Your Best Presentation Tool is Your Voice

Think of any lecture, presentation, video conference, web conference, speech, or conference call you've ever attended.  What do they all have in common?  Someone is speaking.  We humans have many ways of communicating, but our voices are the main choice.  Since it's so important, how can you improve your voice to help your business?

Bill Lampton of BusinessKnowHow has a list of twelve tips to make the most of your voice.  All of them are helpful, but let's look at three in particular.  First, pauses get both pros and cons in Lampton's article, and for good reason.  Be careful not to pause too often or in peculiar spots.  A good place to pause would be at the end of a paragraph and not after each sentence – or in the middle of sentences.  These "complete thought" pauses give the audience a chance to take in all you have said.

Of course, the pauses also help to give audible cues to significant parts of your speeches.  You can alter your rate of speaking to indicate you are leading to a point. Then after you have made the point, a nice pause solidifies it. You don't want to speak too rapidly so as to lose your audience, but keep in mind that too slow will bore them.  Too fast or too slow will be a distraction from your message.

Finally, remember that no two voices are the same.  This means that as more people recognize your voice, the more unique and special it will be.   If people begin to associate your voice with good solid information or leadership, they will look forward to your speeches.  And as you notice more people eager to hear your voice, you'll start looking forward to your speeches too.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How to Write Faster

Writing Faster

The trick of writing business communications is keeping up with the high demand. There is always a pile of writing to be done on a daily or weekly basis; many managers and CEOs find themselves quickly overwhelmed.

Want to know how others do it? Read on.

1. Writing requires some thinking. You might want to not write anything (not even notes) and just stop for even five minutes and just think deeply on your writing topic. This deep thinking is like firing up the main engine of your brain. Limit distractions and don’t try to check email at the same time. You need to just stare at the wall or at the carpet pattern and think.

2. Now for something completely different. Okay, once you’ve done some thinking, now check the email, make some phone calls, read a trade magazine or newsletter. Better yet, go refill your coffee mug or water bottle. Stretch the legs, look out the window, or step outside for some fresh air. This lets the deep thinking rise to the surface.

3. Open up a new document on your computer or get a fresh page and just let it all out. This is unleashing everything that has been brewing inside your head. And I mean let it all out. No worries about punctuation or organization or even legibility. This is your deep thinking release step. There’s no pressure here, so just let it out.

4. Put it aside and move on to another task. This may be another session of deep thinking or the unending email or meetings or phone calls; this is the detachment phase of the writing. This is where you cut yourself off from the creation aspect of the writing in order to get a more critical eye. This is another no pressure step, so don’t waste it by worrying about what you just wrote.

5. Come back for a first read. Print off a fresh copy and get a pencil. Mark places that you feel are overwritten, circle places you think need more work, connect thought patterns, and generally get a feel for the flow of the piece. This first read should not be stressful and you should not be feeling any panic about the terrible shape your writing is in. That’s normal for everyone, so don’t waste valuable time fretting.

Next, check out Editing Business Communications Quickly and Effectively for a series of easy steps to finalize any piece of business writing.

3 Conference Call Habits to Improve

Making a phone call is an integral part of almost all businesses.  Even the street dog vendor occasionally needs to reorder buns.  It's a good thing then that telephones have kept up with the vast changes we've gone through in the past twenty years.  The technology may have improved, but old habits die hard.

1. How many times have you said, "I'll have to ask about that and get back to you"?  How much time has been wasted and progress halted by this phrase or variations of it?  When this happens to you again – and you know it will – hang-up, start a conference call, and outdial the person you were just talking to and the person you need to talk to.  Now all available information is at hand in the call.  Questions and follow-up questions can be asked, decisions can be made, and time isn't wasted.

2. Do you ever get a writing cramp trying to keep up taking notes on a lively discussion?  Ever miss important points on a long list?  Have you regretted not writing down a great speech?  A lot happens during a conference call and this is why most have an "auto-record" feature.

If you don't already, make sure you're conferences get recorded automatically.  It doesn't cost extra and the recordings can be easily downloaded.  The next step is to get into the habit of using those recordings.  Review a meeting to make sure everything got covered.  Listen to make sure your list matches the actual one.  If there was a great soliloquy, you've have it on tape.

3. The mute button is your friend.  It is imperative that everyone in a conference call know how to mute and unmuted themselves.  Muting cuts background noise to the minimum.  It helps avoid embarrassing situations such as kids running into a room, or a loud, suspicious leather chair squeak.  Using a group mute such as lecture mode allows a speaker to talk freely without interruption and lets you choose when to take questions.

