Since reading The Elements of Eloquence, I am seeing tropes everywhere. Unfortunately, most people seem to go for the low-hanging fruit (Boo, badly overused metaphor!), especially in the titles of blog posts.
Numbered lists are probably the most common, for three reasons:
- Someone did some research once and found that they lead to more click-throughs, so there’s at least a pseudo-scientific basis for this one.
- They give the impression of completeness.
- They promise a quick and easy read.
Alliteration is a cheap way to win one’s attention. It’s easy, and personally pleasing to peoples’ ears, even when it results in rotten writing.
Why do rhetorical questions get our attention? Is it because they spark curiosity? Do they exploit our continuous search for meaning in a chaotic world? Who knows?
I get that your product contains extremely advanced technology. I also get that you know more about the technology than anyone in the room.
But I don’t care.
I don’t care because I can’t understand half of what you’ve said; you’re not speaking my language. I don’t speak Geek; I speak the language of “So What?”
I’m not stupid, and I probably could understand if I wanted to make the effort, but you haven’t told me why I should care. You haven’t told me what problem you’re going to solve for me, or how you’re going to make my life better. In fact, you still haven’t shown me that you know enough about me and my company to be able to tell me.
I don’t care because I can’t quite wrap my mind around those multisyllabic generalities you’re throwing out. What’s it like? How does it relate to something I already know? Make it concrete so I can see what you mean.
And those acronyms you’re throwing around? I have no clue what they mean but I’m definitely not going to embarrass myself by admitting it to you. It’s easier just to tune you out.
I get the fact that you’re passionate about your technology, and I applaud that. But if you love your product so much, do it a favor and tell the world about it in plain English. We don’t all speak Geek
Lean manufacturing is a production philosophy that seeks to deliver maximum value to customers with minimum waste. Companies using it have achieved huge increases in productivity and customer satisfaction.
I contend that you could achieve similar benefits by applying the lean approach to your communications. This article introduces the concept at a high level and subsequent articles will drill deeper into the specific detail.
What are the key concepts of lean and how do they apply to communication?
Value. In lean, value is defined as anything the customer is willing to pay for. By analogy, value in communications is defined as any information that your listener wants or needs to hear. Both approaches require a deep understanding of the end customer.
Waste. Any work or input that does not directly contribute to value. In communication, it may include unnecessary explanation or words, irrelevant details, unclear or ambiguous terminology, and inaccurate data.
Making work visible. Having a clear view of the work process and status helps to expose value creation and waste reduction opportunities. In communication, a clear structure for your message makes your logic easier to follow—for yourself as you think of it, and for your listeners as they hear it.
Pull. Production is driven by the customer’s specific need. For communication, this means two things. First, you prepare by anticipating the listener’s questions and their likely reaction to your message. Second, you don’t just get to the point quickly—you begin with the point and add detail as needed by the listener.
We will look at the specifics of each lean communication concept in individual articles next week
The two aggressive males face each other, each puffing himself up, roaring and stamping the ground. As they get ready to fight for the prize, each is probably secretly hoping to intimidate the other and avoid a costly fight.
You can see this on a nature show any time, or just check out your boardroom.
Research has shown what most of us take for granted, that confident speakers are perceived as more credible and more persuasive. Listeners are very adept at picking up subtle signals that indicate how much confidence speakers have in their message, and gravitate toward the leadership of people who sound confident.
People respond to confidence. Confidence is credible. Confidence is a survival mechanism. Lacking any objective measure to gauge someone’s competence, we read clues in their behavior. When we see them acting confident we assume they have a good reason to be, and we are less likely to challenge or test their confidence. So confidence can become a self-fulfilling factor in credibility.
How do you achieve the confidence that leads to max cred?
In one sense, this article is almost unnecessary, because the easiest way to show confidence is to feel it, and if you’ve lined up the max cred factors discussed in this series: credentials, content and clarity, there is a good chance you will feel it, and it will show through naturally.
But the mind is funny sometimes, and there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to cash the confidence check you’ve earned. You can have every reason in the world to be confident and still have your knees shake and your voice quake when presenting your idea; maybe you’re in front of a large group, or the stakes are so high that doubt seeps in anyway. If that’s the case, you can take a lesson from those people who are able to project confidence even when they have every reason to be extremely nervous.
If you have the first three elements in place, you can add even more power by consciously cultivating confident speaking habits and behaviors. You have two principal tools to express confidence for maximum credibility: your body and your words.
A Confident Body
Stand up straight and take up space. Even the animals on the nature shows know this one. Make yourself look taller and act as if you own the space around you, and you will look more confident. Interestingly, research has shown that it works in both directions, so you can actually “fake it ‘til you make it”. It’s called embodied cognition: when you act confident, your brain infers that you must have a reason for it, and adjusts its attitude accordingly.
Look people in the eye. In the movie, “Get Shorty”, mob enforcer Chili Palmer says, “Look at me” when he wants to make a point. By forcing his listener to look him directly in the eye, he establishes a dominant position. You won’t want to take it so far in most of your communications, but you should maintain frequent and direct eye contact with your listeners. Although it’s not always true, we believe in Western culture that people who don’t look at us when they speak are concealing something.
Your speaking habits can insidiously subtract power from the persuasiveness of your message, without you being aware of them. You may unconsciously undermine your own message by expressing it tentatively, or by using hedges and hesitations.
Tentative expression. Confidence is largely about relative status between individuals, and we often betray our sense of where we stand by the words we choose. We may “mitigate” our speech by saying things indirectly to avoid upsetting the higher-status person. In a famous example, Malcolm Gladwell provided the transcript of a cockpit communication in which a co-pilot danced around the fact that he was concerned about ice buildup on the wings—leading to the fatal Air Florida crash in Washington DC in 1982. Mitigated speech isn’t always bad—if you never use it you can come across as domineering—but it can be dangerous when your message absolutely and positively has to get through.
Power leaks. Power leaks sap the strength of our words. They include hedges such as “I think that…” and “kinda”; filler words such as “um” and “like”; and the now almost-ubiquitous-among-the-young “uptalk”, in which you end your sentences with a rising intonation so that everything you say sounds like a question.
If you use any of these forms of powerless speech, they’re probably deeply ingrained into the way you normally talk, so it’s not an easy matter to change. The first step is to practice awareness, so that you notice when you catch yourself using them. The best way is to enlist your peers to help; ask them to let you know when they hear them.
When to “dial it down”
It’s possible to overdo the confidence thing. You don’t always have to be forceful and direct to be persuasive; we all know people who are very persuasive and soft-spoken at the same time. Quiet speech may actually convey confidence by showing that someone has enough faith in themselves or in their stance on an issue that they don’t feel the need to force it across. In such cases, being too forceful may make you look defensive or shrill. It may also reduce your credibility, as indicated by the results of a study of jurors who rated the credibility of experts.
 It’s not true in all cultures, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
 “Jurors Reveal Which Experts They’re Most Apt to Believe,” Psychiatric News, June 19, 2009.