Jerry Seinfeld once said that since public speaking is America’s number one fear, if invited to a funeral, most Americans would rather be in the coffin than standing at the pulpit delivering the eulogy. I hope it’s not that bad for you but my experience is that even if it’s not fear, your internal reaction to the prospect of a critical communication probably made you think “there has to be an easier way.” There is no magic formula, but there are some powerful choices you can make in any communication that will help you feel more comfortable and in control.
In this entry I will share some ideas on what is actually happening inside of you and why, and next time I will share some powerful ideas for what you can do about it.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT:
Or why your body says GET ME OUT OF HERE!!
Take a few minutes to remember how you have responded, physically and emotionally, to a situation in which you were under extreme pressure. Ever been in a fight? Started an important sports competition? Made a pitch that would lock in your bonus or get you closer to that promotion? How did your body respond? As a coach and a performer I have witnessed everything from sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach, to nausea and being at a complete loss of words. I am not trying to frighten you. I am only suggesting that whatever you feel is OK. You name it, I have seen it or heard of it and it does not mean you are falling apart or that you are bound to fail. It means that your central nervous system is colluding with your adrenal glands to get you ready. Ready (in cave man days) for a life or death threat. Anthropologists and psychologists call it Fight Or Flight because your body is getting ready to either fight like hell or run for like crazy for the hills. Unfortunately, punching your client or running from the platform will probably not help you get that promotion.
Let’s say you are giving a speech. If you’re like most people, most of your time and energy go into thinking and outlining your talk. For the most part you are comfortably in your head because you’re good at…
Up to a certain point in most careers, business people get rewarded and reinforced more for the quality of their ideas than for their ability to use ideas to create influence. Problem solving, accuracy, timeliness and volume tend to define effectiveness early in most careers. But, if you are fortunate enough to make it to a position of real leadership, you will probably discover that pure quality and operational effectiveness don’t inspire others to follow. You have to be able to influence. And, for most folks in the business world, this is not a core competency and it isn’t taught in most business schools. As a result, when you are thinking about what to say, you are calm, cool and comfortable because you are doing what you are used to doing. But when it’s your turn to talk, you don’t feel so calm, cool and comfortable. Why? Because you have been trained to think, not to connect. And, often times, “presentations” are highly charged, high value, high visibility communication situations. No wonder your palms sweat! But why does your body respond to these situations as if you are under attack? Because your body thinks it is! In fact, any demanding situation that is beyond your comfort zone creates an adaptive, physical response. Suddenly you aren’t thinking. Your body is responding to perceived…
The demands of many communication situations are interpreted by your body as a physical threat. What kind of threats am I talking about?
These and other perceived “threats” cause an adaptive physical response. What do I mean by “adaptive”? Well, believe it or not, your physical response to these perceived threats is the same response of your parasympathetic nervous system to real physical threats and has helped us survive as a species. So your digestive system shuts down and prepares to “void” so you can run faster and further (butterflies in your stomach, cotton mouth). Your blood rushes to the peripheral muscles (and out of the brain) to activate arms and legs for running and fighting. Sweaty palms are a result of increased “galvanic skin response” which is another unfortunate symptom of the same “peripheral circulatory dilation”. Knees shake in preparation to run, etc. Unfortunately, the human body is not great at discerning real from perceived threats. And, as soon as your body perceives a threat (even when your thinking brain does not) your body reacts with a release of hormones, including adrenaline, that prepare you to run screaming for the hills, or grab a rock or a sharp stick and fight to the death. Of course, neither will help you close the deal.
If all of that weren’t bothersome enough, left unchecked our natural and adaptive response to these perceived threats feeds on itself. How? As soon as we become aware that our bodies are responding (Wow, my mouth is dry, my knees are shaking and my hands are wet! Where did that come from? My body is our of control!) most of us fight against our body’s natural responses. You can almost see some presenters trying to gain…
…by clenching their hands and jaws, or walking around randomly, or speaking very quickly, or softly or loudly, or refusing to look up from their computer as they read their slides. And, the more you fight against your natural response, the more “out of control” you feel. And since business leaders don’t like being out of control, they fight for control, which itself becomes another demand, which (as we now know) the body interprets as a threat which causes more “juice”, which causes more adrenaline, which makes us feel more out of control… right into that swirling vortex of terror, dead air, and a compelling desire to move to a desert island. Interestingly, before you start a sporting event, or a theater performance, etc., the second the whistle blows (gun goes off, curtain comes up) you get to put all of that “juice” (adrenaline, et al) to work physically, which is what your body wants to do. So, you run, jump, hit, swing, sing, project, etc., all of which are physical, and use up the juice in a way that can actually help you to perform better (of course too much juice can hurt athletic performance as well but that’s another story).
