Funny People

It can be difficult to put yourself front-and-center of a presentation or meeting. Who hasn't had a completely valid question in the middle of a meeting, but ended up asking it later to avoid some sort of strange social embarrassment? 

Breaking the ice can be hard. There's a chance you have never spoken to any of the people on the conference before, and you don't really know where to begin. I've heard the phrase "Open with a joke" before, but I never really considered it.

Humor can lighten the mood and diffuse tension in the room. Because laughter really does improve your health, you'll boost everyone's endorphins by cracking a well-placed joke. Anytime you're going to use humor you should follow a couple of simple rules.

Be sure that your joke is relevant to the topic.  Not only do you want it to get everyone to loosen up a little, but you also want it to be a good opener to the subject you are discussing. Don't forget that you're still in a business setting. This brings me to my next tip. Make sure that your joke is not offensive to anyone. Sticking to a nice generic joke (or even something you come up with on your own) is a safe bet. Run it by someone.

Do you use humor in your conferences? If you do, what made you come to the decision and how do you determine what's a good ice breaker?

The First Step

Last month, I talked about Acronym Rehab and the representation that their repeated use can create. As a speaker, sales person, or presenter the use of these can cause confusion or a less professional appearance.  What other communication roadblocks can be created by the use of these in every day conversation?  As I've said before, it's one thing to text your son "k" or "btw" about something going on in your personal life, but it's another to send that sort of message to a customer or employer.

When it creeps into face to face conversation out of sheer habit, you may not realize it but it slows everything down, even if it is just for a few seconds.  When you speak to someone else, the brain is processing everything that is being said. Much like a computer, when you open an application, your brain has to find the information, open up the file, and execute it. The same general process occurs when you're communicating with someone.

If you're being spoken too and you're getting a lot of ABC's and XYZ's, it's going to slow down the time that it takes for your brain to process the meaning of what the other person is saying. Your brain has to break down and define the acronym, reset it into the sentence, and then process it. When you have a lot of extra information, it clogs your brain. The problem with this? The brain can't process quickly and what someone is trying to say to you is lost and by the time you decode the message, you might not remember what the point of it was the first time.

Cutting out the extra information in conversations will not only save you time, it might save you from having to start at the beginning and go through it again. 

What do you think? Does the use of three letter acronyms slow us down or speed it up? Are you ready to admit you have a problem and start to remove them from your face to face conversation?

Are You Listening?

We are a culture of multi-taskers, a society that proudly admits we can text and walk at the same time, and believe that driving with our knees while shoving a cheeseburger in our face is okay. When it comes to having a conversation with someone, it can be a drag if you are speaking, but they aren’t hearing you. I know lots of people who seem to think that being able to repeat back what you said to them means that they were listening, even if they are doing other things at the same time. Your ears are open to what information is being delivered, but are you engaged in the conversation?

If your customer makes a suggestion do you consider it and take it into account? Maybe it’s not just the request of one person—maybe it’s a change that will benefit all of your clients. It makes me think: Are you listening to your customers?

Sure, we can hear them, but are we taking it all in and giving that customer the time they deserve? If you’re on the phone with a client, is that your main focus or are you doing other things, like checking your email or texting your brother back about dinner plans?  Yes, multitasking is a great skill and is very beneficial to productive business practices, but there’s a point where it starts to take away from what should be your main focus—your customers.

Where do you draw the line between multitasking and "just listening"?

Comment your thoughts here and let’s figure out a good place to draw the line.

Power of Instant Feedback

Sometimes, the hardest part of a presentation is getting feedback.  So much time and energy is spent preparing for your conferences and presentations. You know your slides backwards and forward, you've done a mock presentation, revised, and practiced again. When it's all over and your conference is just a memory, you now have to sit back and wait to find out what people thought.

Sure, requesting an online survey after the conference is over is a great way to get feedback. There are a few snags to getting feedback this way.  Your audience is busy and while they fully intend on giving feedback for your presentation, it might take them time to be able to submit their thoughts. It could be days or even weeks after your conference is over and you want to get feedback while things are still fresh.

Have you given any thought to asking for feedback while the conference is in live?  Most web conference applications provide a way for you to ask for feedback through polls and allow asking more than one question.  You can update your poll from "How do you feel about…" to "What is a subject you would like to see more about" with a couple of key strokes and you can get feedback instantly. There's no waiting, all the information is still fresh, and the web conference tool will store your poll results as well, so you can go back and look up to see the results later on.

How important is instant feedback when you're having a conference? Do you want to know right away the things that need to be adjusted or corrected, or are you more of the kind of person who prefers to wait until after you're done to get feedback so as not to have any distractions when you present?

