The Conversation is Yours

It's easy to think of a conversation between two people as a simple natural thing.  To some degree it is, but not when it comes to a business conversation.  In business, there are many factors, a lot of subtext, and specific goals involved when communicating with another person.  How can we keep track of it all?

Here's a new rule of thumb from the blog, JustTellMeHowtoManage, "The person initiating the communication is responsible for the communication."

What exactly does this mean?  Communicating is not a one-way street.  Both parties should be responsible, right?  Yes, but it all depends on what your intentions are.  If you just want two people to throw syllables at each other then you don't need any forethought.  But in business, you want your conversations to be effective, to transfer information, and to get things done.

If you need to update your sales manager, you don't just go in and start barking.  No, you gauge their mood, how busy they are, and attitude.  Then you talk to them in the way you know they prefer.  For example, for someone who talks fast and wants concise answers, you keep it short and sweet.  For a more laid-back individual, you might do a little more small-talk than usual.

You do all of this because your goal for the conversation is for them to receive, properly process, and understand the information you're giving them.  You do this because you – as the initiator -- are responsible for the communication.

The good news is that we humans tend to mimic or match other people almost automatically.  Even so, it's something to keep in mind the next time you walk down the hall to start a conversation.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

Get A Handle on Your Audience

Your audience can be as diverse as your department, your employees, your clients, your competition, your board of directors, even your prospective employees. How you write your business communications depends on who your audience will be. A few ideas on how to determine your audience in order to write more effectively for them follow.

1. Who are they? Sounds easy enough, right? Well, sure if you know exactly the type of person to focus on. Who are the key influencers? Who has the most direct power? Who can influence the outcome of the communication? Who has indirect influence (opinion leaders, potential allies, even those who just stamp approvals or route the communications)?

2. What do they know? How much information will they need (background information, new information)? What do they already know about the topic? What do they need to learn about the topic? What are their expectations and preferences?

3. What do they feel? What kind of emotions or feelings will arise as they read or hear your message? What is their current situation? How interested are they in your message? Is it low priority or high priority? Will they actually read it with interest and listen carefully? How curious are they and how much do they care about the issue or its outcome?

4. How can you persuade them? What is their probable bias? Positive or negative? Are they likely to favor your conclusions, be indifferent to what you propose, or be adamantly opposed to your ideas? Is your desired action (as every piece of communication you write must include some desired action) easy or hard for them? Will it be something they aren't interested in doing? Will it be a burden or a joy? Will they agree to your ideas with gusto or reluctance?

All of this is something you need to think about before writing your piece or speech. If you do think of these issues, you will likely be able to predict a response rate and a response attitude from your intended audience. CEOs and managers often put off writing until they "have to do it," which creates a badly written and poorly thought-out piece that doesn't accomplish what they set out to do in the first place. Taking a bit of extra time to think through objectives before you "have to write it" will help you to create a piece of communication that will do its job well. Plus, those who read your communication will be glad you did.

Who Would Want to Listen to Me?

Who will listen?

Supposedly, public speaking is the number one fear we all have.  The most common form it takes in our minds is standing up in front of a large group of people to give a speech.  But it can also strike when giving a toast at a dinner party, or when addressing clients on a conference call.

The cause of the public speaking fear is a tricky thing to pinpoint, but one part we can identify is that confidence has a lot to do with it.  Speaking from an audience’s viewpoint, we enjoy a good speaker and empathize with a bad one.  So it’s good to know that right from the bat, the audience – mainly – is on your side.

Lisa Braithwaite of SpeakSchmeak has a very good point on the subject of confidence.  Have you ever asked yourself, “Who would want to hear what I have to say?”  As Braithwaite points out, if don’t have anything to say – or think you don’t – then no, no one will want to listen.  Part of having confidence is knowing that you do have something to say and people will listen.

You know your message is important, so take stock from that.  Believe that your story is as good as or better than anyone else’s, and it will be.  Not because of wishful thinking, but because it came from you, and you – and your message – are unique and interesting. 

Creating Effective PowerPoint Slides

After last looking at the macro approach to presentations, which involved figuring out which pieces go where and in what order and creating a cohesive whole, in this post we'll discuss building the individual slide itself -- how to title, how to use graphics, etc.

1. Each slide needs a title. A lot of presentation specialists may argue the point, but how confusing is it to come into the middle of a presentation having missed the first five minutes and there's a slide up without any telling information on it. It's a graph, with lots of numbers, but the late arriving attendee has no idea what the information represents and has to dig through his handout or ask someone for information. Why not just put a headline on it? It's an easy, straightforward, audience-friendly approach.

