Getting the Basics Right (Like Communication, and Team Building) – It is Still, and Always, Hard To Do
Getting the steps right is proving brutally hard, even if you know them.
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto
This week, I am presenting synopses of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath and Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, both to law enforcement professionals. (And my colleague Karl Krayer is presenting another book on communication at the same gathering).
Because, these professionals, like so many others in practically every arena, deal with these two problems:
#1 – how to build, and maintain, effective teams.
#2 – how to communicate, clearly and effectively, to everyone on the team (and to those outside the team).
The more I speak, the more I listen, the more I “consult,” the more I realize this challenge. It is not a new challenge, it is not a modern challenge. It is an old challenge.
We don’t get the basics right.
Team building, communication – these are basics. And after countless books and training seminars on both, we still have unclear communication and ineffective, dysfunctional teams.
My counsel to you – keep working on both of these. Pay attention to your team members. Pay careful attention to your spoken and written communications. Do you listen, and encourage, and include, and support each one of your team members? Are your e-mails clear – do you put your sentences together effectively? Do you speak clearly?
Build Teams. Communicate clearly and effectively. These are two of the basics we just have to get right.
How and why more information usually means less information has impact
Chip and Dan Heath are the co-authors of two brilliant books, Made to Stick and Switch. In the first, they explain (as its subtitle suggests) “why some ideas survive and others die.” In his book, Overload!, Jonathan B. Spira addresses a much larger issue: Why too much information is “hazardous” to an organization’s health and also to the health of many among its workforce. As he explains, “Information Overload is killing us. It is death by a thousand paper cuts in the form of e-mail messages, documents, and interruptions…While there is relatively little we can do about Information Overload, we don’t have to grin and bear it. What does help reduce Information Overload and lessen its impact is 1.) raising awareness and 2.) presenting context and history as to why the problem is occurring.”
He goes on to observe, “Raising awareness helps because most people are simply unaware of the root causes of Information Overload, such as poor search techniques, unnecessarily copying dozens if not hundreds of colleagues on an e-mail, or calling someone two minutes after sending an e-mail simply to tell the recipient of its presence. Providing context and history puts things into perspective.” Spira organizes his material within two Parts: “How We got Here” and then “”Where We Are and What We Can Do.”
My own rather extensive experience supports Spira’s assertion that Information Overload is both the result of several serious problems that are its root causes, and, is itself the root cause of countless other serious problems. For example, in an organization in which senior management has determined that collaboration must be increased and improved, people will be under severe pressure be become much more involved in communication and cooperation between and among associates. This will create an Information Overload that, in turn, consumes time and energy that should have been allocated elsewhere.
I presume to offer four suggestions to those who read this brief commentary. First, decide whether or not you and/or your organization now suffers from Information Overload. If so, pin down precisely what the most serious problem is (e.g. too many non-essential emails to send and/or read, too many non-essential reports to complete or read). Next, carefully check Spira’s coverage of that specific problem in the book. Finally, read Part I and then only the material relevant to the most serious in Part II. All or even most of the problems cannot be solved simultaneously.
I have no quarrel with any of his advice but do think he calls prey to the perils of Information Overload his book was intended to reduce. The more information, insights, and recommendations he provides throughout the 21 (count `em, 21) chapters within 237 pages, the less impact his most important ideas have. I think a much different format that includes reader-friendly devices such as checklists, self-diagnostic exercises, and end-of-chapter summaries of key points would have better served his purposes. One man’s opinions.
That said, I commend Jonathan Spira on the quality of content and the scope and depth of his analysis of serious problems that cause or result from Information Overload. I now urge him to consider an Overload! Fieldbook (with a workbook format), one that correlates with this book’s sequence of subjects but also enables people to interact with the material by completing exercises that accomplish two important objectives: They help the respondent to define the nature and extent of a given problem — in its context — within her or his own situation and/or organization; also, they emphasize the most important points, thus facilitating, indeed expediting frequent review of both those points and responses later.
As I said, one man’s opinions.
Here in a single volume, just about all you need to know about high-impact communication
In Chapter 3, Peter Meyers and Shann Nix acknowledge their appreciation of Chip and Dan Heath and especially of what the Heaths share in their masterwork, Made to Stick. I share their high regard for this book and its co-authors. The Heaths’ book and As We Speak complement each other almost seamlessly. For example, the Heaths provide a brilliant explanation of the “what” and “why” of stickiness whereas Meyers and Vann provide an equally brilliant explanation of the “how” as well as of why their recommendations can be so effective.