Cop Shows and Conferencing

Law

The FBI agent walks quickly into the state-of-the-art offices that the team shares.  She finds the team leader standing near the entrance looking at a report.  "Sir, I've just come from the crime scene across town.  It looks like the cousin of the deceased has something to do with all this."  To which the team leader replies, "Good, head over there to talk to him."

Wow, that's a lot of travel and wasted time for what should have been a short phone call.  I've seen this happen on many of my favorite shows, but it seems like with police dramas in general--and the FBI/Mathematician show ‘Numbers' specifically--nothing is better than a photogenic group meeting, and cell phones always seem to be a last resort.

The truth is that on TV you've got to put your actors in the same room as much as possible to really get the most bang for the studio's buck—and to get the best ratings.  Though in reality, but just as true, we tend to call from the parking lot rather than go back inside and down the hall to ask someone a question; regardless of how cool the shot would look on TV.

I'd imagine that many more serial killers, kidnappers, and terrorists on TV would be caught faster if the police and FBI characters were allowed gratuitous use of teleconferencing.

So my question is how often do we do "something for the camera" rather than in a more efficient way?  Some examples of what I mean include postponing a meeting until someone returns from out of town, driving often and far for meetings, and typing long memos for the office (on TV, almost no one uses their mouse because it's not as interesting as a bout of serious typing!).

It's probably good then to ask yourself occasionally if what you're about to do is "for the cameras" or not.  Use that cell phone.  Start that conference call.  Communicate and collaborate now, rather than wait.  That is, if the goal is swift, efficient communication, and not an Emmy.

I've seen sparse and limited use of video conferencing on TV—which looks very cool to viewers on any show—but I've never seen a 30 person audio conference.  Have you?  If you have, leave a comment and tell me what show it was, which season, and even what episode if you remember.

Anatomy of Miscommunication

We never notice when a minor tidbit or snatch of gossip gets lost, misplaced, or misheard.  But when there is a miscommunication about important, vital information, we want to know where the problem is, how it got there, and whose head is gonna roll—and hopefully it won’t be ours.
I read an article about communication failure by Roy Jacobsen where he breaks down the exchange of information into its basic framework.  Here’s a synopsis:

  1. Transmitted: You send the information.
  2. Received: The information arrives.
  3. Understood: The information is understood.
  4. Agreed: The recipient concurs with your information.
  5. Converted to useful action: “Your message gets the action that you wanted from your recipient.”

When communication fails then, at least you’ll know the problem is going to be in at least one of those steps.  Jacobsen goes on to describe various troubleshooting questions you can ask.  And since his examples of communication in the article are letters or emails, the questions are specific to the written word.
I smugly thought that by using voice to communicate—in person, phone call, or conference call—we could easily bypass many of the pitfalls in those five communication steps.  Then, not so smugly, I used different words for the miscommunications possible in Jacobsen’s list:

  1. You don’t talk loud enough, there’s static, your cell phone died.
  2. They weren’t paying attention, were thinking of something else, their cell phone died.
  3. You explained badly, they misconstrued or only heard what they wanted, they are just plain dumb.
  4. They disagree, they hate the idea, they think you’re dumb, they don’t want to do it
  5. They do the wrong thing, they do too much or too little, they don’t do anything.

However—I say to myself, smug again—unlike the written word, when speaking you have the opportunity to ask questions and get feedback. Did they hear you?  Do they understand?  Do they agree?

Making a habit of asking these questions can really do wonders in helping you head off miscommunications before they do any damage.

It's Not Too Late For Dessert!

After a long day I was on the way home and didn't feel like cooking when I got there.  I stopped by a Jack in the Box drive-thru—ordered those new mini-sirloin burgers—and pulled around to the window.  At this particular restaurant there were huge signs along the building.  The middle one was Jack the CEO saying, "Go ahead and treat yourself.  You deserve it!" 

The first and third huge signs were blown-up pictures of delicious desserts with captions that said, "It's not too late!  Order me at the window."  I didn't, but I did ask the lady handing me my food if anybody ever ordered dessert at the window.  "All the time," she said.  "Seriously, it happens a lot."

I've always thought that Jack the CEO was one of the most brilliant ad campaigns of all time.  But Jack is still an ad, still marketing used to send people to the restaurant.  These huge signs showing me sugary goodness are a great idea, but one that's been around.  What puts the cherry on top is giving me permission to treat myself, AND telling me it's still okay to order them… I haven't missed my opportunity.

It's a form of up-selling and impulse buying, I know.  But when combined with Jack the CEO, and the thumbing of their nose at conventional fast food protocol, it becomes unique and sheer genius.  I love genius!

I want to hear about how you have created something unique for your customers.  Leave a comment and tell me about your genius.

What Do You Really Sound Like?

Too Big?

Or, to quote an Oppenheimer article title: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."  Using big words is one way to show how smart we are—often unsuccessfully—but they don't help the situation when we're trying to convey information clearly and concisely.  This goes for the $10 words, but what about business jargon?

