Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council at Forbes.com July 25, 2017
For years, I’ve been intimately involved in the process of training Olympic-level athletes for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program, both as an athlete myself and eventually as Chairman and Team Leader for all of U.S. Olympic Sailing. At that level of competition, there is little room for error — and there is risk at every step of the process.
An athlete or team might go out to practice for hours every day and never get to the world-class level they seek. But another crew could practice for an hour one day; 10 hours the next; three hours after that — and they might win a gold medal. Why? Because that second crew is practicing one single maneuver at a time, each day, until a series of moves is perfected. They practice one element of the race on one day, a different one the next, and a different one the day after that. They have broken the race down into a series of smaller pieces, or skills. These small proficiencies, when put back together, are combined into a complete toolbox of skills.
Learning how to become an expert in anything complex — mastering an athletic skill, inhabiting a character in a play or communicating precisely — requires breaking the whole down into its component parts. As you perfect each small piece, you can begin building back up into the complex whole.
It’s easy to tell someone they need to deliver a clear, comprehensive presentation. The how of it is both harder, because it requires work and thoughtful preparation, and more achievable, because becoming clear and persuasive only requires focusing on a few key skills.
The keyword here is focus. We’ve all become used to multitasking, but when it comes to persuasion, focus and thoughtfulness are key, particularly in the first skill on the path to persuasive communication: assessment.
Focus can also mean listen. You should already be thinking about awareness: about yourself, about your audience, about your environment, about your message. You should be cultivating curiosity and empathy. Listening is key both to this awareness and to gathering the knowledge that is key to being able to assess.
It’s important to remember that listening is not a passive activity. It’s not just letting someone else talk while you figure out what you are going to say next. It’s an active, engaged mode, in which you are truly focused on comprehending and remembering what you are hearing.
My company has broken this down into what we call the three R’s of active listening:
• Respect: Before you start the meeting or take the call, eliminate all possible distractions. Shut your laptop. Mute your cellphone. Close your email. Respect the opportunity you have before you to truly listen.
• Remember: During the meeting or call, use techniques to help retain information as it is delivered. This might mean taking good notes. It might mean engaging in some dialogue during the meeting so that you are engaged and more likely to retain the information. It might mean asking a question for clarification.
• Review: After the meeting or call is over, spend a few minutes to review decisions, important information and next steps. Immediately reiterating this information, whether verbally to your colleagues or by writing up a synopsis for yourself, will help keep it fresh in your mind.
Active listening leads directly into your assessment. With the intelligence you’ve gathered from carefully listening, you can assess the communication opportunity before you.
Why do you need to assess? We’ve developed a metaphor for successful communication: The Leverage Mindset. In the same way that you can use leverage to lift objects much heavier than you could typically pick up on your own, you can use leverage to move your audience to action. But to build an effective lever, you have to be able to honestly and accurately assess all the elements that affect its power.
In our metaphor, your understanding of the audience is the fulcrum, your message is the lever and your credibility is the force you exert at your end of the lever. Do you know your audience well enough? If not, move the fulcrum. Is your message simple and clear and valuable enough? If not, lengthen your lever. And do you have enough credibility? If not, focus on building more.
The first skill of assessment is really about information-gathering and analysis. With this tool in hand, you’ll be able to move on to crafting an effective, audience-specific message.