The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: Communication

7 Steps to Being a Better Conversationalist

storytelling“I’m terrible at making small talk! I have no problem talking to people one-on-one but put me in a roomful of people, I just freeze and don’t know what to say!” A fellow member of our ToastMaster club shared this tale of how his father was great at making small talk but the skill seemed to have somehow eluded him. He finally decided that not only would he learn how to be a better conversationalist, one capable of making small talk but would actually deliver a speech to our club. And so he did. As the assigned evaluator that evening, I took rapid notes as he spoke and as I glanced through the notes later that evening I realized these were indeed very good advice for all of us – whether we were looking to be better conversationalists or just better listeners. So here are his insights

Observe Look at the most effective person in a room – the one who’s surrounded by others and is most engaging. Walk up to them and observe, how they initiative conversation, and how they sustain it. What works for them may not work for you – and even if it did, adapt it to your style.

Be a good listener This seems counterintuitive, at least initially. To be a good conversationalist you need to be a good – active – listener. One way to do that is to ask questions – questions that acknowledge what they said, or clarify – open-ended questions so that they can drive the conversation. Observe how they respond. Rinse and repeat.

Reverse Questions Often people may start conversations by asking you questions. All of us have met folks who’ve walked up to us and asked questions such as “What is it you do?” or “How do you know the Samuels?” One technique my friend shared was to respond in kind – “That’s an interesting question. I was, in fact, going to ask you the same. What is it that you do?” Of course done right, this will not seem so much a deflection, but an expression of interest.

Body Language Conversation isn’t just verbal. When I first came to the US as a grad student, I was lucky enough to have a good friend Marcel (from the Netherlands) who pointed out to me that I tended to not only invade folks private space, but also reach out and touch them, literally. “Not a good idea,” as he put it. Observe people’s body language – of both speakers and listeners, when it’s done right and others respond positively and when it isn’t.

Listening while speaking Even when you are the designated speaker, when the floor has been ceded to you, confine your speaking to a finite amount (my friend recommended 30% – not sure there’s a magic number) and get your audience to engage by getting them to speak, whether through questions, responses or other forms of participation. In other words, even when you are “speaking” you are getting others to speak and you get to listen.

Prepare Nothing makes you a good conversationalist (or even a listener) as being prepared. Preparation here is not so much a speech you give – as much as having trivia or fun facts handy – be it about the weather (always safe), a sports team, food, pets or current events. I’d hazard into politics or the election only if you know the folks and even then if you want to be invited back I’d stick with safer topics.

Be Authentic Nothing kills a conversation faster than being a phony. Evince keen interest in what the other person is saying – this is part of being a good listener but stay authentic. If you are being bored, don’t try to hang in there bravely – your body will announce your disinterest louder than your words. Even if you disagree, you don’t have to argue nor do you have to silently agree. In short be authentic.

Now get out there and work the room!


3 Steps to Becoming a Better Communicator

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

Haven’t you found yourself wondering this in more than one situation?  In my experience, the single most critical skill that leaders in general and startup founders in particular need is that of being a good communicator. While most of us find it easy to talk  and some of us may actually listen, it doesn’t make us a good communicator.

How many of the meetings you attend seem not only interminable but often indecipherable? If this were a problem with just meetings, you could excuse yourself and read the meeting minutes. But alas meeting minutes, like many emails or other forms of written communication seem to only add to the confusion.

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

All of us are just as guilty as we dash off memos, texts, and presentations, sowing confusion at best and mayhem at worst. Here are three steps to help us communicate better. Try them and let me know how they work for you.

Single central message Whether a 3-line email or a 6-page white paper, your communication should have a SINGLE central message – what our English composition teachers tried to tell us – the theme sentence! This answers the question “What is this person trying to tell me?” So whether it’s the personal — “You need to spend less money on eating out” (that’s to my daughter), “We need to re-do the In-app Purchase (IAP) in this game (the professional)” or “We need to ensure ________ is not elected this year” (the national) or “We need a new nuclear disarmament treaty (the global) we need to communicate a single central message and no more in each of our communications.