How can slinging the lingo be a bad thing?  Well, someone spouting off about paradigm shifts—changing the basic thinking of an outlook, plan, or strategy--during a meeting is all well and good, but it's so often misused.  Even worse, it's become a bit of a cliché, adversely affecting the user and their message.  The speaker would probably be better off saying, "We need to rethink how we're going to do this."  This is much more direct and clear.

"Thinking outside of the box," or even good ol' "get our ducks in a row" can have worse consequences than merely causing miscommunication.  An article on MSNBC.com talked about how business jargon can cause management to appear weak and untrustworthy to their employees.  A study found that 40% of employees feel that their bosses use jargon to cover up bad news or avoid the truth.

And those big unnecessary words can be a waste of time… literally.  Have you ever been in a meeting where it took forever to get from capital letter to period in the average sentence?  It's good to provide a clear picture, but adding all those asides, adverbs and adjectives, sub-plots, and background information takes a long time to get through, not to mention hiding the point of what's being said.

It's a little ironic for me to be talking about this; at least, I know my friends would think so. (Yes, my average story length is "long.")  But I know when is or isn't a good time to spin a yarn.  In business settings, if I don't speak plainly, clearly, and with brevity, I'll fail to deliver my point, lose my audience, and be labeled a "bore."

Are any of you long-winded like me?  Are you able to keep it from intruding on your professional life?  Tell me about it in a comment.

You Can't Take It Back

How many times have our eyes widened in horror after we realize what we've just said?  For the more fortunate of us, our social gaffes weren't too bad, or we just got very, very lucky.  For all of our futures though, let's look at some suggestions from WikiHow.com for preventing the wrong things to be said.

To get it out of the way, here is the tired cliché: "Think before you speak."  (I more prefer, "We have one mouth, but two ears.")  It's tired and overused for a reason; its good advice.  Take a breath and consider the other person and how their point of view may see your comment.  Pausing to consider is especially important on a conference call as they can't see your face and won't know you're smiling or whatever.

Another cause of saying the wrong thing during teleconferences stems again from not being able to see all the other participants.  It can be easy to be lulled into believing you are on a call with just two of you.  It's the same as if you forgot the twenty people standing right behind you while you talk to a friend.  The others on the conference call may not have said anything yet, but they are definitely there, listening to everything you say.

One of my favorite ways to prevent saying the wrong things is preparation.  Whenever possible, I like to make a list of topics to be covered, questions I want to ask, and possible answers to give. I also jot down a bit about each person I know will be on the call.  These lists help remind me that thirty faceless people are right there listening.

If it's not too painful, tell us about your biggest social gaffe.  Maybe there's been enough time passed and we can laugh at it together.

Completely Inappropriate Places to Conduct a Conference Call

Conference Call in the Restrooms

We are a society of telecommuters.  Inventions like cell phones, laptops, and Wi-Fi have made it easier to keep up with the movements of society and the need to be on the go. However, I feel that convenience has taken a little something out of the process of business:  courtesy. I hear stories all the times about conference calls gone wrong.  From barking dogs to the sounds of emergency sirens in the background, I have put down a couple of places that, in my personal opinion, are the worst places to be trying to host, speak, or participate on a conference call.

The Bathroom – This is such a horrible idea. It's completely understandable that sometimes business just doesn't allow you time in between meetings. Trust me, I get it.  The bathroom is somewhere that business should never be conducted in. For me, I don't like knowing when someone is texting or tweeting me from a facility, much less trying to listen in (or worse, host) a conference call.

Chuck E' Cheese – Really, this applies to any other child-friendly zone. Not to be mean to the future of America, but kids don't really understand the meaning of “shh”. Sitting in a place where children run rampant, shoving pizza and soda in their mouths is not a place to try to conduct your business.

Any restaurant – This one should be pretty easy. There's a lot of background noise and clutter that can muddy up the sound on the conference call. You want to be able to pay attention, and above all, you don't want to be a disruption to what's going on.  Avoid places where the waitress will be heard asking if you want more iced tea or dropping a tray in the background. Plus, you'll avoid getting any kind of sauce on your notes.

Frankly, if you absolutely have to take a conference call from any of the aforementioned places, use the nifty little features on your phone called a mute button.  With the mute on, I say more power to you when it comes to being on a conference call while going through the grocery line or trying to grab a bite to eat. As a host on a conference call, most services provide a way to mute participant lines or even provide a command for you to give to people to mute their lines through the conference service, also eliminating the possibility of the hold music playing.

What do you think though? I have my opinions on when it's okay to try to conduct business and when it isn't, but I know that everyone is going to feel differently.  Is there anywhere that it is a complete and utter no-no to try to be on a conference call?  Have you ever forgotten about muting your line and hoped that the embarrassing thing that just happened can never be traced back to you?