So often in preparing to communicate, we make a fundamental mistake: we enter what my colleagues and I refer to as “the messenger mindset.” What this means is that our entire approach to communication is about the “delivery of information.” Rather than communicating based on goals and desired outcomes, we set out to inform, to update, to share. In other words, we prepare for our communication in declarative terms: here’s what I need to say… full stop, ending with a period.
But what happens if, instead of preparing “in periods”, we prepare “in commas and question marks”? Instead of simply stating here’s what I need to say, we add in a little more… and how do I think my audience will react to it? Furthermore, what do I want them to think? How do I use my skills to persuade them?
To communicate effectively and powerfully, 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 communication skill 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 cause them to care.
- The best communicators, those at the 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, build your preparation around a series of questions that allow you to understand, or at least try to understand, what others in the conversation might be thinking, feeling, or interpreting.
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.
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