At least partly as a result of this cycle (demand, response, react, etc.) we see lots of successful business leaders present in a very careful, subdued, and generally uninspiring way. I think unconsciously, many leaders arrive at the conclusion that seeming bland is better than seeming nervous. And without conscious choice, they develop habits that help them feel more in control. The problem is that what feels to them often seems bland to us. And, bland doesn’t connect or move others to action, which is what leadership communication is all about.
Say no more….
A PowerPoint diagram meant to portray the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan certainly succeeded in that aim:
WASHINGTON — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.
“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remar
ked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.
“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.
Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.
Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.
“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”
Despite such tales, “death by PowerPoint,” the phrase used to described the numbing sensation that accompanies a 30-slide briefing, seems here to stay. The program, which first went on sale in 1987 and was acquired by Microsoft soon afterward, is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.
“There’s a lot of PowerPoint backlash, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” said Capt. Crispin Burke, an Army operations officer at Fort Drum, N.Y., who under the name Starbuck wrote an essay about PowerPoint on the Web site Small Wars Journal that cited Lieutenant Nuxoll’s comment.
In a daytime telephone conversation, he estimated that he spent an hour each day making PowerPoint slides. In an initial e-mail message responding to the request for an interview, he wrote, “I would be free tonight, but unfortunately, I work kind of late (sadly enough, making PPT slides).”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends. He has also conducted more than a few PowerPoint presentations himself.
General McChrystal gets two PowerPoint briefings in Kabul per day, plus three more during the week. General Mattis, despite his dim view of the program, said a third of his briefings are by PowerPoint.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given PowerPoint briefings during a trip to Afghanistan last summer at each of three stops — Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif and Bagram Air Base. At a fourth stop, Herat, the Italian forces there not only provided Mr. Holbrooke with a PowerPoint briefing, but accompanied it with swelling orchestral music.
President Obama was shown PowerPoint slides, mostly maps and charts, in the White House Situation Room during the Afghan strategy review last fall.
Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.
Captain Burke’s essay in the Small Wars Journal also cited a widely read attack on PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal last summer by Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, whose title, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” underscored criticism of fuzzy bullet points; “accelerate the introduction of new weapons,” for instance, does not actually say who should do so.
No one is suggesting that PowerPoint is to blame for mistakes in the current wars, but the program did become notorious during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. As recounted in the book “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin Press, 2006), Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time.
Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.
The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”
Helene Cooper contributed reporting.
In the vernacular of the day, I feel you, Elvis. Indeed, there is nothing funny about “peace, love and understanding.” Peace is a “state” that enlightened people seek—not success, or wealth, or even happiness. We have to have love to be whole. And real understanding is the key to the first two. Empathy (understanding on steroids) de-escalates antipathy, plain and simple. And brother, we could use a little less antipathy in the world right now.
When I’m helping leaders craft messages that move others, I often get accused of teaching people to manipulate with words. I always say, “Influence with empathy is manipulation without the side effects.” One understanding of the word “manipulate” is simply to “make something work,” to articulate it in a mechanical sense. When I unfold my glasses and put them on my face, I’m manipulating them. It doesn’t hurt the glasses; it just puts them to work. Then, I can see you better. By this definition, we manipulate (influence with empathy) each other all the time.
We give people reasons to love us. We make choices (conscious or unconscious) that make us as attractive as possible. And, if we have any insight at all, we make choices that are based on the needs of the “other” person. When I say, “You look great! Have you been working out?” you had better be someone who cares about your appearance and values exercise or else it won’t open a door between us. But, when we simply barrage each other with “messages” based on fear and polarizing rhetoric, then we manipulate without empathy. And, that leads to antipathy—not influence—and certainly not connection.
We see a lot of that type of messaging these days. In fact, it is the stock and trade of political consultants in what has become the most starkly divided political landscape since the days of Lincoln. Messages based on fear and anger have created an environment ripe for another civil war. Literally. In my life time, I have seen the rhetoric between the two parties move from philosophical disagreement and patronizing “tongue-clucking” to violent threats and vicious slurs. The “message” has become “the issue,” and that is a dangerous thing.