Here in a single volume is just about all you need to know about high-impact communication, especially after checking out the Heaths’ book and reviewing the Six Principles that all sticky ideas demonstrate. (Please see Pages 16-18.) They are Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Telling Stories. Meyers and Nix have decades of experience helping people whose ability to think exceeds their ability to express themselves. “We develop the language and content, put them on their feet, rehearse them, and give them the tools they need to rise to the occasion.” However, and it is impossible for me to exaggerate the importance of this one point: their book offers more – FAR MORE – than “how to do it” advice for public speaking.
They carefully organize their material within five Parts: Content, Delivery, State (i.e. presence), High-Stakes Situations, and Finding Your [own] Voice and Making It Heard. They are determined to help each reader’s thinking gets the expression it deserves, “that the quality of the ideas is matched by the vitality of the [reader’s] presence. The potential applications of what Meyers and Nix hare are almost unlimited because there are so many opportunities to achieve high-impact communication. The audience could be a single person or members of a governing board or several thousand people. The same principles apply: outstanding content + compelling delivery = high impact. As Warren Beatty suggests, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
After explaining in the first chapter how to ensure that a speech is outcome-focused, relevant, and on point, Meyers and Nix note that when taking the next step, “you can’t just start slapping bricks together. First, you need to know where they go. You need a design. So now it’s time to put together the architecture of ideas.”
The architecture consists of three parts: Ramp (the beginning), Discovery (the middle), and Dessert (the end).
Meyers and Nix suggest three “Master Tips”:
• Get the I/You ratio right: Use ten “You’s” for every “I.”
• You have only seven seconds at the beginning in which the audience decides whether or not they’re going to pay attention.
• Don’t bury the lead. If you don’t hook them right up front, you’ve lost them forever. There are no second chances.
Here are the opening strategies they recommend:
1. Open with the word “You”
2. Use a powerful statistic (i.e. a “sexy number”)
3. Ask an intriguing question.
4. Shock them.
5. Make a confession.
6. Use the word “imagine” to serve as an invitation.
7. Tell an historical anecdote that is relevant to your key point.
8. Tell a story: setting, characters, conflicts, tension, key developments, resolution, etc.
This book is a “must read” for those who want to develop the mindset and the skills to communicate with high impact, whatever the circumstances may be. That assumes, of course, that the content is of a very high quality and appropriate for the given audience. Hence the importance of rigorous preparation. I agree with Peter Meyers and Shann Nix: Ultimately, “It’s not about you. It’s all about them.”
Do you have any idea how much time is wasted trying to figure out just what that other person is trying to say to you? Do you have any idea how much time is wasted by that other person trying to figure out what you are trying to say?
Unclear messages, whether verbal or written, are massive time wasters. They create uncertainty, tentativeness, confusion… If you have something to say, you do everyone a favor if you say it clearly: get to the point – get it said!
This is the message behind the Heath brothers’ principles of communication, in which they suggest that all speakers/writers communicate using principles such as simplicity and concreteness.
Here is the way they put it in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said: ”Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”
Here’s what he actually said:
“I believe this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Simple? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Concrete? Amazingly so. Credible? The goal seemed like science fiction, but the source was credible. Emotional? Yes. Story? In miniature.
The moon mission was a classic case of a communicator’s dodging the Curse of Knowledge. It was a brilliant and beautiful idea – a single idea that motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.
(note: I live in multiple worlds. I read and present synopses of business books, and other nonfiction books; I speak and consult; and I teach speech, and study speech pretty seriously. This is a post from that part of my life).
Every failed presentation fails in one of two ways: the presentation had little or nothing worthwhile to say, or, even if the content was worthwhile, then it was delivered very, very poorly.
Would you like to deliver successful presentations? It is simple (not easy – just simple) – just have something really worthwhile and useful to say, and then say it very, very well.
That’s it. Every other tip (and step and piece of advice) simply elaborates on these two.
If you want the academic terms for these two elements, they go all the way back to Aristotle’s canons. He had five (invention; arrangement; style; memory; delivery — read about all five here), but I think these two really are the whole ball game:
Invention: invention involves finding something to say. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY!
Delivery: Delivery concerns itself with how something is said. SAY IT VERY WELL!
The Invention Part requires a host of elements: good, genuine, deep preparation; checking out opposing viewpoints and deciding why your view is correct and the other views are incorrect. Have more to say than the time allotted, thus forcing you to edit effectively; fill your time with great and useful content. Choose the most effective order for your main points, the right illustrations, the best stories, the right words. Follow the principles set forth in such books as Made to Stick by the Heath brothers and Words that Work by Frank Luntz. (see this earlier blog post for a summary of the key content from these two excellent books). And be sure to select the best possible topic – one that you care deeply about, one that really does matter to your specific audience, one that is born of this time and these circumstances, one that is manageable in the time allotted.
