Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council at Forbes.com June 29, 2017
So often in preparing to communicate, we make a fundamental mistake: we enter a messenger mindset. Rather than establishing a clear goal and aiming to persuade our audience, we set out to inform, to update, to share. On this path, we end our inquiry with a period: here’s what I need to say, full stop.
But what happens if, instead of a period, we use a comma and a question mark? Here’s what I need to say, what will my audience think of it? What do I want them to think? How do I use my skills to persuade them? What is the larger context in which this meeting is taking place?
To communicate, we need empathy. We need to understand our audience and be aware of their goals and constraints. We need to be able to understand that communication isn’t a one-way flow of information, but a dialogue — conceptually, if not literally. We need curiosity: What can your audience tell you about themselves? And how difficult is the challenge facing us? After all, there’s a difference between asking someone to support a small change that requires little investment and an incremental shift in mindset and asking for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in budget and a major change in strategy.
And we need to know ourselves. How equipped are we to meet the challenge before us? Over years of coaching executive clients, I’ve learned that skill in communication isn’t a binary of good and bad, and it isn’t an immutable trait. It is a path of skill accumulation, and, with practice, anyone can move up the path toward the highest levels. At my company, we break down these skill levels into three general groups:
- Good communicators, or what my company calls those at Professional Standard, deliver information in a clear, concise way.
- Very good communicators, or those at Leadership Standard, forge a connection with their audience and makes them care.
- The best communicators, Executive Standard, not only make their audience care, but compel them to act. These speakers can consistently persuade their audience to give them that budget, to change that strategy, to look at that problem in a new way.
So how do you break out of the messenger mindset and set off down the path of persuasive speaking?
First, make sure that you are approaching communication with the right attitude — one that recognizes that every communication is an opportunity to persuade.
Second, make a commitment to the process. Take the time you need to practice your skills as a speaker, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.
Third, seek out learning opportunities. Volunteer to speak in meetings. Ask for feedback (and give feedback in return). Find a mentor.
The challenge might seem overwhelming. But, like any complex skill, effective communication isn’t monolithic; it is an accumulation of smaller skill sets, each of which can be understood and practiced on its own.