There is a flip-side to muting to be acquainted with: mute delay.  If you and your participants are on the ball and mute whenever not speaking, then if a question is asked, there will be a delay.  Unlike a telephone where someone can instantly respond, a muted person needs a few seconds to be able to speak.  Give them that time by how you phrase your questions:

Incorrect:  "What were last week's numbers, Mike?"

Correct:  "Mike, I've got a question for you: what were last week's numbers?"

Saying Mike's name get's his attention.  Announcing you have a question for him gives him time to unmuted.  When it's time to answer, Mike will be ready with an answer.

These three habits may seem little, and they are to a point.  But despite their size, you'll find yourself having more effective and efficient conference calls if you use them often.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

Editing Business Communications Quickly and Effectively

Managers or CEOs write a lot for their jobs. Many experience frustration from having to write so much and find the process exhausting and stressful. Most identify the stress as the act of writing itself, but research shows that the act of planning out the writing, organizing the writing, and editing the writing are actually the stressful pieces of the process. We'll tackle the final piece: editing.

How does one edit their writing?

1. Edit for objective. Does the piece accomplish the objective set out for it? Every written piece of communication needs an objective. What are you trying to accomplish and who is your audience? Plus, a piece of communication usually stresses an action for those reading it. If that action step isn't clear, all your communication is for naught.

2. Edit for macro issues. Instead of editing details, edit the piece of writing as a whole first. Check document design, action steps that make sense, and proper paragraph structure. Consider the logic you're using: does it flow and make sense in this piece? Consider the emphasis: are you using the correct tone for this communication?

3. Edit for micro issues. Now, you can edit for smaller issues such as wordiness, appropriate style, overlong sentences, and word choice. Remember, simplicity is best. No need to add a fancy word for a simple word that works just fine. Also, no need to make all sentences the same length; it is perfectly acceptable to mix up sentence length in a piece.

4. Now edit for correctness. This is the grammar step. If you have specific questions on grammar or punctuation, consult your stylebook. Now is the step to place all your commas correctly, to exchange semicolons for colons, and to make sure your periods and commas are inside the closing quotation mark (unless otherwise allowed).

5. Proofread carefully. Don't just read this on-screen; print out a copy and read it aloud from paper. Double-check for logic, flow, emphasis, tone, and computer-generated errors.

If you utilize the five steps of editing every time you produce a piece of writing, you'll be much more confident when sending out your memos or emails. You'll feel accomplished and professional, and the writing tasks that crowd your to-do list each day won't seem so overwhelming and insurmountable.

Careful Communication

Technology is a beautiful thing. The more you use it however, the bigger the electronic footprint you will leave. Have you ever Googled yourself? It's amazing what you will find. I once found a picture of me in Junior High School, and it wasn't an official yearbook one either – why oh why did I roll my pant cuffs like that?

Some people still don't realize that when you put something on the internet, it's out there forever. Almost all of us will never see it, but it's there. These words I type will exist on some server forever, or at least until the internet crashes or is purged.

Think about your business communications. All of your emails are still out there. Anything you ever loaded onto your website or files you've sent are saved somewhere. Hopefully there is nothing you would take back.

Now think about your personal communications. Yes, they are personal, but we all know how much personal can affect business. Don't limit your thinking to emails, social networking has become huge and it's all public. You should know that anything you put out there has the possibility to be found and used against you -- even your anonymous profile on MySpace.

Peter Shankman recently blogged about such a social networking incident involving a man who wasn't careful about communication. The man in question wrote a post on Twitter when he arrived in a town for a business presentation. The post was a relatively minor bash on the town itself, but he didn't know that several employees of the company he was to present at received regular updates on his posts through Twitter.

This might not have been a big deal, but the town was Memphis, the employees were die-hard home-town folk, they worked at FedEx headquarters, and the man was doing a presentation there on employee communication.

When it comes to communication, for business or personal, write and speak as if the whole world is paying attention. If you don't, the whole world might, but you won't like it.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

5 Tips for Unique Corporate Presentations

The problem with using the best technology, the best techniques, is that soon enough you'll look like every other go-getter. This doesn't mean these things are bad. It just means that you have to use them intelligently to go from mediocre to unique.

Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing sees a lot of presentations. Unfortunately, these presentations aren't all good. No, most are just downright bad. In his blog, From Where I Sit, he gives us five rules for better presentations.

