Milton Keynes. As I received positive feedback, I decided to change this into a post here. This post includes most of what I said and some additional bits that I meant to say or should have said.

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I don’t know what your job or role might be as you read this, you may be the CEO of a major multi-national, or a sole trader struggling to make ends meet. What I do know is that your business is a quality business, a business that depends solely on delivering Quality. Whatever product or service you are selling, I can find somewhere else, probably cheaper.

You are in a global market, with a global client base and global competition. Even in something apparently as local as a personal trainer must compete on the global stage with companies advertising miracle cures on the internet.

Now, you may define Quality any way you want. You may decide that you want to be the cheapest in the world or the first on the market and that’s all right, that’s your definition of Quality. You may define Quality as the delivery of such high standard products that you cannot possibly justify the useless expense of a customer service desk – unreasonable perhaps, but a valid goal.

Define what Quality means to you, what is your Quality, your uniqueness, your brand.

Once you understand your concept of Quality, you need to accept that your Quality depends entirely on people. Not on technology, processes, seals of approval, audits, standards or anything else: all these are only valid as tools to help your people do their work well, efficiently and effectively. And Quality, in the eyes of these people, is entirely dependent on your communication. It is a shame that we do not learn basics of communication; we learn to talk, we learn to speak, but we don’t learn to communicate.

First principle: communication depends on reception. If no one is listening, if no one is hearing, if no one is understanding, you are not communicating. You may be speaking, but you are not communicating.

A few general principles on communication:

  • First, know your audience: to whom are you communicating. If you are communicating to a small group of people you have known for a long-time, you will speak very differently than if you are in front of a theatre full of strangers.

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  • In order to understand your audience, if you are in an organisation, you need clear job descriptions, including roles and responsibilities. I am a big fan of SFIA, which while being mainly focused on the IT industry, is very good at identifying responsibilities and roles based on skills and aptitudes; respect those roles and don’t publicly over-rule your team leaders.
  • Respect the lines of command: as managing director, never publicly contradict a department head in front of her/his reports.
  • Use clear language in your communication, as often as possible, use numbers to explain what you want people to do – this works for yourself as well: rather than saying that “I want to make more time to read books next year”, consider “I am going to read at least one professional book and what leisure book per month in the coming 12 months”. Now you have a goal against which you can measure progress and results. Use data in communicating goals and objectives and make sure that they are achievable.
  • Always speak the truth. It does not help when managers believe they have to always be optimistic about the future, tell the staff how business is booming and expanding and, even though we have had a couple of setbacks, the profits are rising, when everyone knows they have just lost their biggest client. Next month, when they lay off half a dozen people, they will have killed off any trust that the team members ever had in then.
  • As part of your communication, your team members want consistency and continuity. If you are announcing new goals and strategies every six months, no one will listen: wait a while, we are about to go the other way. It is all right to change strategies from time to time when they fail, but learn your lessons from the failure and don’t keep on having to change everything.
  • Encourage team members to challenge you, dissenters and cynics are the people who will make your business more effective. Reward people for bringing bad news and risks to your attention; listen to those telling you what you are doing wrong – too often employees are afraid to speak truth to power.
  • Avoid saying “should” or “could” when you mean “must”
  • When speaking to your clients or prospects, be realistic: don’t promise the impossible. Again, if you cannot deliver on your promises, you will lose their trust. The two biggest sources of business, the two most powerful tools of marketing are word-of-mouth recommendations and customer retention.
  • For many years now, we have been promoting the concept that “the customer is always right” (which is not true); this has led to the understanding that you need to say what you think your clients want to hear. Don’t pre-judge them, don’t have the arrogance to presume you know what they want to hear – listen to them and be honest. Sooner or later they will discover that you cannot satisfy the promises you made and will lose trust in anything else you may say.
  • When speaking to clients, use data and clear language instead of empty promises. You cannot promise me that your marketing campaign will increase my customer base by 15%, realistically, you can only promise that you will do your best, use appropriate analytical and statistical data to make  it more likely that more people will come across my name. What you can promise me is that you will put my name in front of 25000 people who may or may not be interested, but fit our current understanding of the key demographic. Of these, we can expect that between 2 and 2.5% will follow through and have a look at my website. That is realistic and verifiable. You can commit to that and we can both verify the numbers afterwards.
  • In public speaking, a few additional rules come into play:
    • Your audience will only remember three things of what you say, you need to decide what are the three key messages you want to communicate, then tell them three times the same thing without appearing to repeat yourself. This is the challenge.
    • Never turn your presentation (or indeed your article) into self-promotion: give them something solid to take away, give them facts, something by which to remember you.
    • When addressing a group, you are probably selling yourself, but don’t over-sell: tell the truth, back up your facts with data – but don’t overwhelm them with loads of statistics, just a few that are particularly telling.
    • Build your presentation around a story, make it personal, tell them about yourself, include anecdotes.
    • Speak slowly: it gives time for your audience to process what you are saying and it gives time for you to think while speaking – if you speak to quickly, you will need an “humm” for your thoughts to catch up, and this gives the feeling you don’t know what you are talking about.
    • Beware of humour: most jokes will offend someone, a golden rule is to start with something safe, I usually try to mock myself rather than risk upsetting potential future clients. Humour is critically important, and I would strongly recommend making them laugh early in your talk so as to make them pay attention to the rest, but make sure that you are not saying something that will be offensive to (sections of) your audience.
    • Words are meant to be spoken, PowerPoint slides are meant to illustrate and support what you are saying, not repeat it: don’t read your slides, don’t have your words on the slide. Use pictures and graphics whenever possible to illustrate what you are saying.
  • And finally, learn to finish on time.

I hope that some of these are useful to you, please feel free to comment, whether it is to correct something I have said