And don’t forget the techniques of the great speakers. Use repetition – a lot of repetition – on purpose. In a written essay, repetition can be your enemy. In a presentation, repetition can be your friend. Try your best to use parallel structure, especially with your main points. Don’t have too many main points!
And start in a way that compels the audience to pay attention. And end in a way that sends them forth with a clear understanding of “what next? – now that I’ve heard this presentation, I know the what’s next!”
In other words, before you ever get up to speak, you’ve got your work cut out for you. It takes a lot of serious, focused preparation to have something worthwhile to say.
The Delivery Part requires a lot of practice (rehearsal) with deliberate practice/work on specific elements. Start with your posture. Then your voice. Then your eye contact. Then your gestures.
When you actually deliver your presentation, make sure these things happen:
• come across as knowledgeable, but not arrogant
• come close to electrifying the room with your energy
• be perceived as deeply caring about this topic, and these people
• genuinely connect with this audience
Whatever else, don’t fail. Succeed. Have something to say, and say it very well.
The Disappearing University Education and the Rise of the Trade School Education — a serious, festering problem (w/reading suggestions)
It’s tough for college graduates out there, thus it is tough for current college students. What should today’s student major in? In today’s NY Times, one of the top e-mailed articles wrestles with this question: CAREER U. — Making College ‘Relevant’ by Kate Zerniuke.
After discussing the decline of/loss of philosophy majors, and the ascendancy of business majors, here is a key excerpt:
There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
“It’s not about what you should major in, but that no matter what you major in, you need good writing skills and good speaking skills,” says Debra Humphreys, a vice president at the association.
Here’s my opinion. I understand that people need jobs, and that the jobs are tougher to get with a humanities/philosophy/English degree. But I have heard my share of mediocre presentations, read my share of mediocre business writings, and seen my share of ethical lapses. The humanities matter. And I think that business will rediscover a need for such thinking/training. And for those who did not take enough of such subjects, they have some remedial work to do. And, yes, I know that it is tough to do this with a “catch-up” approach. (I wrote about this earlier, based on an article from Harper’s: Dehumanized — A Cause for Alarm in Education, and in the World of Business Books).
You can’t read a book or two to make up for lost years of foundational learning. But, let’s use the paragraph above as providing to set an agenda for some reading in 2010. Here are some suggestions:
If you need to work on: Then you might want to read: “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” Words that Work by Frank Luntz; and Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” Big Think Strategy: How to Leverage Bold Ideas and Leave Small Thinking Behind by Bernd H. Schmitt; and The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking by Roger L. Martin. “the ability to innovate and be creative.” The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
by Twyla Tharp and The Art of Innovation (Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm) by Tom Kelley
This is a subject worth following.
I have posted earlier about some excellent communication advice from the Heath brothers (Made to Stick), and from Frank Luntz. (Words that Work). They each have terrific suggestions for effective communication strategies.
But if you are like me, you can always use a few reminders. And I am constantly wrestling with just how a person can learn to communicate clearly. Part of this comes from one of the arenas of my life – I teach speech as a member of the adjunct faculty in the Dallas County Community College system. And so I try to explain/demonstrate/teach the basics to entry level college students. This is not as easy as it sounds.
Here’s my current summary to a four step process for an effective communication encounter/message/presentation:
1) Get their attention.
All effective communication starts with an effective “hook,” an engaging way to get your audience to say, “Yes, this is something I want to hear and understand.” Fail at this step, and nothing else you say will be heard at all.
2) Have something important/worthwhile/useful to say.
If you do not have anything worth hearing/reading, it is best to keep your mouth shut and your pen still. We are all overwhelmed with too many messages. So, if you want me to pay attention to your message, please make it worth my time. I do not have any time to waste on any message that is not teaching me/challenging me/helping me. Have something to say that is worth saying!
3) Say it very well, very clearly.
In a verbal presentation, this includes such issues as organization and enunciation. A good, effective organization (here are my main points; here are action items for you to implement; here is information you can use… the list is long, the possibilities many) makes it easier for the recipient of your message to grasp what you have in mind. Remember, no hassles! If someone has to strain to understand your message, you have failed to begin with.
4) Conclude with a very clear next step.
Call this what you want: a call to action, a request for a decision, the closing of the deal. But effective communication always ends with, “and this is what you can/should do next, now that you have heard and understood this message.” Or, in infomercial/advertising speak, “call now!”
Remember these four, practice them with increasing skill, and you will get your message across. Ignore them, and you might discover that nobody is listening.