2. Titles are not all considered equal. Communications specialist Mary Munter terms good titles as "message titles" and bad titles as "topic titles." Basically, a topic title is something like "Our Company" while a message title is "Our Company's Growth in 2008." So many presentation templates emphasize the use of topic titles (for those presenters just quickly throwing together their slides at the last minute), but take a few more minutes and think it through. How best can you explain what's on that slide? What message do you want to send about that slide?

3. Using graphs, word charts, and concept diagrams. Slide after slide of text may not be the best approach. If you have information that can be presented another way, why not try it? In most presentation programs, there are a variety of chart options to insert into your presentation. If you are presenting several "how much" or "how" concepts, consider doing so with charts, graphs, or concept diagrams. Rather than just using a bulleted list, why not use a more visual representation? There are a myriad of options available in PowerPoint, some over the top and unnecessary, but a simple chart used here and there can spice up an otherwise unfriendly presentation.

Do people retain information by reading it or by understanding connections between it and other information? It depends on their learning style. If you calculate that about half of your audience will be visual, using graphs and charts will help them, and will still reach the other half of your audience that are verbal or aural learners, or a combination of the two.

Be An Interesting Speaker, Part 1

Managers and CEOs have to make speeches. It's just a fact of business life. As someone in a position of leadership, you have to get up and talk to your constituents or your employees about policy changes, new business development plans, the state of the break room after lunch time, or whatever. For many, it's old hat; for some, it induces terror of the worst sort. There are many factors to consider when approaching a speaking event, so we'll cover those first.

A few tips to making it through your speaking duties:

1. Consider your body language. Speakers who slump or walk with a wilted appearance won't garner much respect or credibility. Posture is poise. If you stand up straight while you speak, it goes a long way. But you don't have to stand stock still the entire time, you can use planned, natural movements (use of hands and arm gestures, walk in short paces within your speaking space, etc.) that emphasize the points you are trying to make. If you're speaking in a more personal manner, you'll want to lessen the distance between yourself and your audience.

2. Think about your vocal qualities. How your voice sounds is another consideration. If you get really nervous, watch your breathing and slow it as much as possible. Try not to fear silence. If you're in between points and saying nothing, that's better than stuttering um, um, um as you find your bearings. Slow your speech to a meaningful pace (one that isn't so boring as to put people to sleep, but that isn't as fast as you can talk) and take care to enunciate the words you say. Hurrying and not speaking with clarity can seem like you're mumbling instead of speaking.

3. Find out about your speaking environment conditions. What kind of space are you speaking in and to? How will your listeners be seated—around a table, in rows of chairs, around smaller multiple tables? Consider how far away you should be and how close you should be. Communications specialist Mary Munter says that the more objects you place between yourself and the audience, the more formal the interaction. Think about what you should wear? Is it a casual event or should you wear business attire?

In an upcoming post, we'll cover how to practice your speech, relaxation techniques, and last minute jitter techniques.

Designing Top-Notch Slide Presentations

The macro version of slide presentations entails figuring out which piece of your presentation goes on which slide and how to connect them all into a cohesive whole.
This post discusses the macro version. In a future post, we'll talk about the micro version of slides, or what each slide should look like. So stay tuned!

Remember the presentation structure we talked about in our previous post? Everything you put together in that step now comes forward to this step. Got everything within reach. Okay, let's go.

1. Translate your presentation structure into draft slides. You'll need an opening slide (usually an inspiring image or quote) and an agenda slide (a kind of table of contents for your presentation; this is a bit different than the quick synopsis of your key points, which is part of your presentation. An agenda outlines the slides for your presentation). Then you'll need slides for all your main points and backup slides (at least one or two) to support those main points. And finally, you'll need a closing (or summary) slide. So how many slides total does that give you? Use one piece of paper for each (or if you're already using your slide software program, map out the number you'll need there).

2. Connect the agenda and the main points and backup slides. Use the same wording throughout. For instance, if you describe the employee handbook as the "Employee Guide," use that throughout your presentation so as not to confuse anyone. Keep the typography and graphics, spacing, amount of text and size of text as similar as you can throughout all the slides. Another idea is to repeat that agenda slide throughout the presentation, each time you switch to the next main point in your agenda. But only if your presentation is quite complicated and really requires people to focus on how each main point relates to the other.

