Communicating effectively is essential table-stakes for success in the business world today, as well as of course the public speaking world. We begin work on a speech or planning a meeting with good intentions and a grab-bag of rules floating around in our heads. But often those rules have been derived from pre-virtual days; the communication canon changes slowly. Working on my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, made it clear to me that we need to re-think our basic approaches to communications when we’re half-face-to-face, half-virtual. Following are five new rules of the road for successful communications in the weird world we live and work in now.
First, Your ‘Less’ Is Their ‘More’. One of the unintended consequences of making communication easier through virtual means like e-mail is that now we get lots more of it. Ridiculous amounts. Staggering amounts. Endlessly-attempting-to-dig-our-way-out-of-email-hell amounts.
That means that it’s on you to figure out how to present your case as simply, crisply, and authentically as possible. Our tolerance for marketing BS has diminished to nearly nothing. Our ability to focus on long texts is almost nil. And our need to grasp what you’re saying quickly and move on is overwhelming.
The key is to think your ideas through from the other person’s point of view. Tell them what they need to hear, not what you’d love for them to know in a better, slower, more patient world.
Second, We Experience Our Lives Chronologically, But That’s Not How Other People Want to Hear Them. It’s hard to impose a story structure on what we want to say. Hard, but essential. We can’t expect everyone else to do the structuring for us. That’s our job. Almost all first attempts at stories are told the way they were experienced, making for too much information, and they lack structure. Here’s a clue: Homer started his epic about the Trojan War near the end of it, with the run-up to the critical final battle. The rest is back-filled.
Third, the Body Language of the Virtual World Is Self-Defeating. Now that we can work in our pajamas and take calls from anywhere, we’re doing less prep than ever to communicate virtually, and those bad habits slop over into the real world. It has become commonplace for participants in a face-to-face meeting to check mobile phones throughout the conversation. That’s just plain rude, and it means those people aren’t paying attention. The research on multi-tasking shows that when you come back from your phone, for example, you miss the next few seconds of what’s said, because your brain is still texting or surfing. So that blank look you give the other people around the table is your giveaway that your body is present but not your brain. Don’t do it. Everyone else sees you.
Fourth, Because People Aren’t Paying Attention, Their Contribution Standards Are Crumbling. You can accomplish an astonishing amount by simply paying attention when everyone else is surreptitiously texting. An old habit from the real world can help here: try taking notes on the conversation. If you’re present, you’re far more likely to add value.
Finally, the Pause is Still the Greatest Secret Weapon a Communicator Has. When you have people’s attention, don’t rush to speak just because you have the floor. Pause. Count to three. Then speak. The novelty alone will mean that people will pay better attention. Our half-real, half-virtual lives are so over-stuffed with both signal and noise that when you do get the chance it’s a good idea to bracket your pearls of wisdom with a little silence.
The work world is changing; communication needs to change with it. These rules will get you started.
I’m taking the holiday week off and will resume posting in January. Happy holidays to all! ~ Nick