During the run-up to the health care vote, most Americans had no idea what constituted the bill. We had no idea what we were fighting about. But we fought. We knew whether we were for it or against it even though we didn’t know what the bill said. We were either with the Hatfield’s or McCoy’s, Carolina or Duke, the Yankees or the Dodgers, even though we had no idea why we hated each other. And, we have begun to hate each other—it’s just that we don’t know why. If we hate each other badly enough, long enough, it won’t matter why, and somebody is going to end up getting hurt.
It is up to us. We can demand to understand what we are fighting about. We can demand that the same people who are manufacturing vitriol spend time and space exploring issues, not just shouting “messages.” We can demand that complex ideas be explained simply and evenly. We can demand that our elected leaders play fair. We can demand that they get along, and “de-escalate the antipathy” that exists in Washington. We can demand that they get to know one another and that they work together. We can demand a little peace, love, and understanding.
The truth is, most business presentations don’t work. Yes, deals get done, and, yes, sometimes they even get done in close proximity to PowerPoint presentations. But, the vast majority of those deals happen in spite of the presentation, not because of it.
Back in the good old days of the “dot-com bubble,” a prominent IPO-churning investment bank asked me to assess the presentation materials they used to pursue private companies for M&A and IPO underwriting. The “right pitch” (or so they reasoned) could bring in millions for the firm with a single win, but competition was fierce with numerous banks offering virtually identical opportunities.
Their PowerPoint pitch droned for nearly 80 pages about the company’s great history and achievements — and then the real meeting started! But this isn’t a history lesson. The addiction to PowerPoint-driven, self-absorbed presentations remains alive and well today.
What’s the real cost?
So, how has PowerPoint cost the US economy billions of dollars? Well, take the investment bank as an example. How much did the investment bankers pay the smart young analyst trainees to stay awake until sun-up consolidating reams of data and plugging it into PowerPoint? What was the executive presenter’s time worth? What if he could have closed more deals in less time? What was the opportunity cost of a wasted “branding opportunity?” What is their “opportunity cost” for failing to differentiate themselves from the competition? Boy, this can really add up!
In fact, the real cost may be in the formulaic thinking these presentations tend to reinforce. If we‘ve learned anything from the cyclical collapse of various “bubbles,” it’s that you have to have a great business before you can tell a great story. PowerPoint has little to do with either one.
What’s the objective?
As business communicators, leaders must move other people to action. It is not enough for people to simply hear or even to understand you. Yet most standard business communication tends to look and feel like a “data dump.” Guess what? By itself, data doesn’t connect – people do.
Learn to connect first
If PowerPoint “data dumps” don’t work, what does? In a word…connection. Relax, no group hugs necessary. As a business communicator, connection means that everything you say and everything you do is driven by the result you want in relationship to the reality of the people you are talking to. The way you use your body and voice, as well as the ideas you choose, must meet the needs of your audience if you want them to change in some predictable way. And that means that you must be driven by the result you want but presented in a way that is completely focused on them. That way, you’ll communicate with them in a way that deepens the relationship, creates value and differentiates you from your competition.
Establish a core message
Let’s say you need to talk to higher-ups in your company to get approval for the budget for your next client event – a budget they’ve been trying to squeeze as much as possible. You don’t begin by planning with PowerPoint — PowerPoint may help you clarify or reinforce your message, but not plan it strategically. Instead, first identify the specific result you want from the meeting and the needs of the people you will talk to, and let that combination drive your core message: what’s in it for them to do what you want them to do.
Graphics as friend, not foe
Only when your ideas are listener-focused and results-oriented is it logical to ask whether some of these ideas should be made visual. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to go have a pint at a local pub….or at least imagine it. In a pub, sometimes a complex concept can be made simple with a quick sketch on a cocktail napkin. If you are willing to work hard enough to evaluate your ideas from the standpoint of the people you are talking to, the effective use of visuals is pretty straightforward.
But, you don’t doodle everything you say in a bar. And by the same token, you shouldn’t try to reinforce everything you say at a meeting with PowerPoint. That’s not reinforcement…it’s visual noise.
Make an impact
As a business person, you don’t talk in public forums to entertain, to look smart, to inform, or even to educate. Your job is to communicate with empathy, power and influence. That’s how you drive results when you talk, and that’s strategic communication!
“The relationship between authenticity, vulnerability, and real power is critically intertwined.”
Comment from Dan during a conversation with brand strategist, Brad Collins, as they watch Vice President Joe Biden talking about Health Care Reform on a YouTube video late in 2009.
Brad Collins: I’m curious. Does Biden need to be standing on stage while the guy is introducing him? Wouldn’t he have more impact if he simply waited to be introduced and then came out to the applause?