The first rule is obvious, so obvious that it's understandable that we've strayed from it. The rule is to remember that the main focus of a presentation is not PowerPoint, graphics, or gimmicks, it's you the speaker. Those other things are there to augment you and your message.

Which sounds more appealing: a lecture or a story? Why can't a lecture be a story? A presentation should have a natural flow going from point to point. It will provide structure and help your audience follow you better. Plus, it's much more interesting to listen to the struggle, downfall, and ascension to triumph of your company's last quarter than pointing to a graph and rattling off some numbers.

The next two rules concern your video presentation support materials, otherwise known as your PowerPoint presentation. These are great to instantly send a message to your audience. However, there is danger in deciding which messages, and how much of each to display. Always remember "Less is more." Constrict text to a few lines per slide, and make it large so everyone can see without squinting.

Hyatt agrees that handouts are a good thing, but with a caveat. Instead of handing them out before your presentation (basically giving your presentation away), or during your presentation (distracting from and derailing your flow), pass around handouts at the end. It reinforces your message, and helps in case your audience missed something. But don't confuse an agenda with presentation notes. An agenda tells the audience the purpose of the presentation, and provides signposts to guide them. Your handouts will point out scenic views and important landmarks, filling in the back story after you have passed by.

Of course with web conferencing, you have to adjust to the fact that your audience members are spread throughout the world. This doesn't mean you can't distribute handouts, in fact because everyone is already at their computer it's as simple as emailing a Word document as you are ending your presentation, or putting a link in the chat window.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How To Write an Excellent Memo

Are memos outdated? Aren't they from the businesses of yesteryear? Don't people just write emails? Isn't the future of business on the Internet now? Sure, but even emails need to communicate effectively. Writing an email is very similar to writing memos and a skill that is required in today's business.

A few tips on writing memos (via emails or otherwise) follow:

Organize and simplify. What's the purpose of the memo (or email)? And who is it for? You should know what the memo needs to accomplish and who you want to accomplish it. For instance, if you're instructing employees to not use next-day shipping services, but asking them to use two-day shipping services instead, make that clear. And make sure every employee knows the memo is applicable to them.

What's the next step? Many memos state obvious facts (e.g., the above memo about shipping; we are using too much next-day shipping services), but forget to tell the next step (e.g., please use two-day shipping services from now on). Make sure you are clear with your memo and instruct the readers of the memo what to do after they read it.

Ask for feedback. For sensitive memos, enlist the help of others. Ask coworkers or your supervisor to read the memo (or email) to make sure your instructions are clear and that readers will know what to do without any confusion. If you have problems with spelling or grammar, you might have a few people read for proofreading purposes. You'll be glad you did.

Let it cool off. Before you send the memo (email or otherwise), let it cool off a bit. Move on to another task and let it sit. When you've accomplished a few other tasks, come back to the email (or memo) and then reread it for sense, clarity, and purpose.

Another question: Should you use paper memos or email? Many companies use email only, citing the savings of paper and ink supplies. They also cite the ability for employees to archive all corporate emails long term. However, other companies cite the email overload problem and have returned to important memos on paper.

Many companies strive to lessen the amount of memos handed out or emailed around just because of the problems their employees experience comprehending it all. If you follow the above steps, you'll enjoy clearer memos and better-informed employees.

Five Tips For a More Productive Team

Productive Team

According to Harvard Management Update, "high functioning teams are what makes high-performing companies click." If it seems like the team work you're trying to implement in your company isn't sticking, here are five tips that you can use to improve team productivity.

1.) Make time for the team to come together:
When you first have a team put together, hold an ‘ice-breaker', whether it is taking everyone out for lunch or making a Starbucks run in the middle of the day. Find a quiet place to talk, be open about personal lives and business experiences. It's important to establish a rapport with everyone. Teams have to trust each other otherwise there will be anarchy and you can't trust someone if you don't know them.

2.) Diversify your team:
There's nothing better in a team environment than the feeling of learning something new. That is, after all, part of the reason why teams should be encouraged. Working together requires you to put aside any old feelings between co-workers and to open your eyes to a new perspective. No two people have the same thought process, and if two heads are better than one then there's a pretty good chance that four heads are better than three.

3.) Establish duties:
Within diversity everyone has their own strengths. Encourage openness so that there can be an exchange of ideas and each person's strengths can be used to the fullest. Communication and ideas will flow because you have specific people in charge of specific parts of a functioning team. Use Dr. Meredith Belbin's team roles as a model for what kind of responsibilities need to be assigned.