3. Choose colors that don't overwhelm or distract your text. If you use Powerpoint, you'll have to avoid the templates that come with the program, according to PowerPoint critic Edward Tufte, who said, "No matter how beautiful your PP readymade template is, it would be better if there were less of it." Design your own template and then keep it consistent, as mentioned in step 2. Use a solid background, without patterns or textures or graphics that move. More light, go lighter; less light, less light, a cool color such as intense bright green, blue, or maroon, as the color won't glare like a lighter color.

4. Keep the typography simple, and ignore the urge to add animated or convoluted graphics. Less is much more; trust me. I recently took a multimedia presentation class and realized that every single presentation I've ever given was a disgrace to the name presentation. I love animation and graphics and pretty colors. by the time I got out of that class, I knew that I would never again subject my audience to a dancing cartoon character or a headline that flickers on the screen. Please trust me when you think just one fancy graphic or animation will add some pizzazz to your boring presentation. Just don't be a boring speaker (or don't procrastinate) and you won't absolutely infuriate your audience.

Next time, a micro approach to slides: how much text, how to title, how to use graphs, and more!

What's Your Communicator Strategy?

Everyone has one, or should have anyway, when communicating as a manager or CEO with their employees, regardless of whether you are speaking or writing.

A communicator strategy is made up of the following:

1. What is your objective? Communicating in non-business environments is as simple as speaking or writing to get a response. However, in business environments, you are speaking or writing (i.e., communicating) in order to get a certain response. Thus, your objective will determine your communication strategy from the outset. To find a viable objective, convert your general communication goal to a more specific communication goal. This would look something similar to "To express my vision," which would turn into "As a result of this communication, my audience will understand my vision for 2009." See how that works?

2. What communication style do you choose? Your communication style is directly related to the objective you've set for the communication. Are you explaining or persuading? Are you seeking to understand or learn something?  You're going to use different communication styles when doing each of the above-listed objectives. For instance, when you're explaining, you have all the information you need, you don't need others' opinions, ideas, or input, and you want to control the message content. This is also true with the persuading communication style. For the communications that are for you to understand or learn, you obviously do not have sufficient information, you need or want to hear other opinions, ideas, or input, and you want to (or need to) involve your audience in order to come up with the message together.

Be advised that sometimes you may need to use a combination of those styles in order to facilitate quality communication throughout a longer-term or more difficult project.

3. What is your credibility? What is your audience's perception of you? How they perceive you will affect your communication strategy. If they don't think you are someone they want (or need) to listen to, it does not matter how efficiently you communicate. Thus, you may want to stress or remind your audience of the grounds for your credibility. Let them know why they should listen to what you have to say, and do so in a humble way. However, simply relying on that is not enough. You must communicate well and use every communication tool in your arsenal to continue to prove your credibility.

Politics & Branding

US Capitol

Back in the day, it was said that there were a couple of very taboo subjects that you should never bring up in your business life. One of which was politics. There was an understanding back in the "good ol' days" about your business practices being separate from your personal political beliefs. 

With the rise of social media, it seems to be an acceptable practice to associate your politics to your brand. On Inauguration Day, Twitter was just going crazy with updates regarding the new President. Social media has changed the way we look at associating our personal beliefs with our business or brand. Small business has taken over sites like Twitter and Facebook and no one really seems scared to share their political beliefs anymore.

Have we really reached the point where we are not concerned that our political beliefs might drive off potential clients? Let's assume for a second that anyone who has a political belief opposite from yours is someone you're not going to do business with.  In regards to the presidential election in November, Obama defeated McCain 53% to 46% of the popular vote. You're running the risk of alienating somewhere around one half of your potential US client base.

This wouldn't happen, of course, because that's just an incredible assumption to make, but it is an interesting thought to consider. What happened? When did it stop being taboo for us to talk about our political beliefs when we're using a social media tool to market our companies or brands?

As a business owner, do you consider your risks to be worth the rewards? Are you okay with possibly losing a handful of clients because you spoke your mind but gaining one that agreed with your opinion?

Can it be possible that it's just a commentary on how far the United States has come that we are able to share those kinds of beliefs with our virtual communities? Diversity and tolerance have come a very long way in the last sixty years. Maybe that's why it's not considered taboo anymore.

What do you think?

If you blog in a business capacity, are you more or less likely to talk about your political standings?  Do you even care if people do? Are you less likely to do business with a company that doesn't have the same structure as you do?