Dan Sapp: Probably. Because doing it this way (standing to the side of the stage, hands clasped in front, looking at the ground), Biden is forced to establish what feels like a false camaraderie with guy introducing him, where there is probably no relationship at all. I think authenticity is as important as humility both for heads of state as well as for heads of organizations. These guys have tremendous “position power,” and there’s nothing wrong with owning that power and not trying to act like “I’m just one guys.” Because they’re not. It’s not true, and it doesn’t feel authentic.
Brad Collins:Which is the “knock” you hear on Joe Biden: people think he is reaching for that “everyday-Joe-kind-of-thing,” which doesn’t seem real for him.
Dan Sapp: For the record, I’m a big fan of the Obama administration, and Joe Biden is a commanding, comfortable, effective communicator. But, as a political communicator, you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. If you are too unflappable, you are “slick,” but if you are less than perfect, you get pilloried as a bumbling idiot. On top of that is the mythology that everyone is supposed to be from a log cabin in Illinois, born humbly and self-educated, but through their own tenacity, hard-work, and high moral fiber, they have somehow risen above. Of course, we all know in most cases it’s not usually true. So, I think what happens is that when really powerful people try to “awe shucks” too much in the name of humility, they rob themselves of their authenticity. And, authenticity is where real power and influence come from, because real authenticity is inherently vulnerable. The trick is to be comfortable with that vulnerability. Comfort with vulnerability isn’t wimpy. It‘s open, accessible, and connected. The willingness to express your genuine comfort as a “big target” speaks reams about your inherent authority. It is compelling and extraordinarily influential. The relationship between authenticity, vulnerability, and real power is critically intertwined. If I were working with Vice President Biden, as good as he already is, I would help him to own his power in a more comfortable, less defended, more vulnerable way.
My band, Closeenough, does a passable version of John Hiatt’s moody, funky blues tune, “Old Habits,” from the album, Perfectly Good Guitar. The song is about a woman (I assume) who stays with the wrong men for the wrong reason: “That ain’t the facts of life, it’s just bad fiction, and honey that sure ain’t love, naw it’s just an addiction.” Funny thing is he doesn’t talk about “bad habits.” He just talks about “old habits.” Old habits are hard to break. Try tying your shoes left over right instead of right over left. Hard, uncomfortable, takes longer, inefficient, etc.
So much of the way we are in the world is the result of sheer repetition that it’s a bit scary. That’s where habits come from. You do something often enough and the same way each time, and it becomes a habit. You know why you slice the ball so consistently in golf? Because somehow or another, you taught yourself a swing that makes the ball spin from the inside out. Then, you did it so often it started feeling “natural.” Now you have to aim 45 degrees to the left to get the ball to land anywhere near the fairway. The real bummer is that even after lessons and hours on the practice tee, hitting long high-draw after long high-draw, under pressure in the club championship, you push it off into the trees. Because, under pressure, we all retreat to what is comfortable. As children, when threatened, we run screaming for our mothers. On the golf course, under pressure, we revert to an over-the-top swing with an open club face and say good-bye to another Pro V 1. And, in critical, $100 million dollar meetings, we resort to text-heavy PowerPoint presentations, in dark rooms, “Ummhing”, and “Ahhing” our way through a massive core dump of data.
Hey, it’s a habit. We’re comfortable with it, and our clients don’t really expect us to be great “presenters.” Right?
Well, it may be true that the bar is pretty low for what is acceptable in business communications. No one will give you demerits for following the standard company script. And, if you ask someone, “How did I do?” they will probably say, “You did great, boss. You didn’t leave anything out, and you stayed perfectly in sync with your PowerPoint!” So, you got a good grade on your pitch! Atta boy!
Unfortunately, finishing your presentation on time, and having said everything you planned to say in a business communication, doesn’t help you any more than a predictable slice helps you in golf. In fact, both put you into very large, socially acceptable fraternity. But, neither helps you get the results you are after when the stakes are high.
The good news is that choosing to connect as a communicator is much easier than consistently hitting a draw. All it takes is turning off the projector, turning up the lights, and choosing to really talk to the other people in the room. It might be scary at first and it may feel “unnatural” for a while, but that is a small price to pay for the only real differentiation you have: who you are. Will connection always get you the deal? Of course not. But, if data is what your clients ask for, e-mail it to them. However, if they invite you to fly across the country to talk to them, then take the risk, get out of your comfort zone, and convince them that what you have and who you are is what they need. Because “data dumps” are as helpful as staying in bad relationships and pulling expensive golf balls out patches of poison oak.