4.) Share Past Successes
Ever thrown some stuff into a pot, heated it up, and waited for what came out? Teamwork is a lot like that, throwing these different styles and kinds of people into a group and telling them that they have to make something happen. Open up with each other and share any experiences or success that you think could be a positive contribution to the team. Even if you have a member who was recently hired or fresh out of college, they surely have something to contribute to your group. Take some time at the beginning of your first meeting together and share what you're good at.

5.) Be a Great Mentor
If you're a team leader this should be your cardinal rule. Think of that old cliché, "There is no poor question than the one that is not asked." As a mentor and developer you need to remember that. You should have a wide variety of age groups and experience levels on your team and remember that there was a time when you had to ask all the questions too. Be patient and understanding; remember that every question leads to a better answer and possibly a breakthrough.

Posted by Maranda Gibson, Account Specialist

Encouraging Initiative in the Workplace

Initiative is a character trait highly prized by employers.  It's a good trait to have on your resume.  It's what separates the leaders from the doers.  If someone is lacking in initiative, that doesn't mean they are a bad employee, just a mediocre one.  Sometimes though, employees are too fearful or comfortable to show initiative or make big decisions.

An employee that won't speak up or follow their instincts can be detrimental to your business.  However, in a lot of cases you can encourage these employees to show initiative.  Managing "comfeartable" employees doesn't have to be an ordeal.  It can be a matter of shifting office culture, or simply encouraging one person.

A big step is to let your employees know that it's okay to show initiative, to make big decisions.  Some people hold back because they are afraid of consequences for mistakes.  We all know there are good and bad mistakes – "strong effort, weak results" -- but employees need to know that they won't be punished for the good mistakes.

Everyone has varying degrees of stage fright, and it's possible that someone doesn't speak up in meetings because of an audience.  If you tend to get great ideas from someone, but only in private, maybe their stage fright is getting in the way.  Make the next meeting they are in a conference call.  They won't have all those people looking at them and may feel freer to contribute.

Initiative takes courage.  Some people have courage, and some need encouragement for their courage to come out.  Speak to them in specifics and go into details on how they can step-up to a challenge, how best to meet it head on, and how they will be rewarded if they do.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How Not to Do Customer Service

Bad Customer Service

In the midst of post holiday shopping, I've run into a few sourpuss customer service folks. It's kind of humorous to me that they are so disdainful of customers, especially when customers are scarce in this economy. If I was in retail, I'd be doing what a local retailer did at the mall this afternoon: they sent one of their employees outside with a coat and a tray of free samples of their candy to greet people in the parking lot. Sure, it seems a bit desperate, but it's also the time for Christmas gift returns, great bargains, and free treats. Vast amounts of people go to stores to enjoy these things, even if they don't plan to buy. However, one taste of those chocolates and I bought.

See, it worked!

But back to the sour puss folks who could barely contain their lack of energy when dealing with customers this year.

Above all, don't:

1. Treat your customers as if they are trying to cheat you. If a customer is returning items multiple times because the product continually breaks on first use, it's not because the person is trying to steal or cheat your company. And if an order showed up with all the wrong items in the box, that is your company's problem, not the customer's.

2. Act like it's a huge hassle that they are calling and communicating with you. Isn't that what customer service is for? To let your company know they didn't fulfill the conditions of the sale? Customers aren't really calling to shoot the breeze or find out that your customer service team is having a really terrible holiday season. It's not their fault your company can't complete a simple sales transaction without something going haywire. Perhaps that's why your sales are going down the drain.

3. Not offer them some sort of freebie or promo for their trouble. So, you ask the customer to wait thirty minutes on hold while you figure out what your company did wrong and don't even say "thank you, I'm sorry for the long wait" or "here's a 20% coupon toward your next purchase"? Why would they ever want to do business with you again?

4. Second-guess their request and continue to ask them the same questions several times. Just because a customer is asking you for help because they are confused about your return policy is no excuse to treat them like an idiot. And if they give you clear instructions about what they originally ordered, why are your customer service reps still asking "why," "what," and "when"?

5. Ignore their upset feelings and just act like an automaton with no feelings or empathy. If your customer is upset because your company messed up on their order, it is on your customer service rep to make that customer feel listened to, cared for, and supported. If you are callous and unfeeling, it is perfectly acceptable for your customers to leave and never do business with you again.

There are many outstanding customer service folks out there this holiday season. We've met them, spoken with them, and been helped by them. It's a shame that businesses let this behavior continue, especially when a little bit of customer service will go a very long way. Perhaps even gain you customers in a dire economy. Think about it. Why let one bad apple spoil your barrel?