Short as possible but long as needed This is one I’m yet to master and often undermines my own communication effectiveness. Even when I have a single central message if I wrap it with too many words, my message is lost. This could be emotional content (especially with my daughters), or excess justification (social or business context) or plain verbosity. Yet, in a corporate context, major changes require context setting, such as environmental factors at play, why this course of action and options considered – alternates considered and discarded and potential outcomes of actions taken or not. So the 3-sentence email one of my friends insists on writing may not always do the job, but ask yourself, does your presentation require 48 pages or can you say it any shorter?

Choose your medium carefully Sure writing email is easy – heck texting someone is even easier. But just as most folks agree, breaking up with your girlfriend (or significant other) over text is not cool, there is such a thing as an appropriate medium for any given communication. I’d say easier a missive is to send, the more likely it’s to sow confusion. Sure there are exceptions, but in general, it’s a good idea, to take a moment, before you send that text or email, to ask yourself, is this the best medium to communicate this message. I find often after having written a draft email, that picking up the phone or walking down the corridor to talk to the person a much more effective way to communicate. Similarly, even when presenting to a group of folks, few words on a slide or a graph to accompany your verbal communication or a handout might be more effective.

In summary, these 3 steps will help us take the first steps to being better communicators

  • What is my single central message?
  • Am I saying it as concisely as possible with adequate context?
  • What is the best medium to communicate this in?

An earlier draft of this article appeared in LinkedIn

7 Easy Steps To Get Started with Social Media

Unless you have been living in a cave (or exploring one or spelunking) you’ve been bombarded by stories about Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. And like most people I know over the age of 30, you have a vague feeling of “Is this something I should be doing?” or “Where the heck do I even start?”

Well look no further. This last year or thereabouts I have spent a good deal of time blogging, poking, tweeting, digging (more like – ing) around the social media sphere trying to separate the chaff from the wheat. While trying to persuade some friends, who I believe have a lot to offer, to start blogging, I realized, having a simple “Here’s what you need to do” might be the best way to get these folks started. In planning for one perfect yet tight post I nearly didn’t do this. Instead have opted now to get started and spell it out as I go. Clearly I build on the shoulders of others who have gone before.

For the skimmers, here is the quick & dirty version

  1. Have a written goal for why you are blogging
  2. Have one handle or name across all media properties
  3. Get started
  4. Do your homework
  5. Give, give and give some more
  6. Work across mediums – not just text
  7. Don’t forget the real world!
  1. Write down your purpose & goal This is as simple as being clear why you are doing this. Not because your boss told you, or your cousin thinks its a good idea or worse yet, your spouse wants you to. It could be as simple as “Coz I want to” which is want most mountaineers seem to state as their reason. Of course it’d be a whole lot better if you said specific thing such as
    • “Be seen as the #1 De-cluttering/organizing expert in the Tri-cities”
    • “Be perceived as a top 10 blogger in analog design in India” or
    • “Build a loyal following for my classical music compositions”

  2. Pick ONE name Think through the name you are going to use, for you are going to use it in a whole lot of places very soon – on your blog, on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SlideShare – and that’s just for starters. It has got to be distinctive (so folks can remember it), specific and long enough for folks to make out it’s you but short enough to not chew up too many characters. This may not seem such a big deal, but it can be if you are successful. So might as well plan for it. Some good ones to emulate
      Of course there are no hard and fast rules – one of the most popular vcasters of all time is (I had to look that spelling up) – his Twitter handle is a little easier & different at @garyvee. Sure and are also popular, but no one outside South Asia will be able to spell their names without a lookup. Their success shows content trumps all other considerations. I’d still recommend that you use a short & descriptive handle.