Interview with Dan by Brad Collins, Brand Strategist from Group C Inc. in New Haven, CT
Brad: Let’s re-visit a discussion we had about changing the nomenclature of business communication, thinking about what that nomenclature will become. Actually, the word you used was “re-create,” which is a stronger word.
Dan: What I’m trying in my business is to recreate a “paradigm,” to use a horribly overused word; to recreate the nomenclature would kind of follow that. The industry standard has gotten so distanced from any real purpose or ability to predictably create value that it’s ridiculous. It’s become absurd. We’ve completely lost touch with what we are trying to do when we communicate. So, when I talk about “recreating the nomenclature,” it really has to do with getting back to “why are we doing this?” Why do we reach out to people? Why do we exchange ideas, especially in business? It’s not just to hear ourselves talk, and clearly it’s not just to exchange of information. We have Excel spreadsheets and e-mail for that. Without getting too fanciful about it, one of the things we need to do is change how we talk about talking in business, because business language is so laden with current meaning and ritual that it has become valueless. The current understanding of a “presentation” suggests that someone with a projector and some type of software program is projecting a combination of graphics and text onto a screen and narrating what’s on those projections. It’s not uncommon at all for a new client to say to me, “I’m going to send you my presentation.” But, I don’t get a Word document with an outline. I get a PowerPoint file. And, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in terms of accomplishing an objective. Ironically, I think it is often the unstated rather than the stated objective of these communications to get something to happen that matters. To develop a relationship, to move something forward in the organization, to change someone’s behavior or beliefs, or whatever it might be—this is why we talk to each other in business to begin with. Also, re: the word “presentation”—let’s get rid of it. And “speech” is pretty much the same thing. I mean, you go to hear somebody “speak,” but they don’t really talk to you. They give a speech. You see it in politics and you see it in business all the time. People stand up and deliver an assiduously worded set of prepared remarks that, in the end, except in very rare circumstances, feels like, “OK, we got through that, but what was the point?” I’m trying to get folks to think about why we are communicating before we think about what we are communicating. If you start there, if you really ask yourself the question why first, then everything about the experience you create as a business communicator is going to be different: more connected, more valuable, and much better received.
There is no higher calling than to become fully you. There is no greater source of differentiation, power, and peace than comfort with our own individuality. Communicating from that place is the greatest gift we can give each other and ourselves. We communicate to connect. But, what happens if the communicator isn’t connected to himself and his ideas? Well, we don’t connect with data, and actors play characters, but characters aren’t the real thing.
Humans develop in relationship to each other. The more connected we are to ourselves, the more available we can be to others. The more vulnerable we allow ourselves to be, the more powerful we become because we are getting closer to bringing all of ourselves to the relationship. But only when we choose to connect.
The world of managed organizations is an extraordinary platform for developing ourselves and those around us. Leaders have a tremendous opportunity to choose to develop themselves as they develop those around them. Not only is there no conflict of interest between individual and organizational development, the thorough alignment of the growth of the organization and growth of the individual as well as the growth of the “other” (e.g., client, consumer) is the true genius of the free market. Imagine developing products and services based solely on a genuine proposition of “value-added.” What if all sales efforts were similarly and “authentically” focused? What if every business communication started with the question, “What’s in it for the other person?”
Of course, as leaders, we have to connect on purpose. It’s not enough to connect in a vacuum. Business leaders are paid to move businesses forward. That’s the “purpose” of the business and the role of the leader. But if we are going to move the business forward, we need other people to take action. If that’s going to happen, we need to communicate with “radical empathy.” This means that we have to simultaneously “contain” (i.e., acknowledge, understand, manage) our own needs as developing beings, the goals of the organization, and the needs of the people whose efforts determine our success: employees, vendors, etc., and, of course, our customers.
So, every time you talk as a leader, there is an opportunity—a mandate—to stay connected to your own needs and your humanity, to work to meet the needs (objectives, goals, etc.) of the organization, and to meet the needs of the people you talk to. What you say and how you say it falls out of the intersection of all those needs and objectives.
Why all of these connections? Because in the world of managed organizations, to fail to communicate in a way that demonstrates “radical empathy” leaves value (growth, success, development, brand, and money!) on the table. You don’t want value on the table. You want it in your organization.
