Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council.
In goal-oriented communication, few things are more important than creating a sense of connection between yourself and the person you are speaking to. When you are in the audience, what type of speaker captures your attention more: the one who speaks to your concerns, your needs and your circumstances, or the one who speaks in generalizations, addresses broad concerns that may have nothing to do with your situation and seems to have little idea who you are or what you might be interested in?
Of course, the answer is the first speaker. Yet when we communicate, we all too often are tempted to settle for the off-the-shelf presentation, with a generic slide deck and a script that stays the same from room to room. In a business climate in which we all have too much on our plates, it’s the easy way out. But a few minutes spent cultivating awareness in four key areas — self, audience, situation and message — will dramatically increase the effectiveness of your communication and heighten your connection with any audience.
I don’t like to prescribe a specific order for awareness, but this one tends to set the stage for the others because emotional intelligence begins with being aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Without emotional intelligence, every other type of awareness is more difficult.
As you think about your communication goals, ask yourself some questions: How do I interact with others? Do I ask questions? Do I listen? Do I tend to interrupt? Do I project confidence and credibility? When we are aware of our weaknesses — say, a tendency to equivocate or a lack of active listening skills — we can find ways to compensate or eliminate them; when we know our strengths — perhaps genuine curiosity and strong expertise — we can build on them. And once we have an idea how other people perceive us, we can start to think about how we can leverage that perception into a connection.
With all the research tools at our fingertips, this might be the area in which a lack of awareness is most baffling. Don’t let the first “getting-to-know-you” meeting lull you into a sense of complacency. Use LinkedIn or other networking sites to do your research. How long has your client been at his company? How long has she worked in the industry? What school did he go to, and what was his degree in? Did she serve in the military?
Let’s be clear — this isn’t profiling. None of this information should lead to firm conclusions. But it can open doors of discovery. If someone has a degree in accounting, I can guess that we’ll spend our first few minutes together talking about our business case. If another person has worked for 30 years in marketing, I know she’ll be drawn toward our marketing plan. These kinds of soft assumptions give us a place to start building a connection. That doesn’t mean that you exclude marketing from your proposal to an accounting client, or eliminate the business case when you approach a client with a marketing background. But it does give you a chance to craft a narrative that speaks to their interests and experience.
Several years ago, my company did robust business coaching executives in the oil and gas industry. At some point, those clients stopped booking events. Without situational awareness, we might have actively, even aggressively, pursued these fall-away clients — and soured the relationship. But we were aware that oil had fallen to $40 a barrel. These companies didn’t have the money to spend on communication training anymore. So we backed off — and now, if the situation changes, we still have a relationship to build on.
The key to being situationally aware is to remember it is not the same as audience awareness. You might know your audience very well, have a great sense of their process and what questions they tend to ask. But if their situation has changed – maybe they have a new boss, or they’ve lost a big client, or they face a merger — that process and those questions may change. They may not be as receptive to a new idea. Take stock of your audience’s environment so that you can anticipate their state of mind.
Once we understand ourselves, our audience and our mutual environment, finding an effective message comes more naturally. Our questions here become: What is my key message? Is it simple and memorable? Do my key points speak to my audience? Do they address my audience’s concerns and pressures? For this day and this audience, is my goal achievable? The answers to these questions form the spine of any persuasive communication.
Focusing on these four areas of awareness are the first step in becoming a more confident, connected communicator. And with curiosity and mindfulness, anyone can become a better speaker, a better listener and a more persuasive communicator.
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