  3. Get started As my dad was fond of saying, none of your preparation for swimming is useful, if you don’t get in the water. So soon as you finish reading this para article, get started. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard and start typing. Sure it would help if you make a writing calendar – could be as simple as, “I will spend 30 minutes each morning or 2 hours on Tue/Thur.” Whatever works for you. But don’t wait for the calendar. Start with your own “natural” voice. Sometimes it takes a few posts to discover what that is. Regardless don’t try to speak in a voice that is not yours – be yourself (probably the hardest advice to follow)
  4. Do Your Homework Building up a good social presence is no different than finding a job or getting hooked up. You gotta let everyone know and it helps if the people you talk to are themselves well connected and well thought of. Do your homework. Find out where the audience, you think you speak to, hangs out. Who are the thought leaders/bloggers in the space that you plan to blog about? Get your tracking infrastructure in place – starting with Google Analytics. There are any number of good posts & resources about building an audience for your blog – so when they come, you can know where they are coming from, what they are reading. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.
  5. Give, give & give some more Your mom was right. You gotta give, before you can expect to get something. So focus on giving – I mean freely – what would be of value to your readers. This could be links to other interesting articles, gadget reviews, your grandma’s secret crochet techniques or other exotica (no, that was not a typo.) Find what you are good at, and what is valued by your audience and deliver it reliably with no further expectations. It’s also worth keeping in mind that much of the social media is about conversation, which usually involves more than one voice – yours – alone. The best way to give is to comment on other people’s blogs, to participate in conversations on Twitter or other social forums. Give first and ye shall receive!
  6. Cross mediums – try audio, slideware, video This might seem a stretch. Here you are still planning to get rolling or maybe just started in stringing a few words together, maybe Tweeting or mini-blogging (on Tumblr or Posterous). As one of the hottest social media stars, Gary Vaynerchuk has found – that video is his gig or as a zany Aussie hardware engineer did, you too may be a natural video star. Sometimes your content served up as a podcast may resonate with your audience on the go, as Chief Penguin Michael Katz has found. Till you play with it you will not know – iTunes, YouTube and SlideShare and others are changing the landscape of blogging & social media

  7. Real world exists In the echo chamber that is the blogosphere (& now Twitter and FaceBook) it’s easy to lose sight that there’s a real world out there. So don’t forget to get out there, shake hands and pat backs (or is the other way around). Write for your local newspaper (if it is still in existence), attend seminars and better yet give talks. Volunteer with your local NGO, or BarCamp or TweetUp. Teach a class. Anything that tickles your fancy, will recharge you and change the world a little. You will bring all that and more back to your blog and writing. If you are like me, visiting the real world helps to stay married and seeing the kids before they get old enough to drive (away). And it will make you a whole lot more interesting.

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Communicating to Reassure – Lessons from the Real World

Stories of personal heroism and the extraordinary effort are slowly appearing from the survivors of the terrorist attack on Mumbai.  Besides the obvious lessons on preparedness (or lack thereof ), there is an important lesson for all of us on the criticality of timely communication. Much of the anger and angst felt by people towards politicians and the media , during and after the attacks, stems from the vacuum created by the absence of a single official source of information. Even if it were to tell people, “We don’t have the facts yet, but we are staying on top of it and will let you know the moment we know something,” people would have rallied around the speaker and the message.

Contrast this with the role Rudy Giuliani played even as the World Trade Center towers burned during the 9/11 attacks on New York. As the New York Times reported ,

Three hours [after the attack began] … he stepped into a press conference with Gov. George E. Pataki. 

“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” he said softly. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”

Through that day, Giuliani held two more press conferences and at 11PM, was seen walking around Ground Zero talking to rescue workers. While I was no admirer of Rudy Giuliani prior to 9/11 or his recent run for the 2008 Republican nomination, he demonstrated through his actions and presence, the signs of a leader – one who understood the need to communicate, to reassure, even when he did not have all the facts.

While the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra did appear on television several times, their unsubstantiated assertions on the number of terrorists, their origins and the state of the seige which changed with each interview undermined any confidence the public may have had. The Prime Minister too when he addressed the nation a day after the attack began, seemed to mumble incoherently and was insipid in the kind words of one editorial commentator .

It is a shame that the Indian political leadership at the city, state or national level failed to step up to the bar, to provide the focal point that people sought. Mr. Chidambaram, this might be your opportunity to provide such a leadership to reassure the citizens through direct, periodic and factual communication.

Leadership requires communication, be it good news, bad news or worse yet no real news. Communication done clearly and consistently is more likely to reassure listeners than silence, even if the crisis isn’t over.

Communication and culture in organizations


Photo Credit: [phil h]

A few months ago, I wrote about the need for communicating early and often and a recent article by Toni Bowers, Senior Editor, TechRepublic titled “Say what you mean, mean what you say” highlighted the sore need for clarity in these communications, even if done early and often! The readers’ comments to that post, due to their specific nature were extremely illustrative, reinforcing the core message of how critical clear communications are, particularly when it comes to individuals and dishing them unpleasant news.

Less than ten days ago two of my long-time colleagues, sat me down and after some initial politeness (“you have issues rather than you have a problem”) they got down to their core message “We don’t believe you handle unpleasant stuff well, what do you think?” Talk about a topic for reflection! The reflection has made me particularly receptive to Toni’s post and the discussion thread thereof.