The truth is the ultimate expression of intimacy. That may be one reason we seem to get so little of the un-varnished variety. Why is it so hard to tell someone new that you love them? Someone not so new that you don’t? Why is it so hard to tell someone, “Things are worse than we thought,” or “I don’t have the money”? The truth is hard because it is so close to us. Think of all the time you spend figuring out how to tell someone something, and you begin to see what I mean. Don’t get me wrong—there is a place for tact and empathy. Therapists and pastoral counselors are taught how to cushion the blow: “I have some tough news to tell you.” (Pause). “It’s about your father/brother/wife/etc.” (Pause.) “There has been an accident.” (Pause.) You get the idea. There is a process for telling the truth, and the people who are taught this are in the business of intimacy. We trust our priests and therapists.
But, in the business of business, we start with the “spin” that cushions the truth itself, not the impact of the truth. We don’t usually tell lies, but the more cushioned the truth becomes, the less impact it has, the less intimacy it creates, and ultimately the less others believe it. And the less others believe, the less leaders have influence.
Interestingly, truth and intimacy reinforce each other. The more we tell the truth, the more comfortable we and others become with intimacy. The more intimate we are with someone, the more willing we are to tell and hear the truth…and the cycle continues. Of course, the opposite is also true: lies destroy intimacy.
Truth and intimacy are close to the bone. They both live under our ego defenses. Both make us vulnerable and most of us don’t like feeling vulnerable. But, comfort with vulnerability is where our real power is. Folks with nothing to hide make others comfortable. Folks who make themselves big targets on purpose don’t seem to need to defend themselves. There is power in being comfortably open and accessible to whatever gets thrown at us.
So, business communications need to start with the truth. Learn to tell the truth—with empathy and sensitivity to others—and you begin to expose yourself. Get comfortable exposing yourself (figuratively, please), and the perception of your power grows.
The more we own the truth in ourselves, the more we expose others to the power of our own truth, and the more our authentic power comes through. The more authentic power we have, not position or hierarchical power, the more influence we have. People follow real power—and real power comes from the truth.
Clients often ask me, “What is the most important attribute of a great ‘public speaker?’”
I usually say, “Why would you want to be a great public speaker? Why not just talk to people and make things happen?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they say. “I know, I know, but really, what is the key to having impact in scary presentations?”
The answer is one of those slightly spiritual, riddle-secret-enigma deals because the answer is simply this: being 100% who you are. What’s so tough about that? You just stand up and let it rip…right? Well, not quite. At least not for most of us. There may be an ashram somewhere where everyone is completely authentic and completely present all the time, but I haven’t seen many managed organizations that have that kind of batting average. In fact, most of us mortals are constantly adjusting our own sense of who we are, which is one reason why very few of us are ever really completely comfortable in our own skin.
I mean, I know I’m supposed to be a businessman. My clients are deans of business schools, principals of international architectural firms, managing partners in venture capital and private equity firms, etc., but I love surfing and playing in my band almost as much as I like helping people win in important meetings. Heck, I used to have a “ soul patch” on my lower lip. So, who am I? Soul-surfer/musician, or thought leader/consultant/coach? Of course, the answer is “all of the above.” What that means is that how I am with people had better be informed by all of those parts of me, or folks aren’t getting all of me. And, all of me is what my clients are paying for. All of you is what your clients are paying for, too. It’s also what your employees want to follow, your investors believe in, and your family relies on. Giving less than 100% of who you are is shortchanging all of your relationships, and, maybe more importantly, it’s shortchanging yourself.
By the way, bringing all of yourself to any of these relationships is what being present means. Often, being present as a communicator means listening more than talking. It always means that you are radically aware of the impact you are having on those around you. It kind of puts the “Co” back in “Co-mmunication.” Being present means you’re not simply trying to “remember what comes next.” It means that you are so “in-the-moment” that your ideas are coming from your heart as well as your head. It means that everything about you is working hard to make a connection and make something important happen for the people you are talking to. It is hard work. It won’t come easily to many of us. It takes practice, but it can be learned—and it really matters.
The good news is that being 100% you and present is the only real differentiation you have. In the days of complete access to information, we have lots of choices for just about every decision we will ever make. Even the most rarefied professional services compete. This means that the products and services we offer have all pretty much become commoditized. So, marketing budgets not withstanding, the only real differentiation any of us have is who we really are. Which is great news to me because I also happen to think it’s why we are here on the planet.
Choosing to bring the very best of you to every communication means being fully present. Being present means being fully alive. Fully alive is where the fun is and busts down all the walls. It’s worth the fight.