Posted by Maranda Gibson, Account Specialist

Designing Documents for a Quick Read

Does it seem your memos or communications never get read all the way through? Do your employees simply bog down after a few paragraphs of reading? You might be suffering from "information overload writing" and I know the feeling; I do it too. We all do. Writing is a form of communication, not a place for us to drop in every opinion we"ve ever had on the topic. It's hard to unlearn, but there are tricks to help in case it's an issue.

Use Headings and Subheadings
This is a trick I learned from a marketing expert a few years ago. Breaking up long paragraphs of text with headings and subheadings helps focus a reader on reading and provides a logical path to follow through the document. It also helps a writer write faster. Outline it and then fill in the blanks. That may be a simple version of writing memos, but simple is good.

They must be able to stand alone. Your heading should do the work by itself. At one glance, your readers must know what you intend to say overall.

They should be short. Don't make them long and complicated. It"s a heading, not a sentence.

They should continue the flow. A reader should be able to trace your thought process through your headings. Then if they want to read specifics, they can read the text.

Use White Space To Your Advantage
White space is your friend. It may not seem like it, but when you give readers a chance to breathe while reading your piece, they actually comprehend it better and faster.

Break it into shorter blocks. No one will read page after page without a break. Give your readers a chance to pause if necessary and they"ll be back refreshed and ready to continue.

Use a list for emphasis. I use lists a lot. They offer me a chance to make my points quickly and succinctly.

Use white space to show organization. I'm using white space and different formatting to show organization in this post. Don't overuse all the elements (like I may be doing in order to show how I would approach this), but pick and choose and have fun.

Choose Your Typography With Care
I chose bold for the main headings and italics for the subheadings. That way anyone reading this post would know that the bold was the main ideas and the italics were the supporting ideas.

It shows importance. The bold headings invite readers. The italics offset the subheading from the text. It all works together to create a neat hierarchy.

It improves readability. A report organized like this will get much more attention than a page of single-spaced 8-point type. Trust me.

It helps a reader read faster. Didn"t you read faster? Good. See, now you know what you can do!

How To Be An Expert at Research, Part 1

No one I know has a problem collecting information. In this Internet age, the information available to us after a few minutes of searching online is staggering. The key to researching effectively is knowing how to research judiciously. I've got a few tips to help managers or CEOs research well, so that your writing tasks don't take days or weeks (or months!).

1. Always be in gathering mode. This is easy for some who just seem to gather without thinking about it. The problem for natural "gatherers" is organizing and occasional pruning of all this information. Are you one who collects years of magazines and never seems to get around to reading any of them? You have no problem gathering; you just need help focusing. If you pitch junk mail fastidiously and read all your magazines the moment you receive them and then recycle them that evening, well, obviously, you've got everything figured out in your life (just kidding).

2. Diversify your information sources. There are so many options out there! Articles, financial statements, telephone interviews, personal interviews, the Internet, CD-ROMs, intranet databases, microfiche archives, newsgroups, libraries, textbooks, company newsletters, and the list goes on forever. Rather than just read a couple newsletters each month, why not expand your search parameters and look somewhere you've never looked before.

3. Group similar ideas together. Say you're researching a new product and you're gathering information about competitor prototypes, various R&D reports, and feedback from your clients/customers and your marketing department. Say a large part of the research you've gathered shows that your main competitor's product owns the market, but your marketing department believes your product will be superior. Gather that up and find out what your focus group of clients/customers thinks. All those pieces of research that you have supporting your expansion into this market need to be organized together. Invariably you'll have to prepare your findings to highlight why NOT to create such a product.

4. From these groupings, create a generalization about each group. This is when you prepare reports signifying that early findings indicate that moving forward with a prototype project might be a probable next step. Or does your focus group say something else? See what I mean? All this information must be organized or you're left with a pile of papers without any navigational information about how to deal with it all.

5. Compose an "organizational" blueprint for the research you've amassed. This is where mind-mapping or idea charts come into play. Use a white board and get some good company strategists. Is this an idea that you're willing to attempt even though the focus group did not think your product would replace the competition's? Or perhaps the focus group wants the product and your marketing team is struggling with how to position it against the competition. All this is research and information and before you can write it up as internal memos or marketing messages or company goals, you've got to get a handle on what you've got.

In the second half of this post, we'll fine-tune all this research into a thesis for the writing that must happen. It's more of a micro approach to research.