Toni’s core message is –

  • Be direct and specific when giving feedback, particularly relating to problems
  • Don’t be heartless but use simple statements that preclude misinterpretation

Key points the commentators added include

  • Communicate expectations up front (my early and often mantra) to avoid misunderstandings
  • Don’t tell the team they have a problem, when you want to communicate to a particular person – do it one-on-one
  • Be open and interested to find out reasons for why you are where you are (ask and listen, not just talk)

As with all good advice, once stated it seems simple and self-evident. The fact that more of us don’t practice it consistently only points to the need for periodic reminders. Which brings me to the whole running water and rock metaphors of many Zen koans. The Buddha said (with regard to cultivating virtues) diligent practice will work like a “… small stream being able to pierce rock if it continually flows.” Alas this is true not just for virtues but for bad habits like poor or no communication, a constant stream of which can wear down the enthusiasm of even the most motivated team member.

Even one dinosaur brain manager or toxic teammate when not dealt with direct and clear communication can start a tear in the fabric of your organization’s culture. Subsequent failures of communications, however small, only grow this tear till soon all we’ll have left will be shreds! So whether rock or fabric, our organizational culture needs continual renewal through simple, clear and sustained communication – to grow and prosper!

When in doubt, communicate early & often


Photo Credit: altemark via Compfight

In early September, a colleague and I checked into a hotel in Tokyo and were given rooms on the 29th floor. We headed for the elevators – there were 12 of them, in three sets of four that would get us up to our rooms. When we pressed the UP button for an elevator, immediately one of the lights in front of an elevator to our right turned on. Expectantly we stood in front of it, waiting for the doors to open. A few minutes later, the light that had been steadily lit up, began blinking and the door opened. Later the same evening we went through the same process on our way DOWN to the lobby — press the DN button, immediately one of the four elevator indicator lights come on, soon the light blinks and the elevator door opens. It is then we figured out that the first time the light comes on, it indicated which elevator was coming for us and once the elevator got to our floor, it would blink to indicate its actual arrival.

As managers we could do well to emulate the designer of this elevator system, namely “share a fact the moment we know it” — which elevator is going to come up; and “continue to share as and when more information becomes available” — once the elevator is there, notify its arrival explicitly. It sounds so simple yet our own behaviour every day belies this very simplicity.

Communication is learned behaviour
Many of our organisations are plagued by poor communication. All the technology we have at our disposal, often no further than our fingertips, only seems to add to the problem. If you have at times, felt that the only sharing in your organisation seems to be unabashedly flaming e-mails, you are not alone. What makes it so hard to follow this simple dictum to share? Why do reasonable people, who complain that they do not get the information they need, turn around and act in an opaque manner?

Simply put, communication within an organisation is learned behaviour. Regardless of individual idiosyncrasies or insecurities, employees are quick learners with regards to acceptable corporate behaviour. They pick up on cues — when more than one e-mail goes unanswered or every e-mail discussing the smallest technical problem in their department is copied to 20 other people – most of whom they have not met. When a co-worker, who seemed either comatose or on sabbatical, responds with alacrity to the same question from a vice-president, the message is loud and clear on what works and how they need to act to get things done.

Review communication behaviour
What can be learnt of course can be unlearnt, if not always easily, as our spouses will vouch. As individuals, managers and leaders we can effect change in our organisations’ communication process through deliberate actions. Begin with your immediate team – your manager, your staff and your colleagues. Are you sharing everything they need to know, not just what you feel needs to be shared? Are you doing it in a succinct and clear fashion? Are you doing it in a timely manner – with adequate advance notice for things that need preparation or the earliest possible opportunity after a relevant event? Are you sending emails when a face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate? Are you dealing with things verbally which are better put in writing?

A rule to live by
Ask yourself would I or someone else be surprised later, if I did not share this information and share it NOW? Would I have liked to have known this sooner or in private, or with more context?

A simple rule that covers all of these and hundred other possible communication pitfalls is “No surprises!”

When in doubt, communicate early and often!

Communication as with most things in life, needs moderation. There will certainly be times when discretion will be the better part of valour and less communication may be more! Go forth and communicate!

This article was first published in the Business Line in October 15, 2007

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