The Ecology of Referrals
Way back in the last century when I attended Ottawa Teachers’ College, Professor Stewart taught Classroom Management. He had a handful of golden rules, the most important of which was “You must always be in control of your classroom. Love works best, but if you can’t make them love you, make them fear you. Nothing else works.”
A little draconian for 21st Century sensibilities, but at its core was the truth that you can’t communicate if your listener isn’t paying attention.
Nothing has changed. In fact, in today’s multi-tasking world, where most of us have the attention span of a gnat, the rule is even more important. If the listener is not with you, you're wasting your breath.
Consider the recent US election. One candidate had a sensible, coherent platform, but she was boring. She never even tried to get your attention, she just kind of assumed you were listening. Bet you can't even remember her slogan.
The other guy had a sketchy platform and a sketchy background, but he electrified his base. He was outrageous, and of course you remember his slogan.
So, what's the takeaway from all of this? Very simply, if you want to be an effective communicator, you need to get and keep your listeners' attention.
(More in future editions of the Friday Briefing.)
Do you like the taste of crow? I don’t.
As professionals, we write and speak not only to communicate data, but to advance ideas and positions.
While this is obviously the case for lawyers and sales professionals, it might seem less so for accountants, engineers and others who, at first glance, would seem to be completely data-centric. Nothing could be further from the truth!
You become a professional by learning knowledge and skills which you apply to solve problems. Sometimes the solution seems routine-- for example, tying a suture, filing a tax return or closing a real estate transaction. More often than not, though, the solution is novel, at least in the particular setting. At that point, you need to "sell" the solution to the client, or to colleagues, or both.
Regretfully, many of us have a tendency to blurt ideas free-form in the fervent hope that a diligent listener will stumble on something useful. You may as well throw darts blindfolded.
In law, for instance, nothing is more painful than watching a courtroom lawyer drone on in hopes that the judge will rescue him, whether through pity or exasperation. That rarely happens-- more often it is, "Ms. Tiddlewinkle, I have no idea where you're going with this. Do you have a point?"
Communication which convinces is not a matter of luck-- it happens by design. There are principles, and they apply equally to written and oral communication:
1. Above all else, you need to be very clear about your point. If it’s not clear to you, you’re not ready.
2. You need to understand who your reader (listener) is, and why your point should matter to him or her. Until that is clear to you, you’re not ready.
3 You need to understand the reasons why your reader might favour or disfavour your point. Until that is clear to you, you’re not ready.
4. You need to understand why your point is an improvement over their current understanding. If you can’t answer this, don’t start the discussion.
5. You need to understand the reasons why the reader might resist your point for social, political, economic, reputational or other reasons, even when they know your point is valid and persuasive. Never overlook this possibility.
6. Don’t force listeners to figure out how to move from their idea to your idea. You need to build the bridge for them and walk them across.
7. Protect your listeners' pride-- if you are asking them to change opinions, especially publicly, your job is to enable them to frame the change as their idea.
8. Write out the decision you want the listener to make, and why he will make it. Not only is this an acid test for your pitch, but it makes it easy for the reader, once persuaded, to articulate why they have come to this decision. Many successful lawyers write the ruling they hope the judge will give, then work backwards.
9. Throughout the process, never take your eye off the fact that this is all about the client, not you. Your job is to solve their problem and make them look good, not for you to grandstand. If a little glory splashes off on you, great, but that's a lucky by-product.
If there is a single key to powerful communication, it’s integrity. Unsurprisingly, integrity is also an essential of leadership.
The internet is full of all kinds of “tips and tricks” and even smart apps to help you communicate better, or to be more influential. These are wonderful, to a point, but in the end, it’s rather like putting lipstick on a pig-- the pig may feel prettier and the lipstick guy will make some money, but you still have a pig.
"Tips and tricks" won't do it-- to become a powerful communicator, you need to get down to basics, and the basics have to do with character. Very simply, if you don’t have integrity, you will never be a powerful communicator, nor a leader worth following.
Why is this?
Let’s consider what “integrity” really means. The word derives from “integer” which comes to us from the Latin, meaning “untouched”. From the idea of “untouched” come concepts of purity, comprehensiveness, entirety, and completeness.
We speak, for instance, of the structural integrity of a building and the financial integrity of a bank. By that we mean they possess no flaws which would lead to a collapse under stress. They “have it together”, if you like.
So, integrity is more than just not lying about the cherry tree-- it’s about the stuff of which you’re made, it’s about wholeness of the person, it’s about consistency over time. This kind of integrity is what gives you credibility, and credibility, ultimately, gives you the power to move mountains.
This explains why leaders such as Gandhi, Thatcher, Mandela, Lincoln, and Churchill were able to achieve so much-- their words flowed from deep-rooted integrity. They weren’t constantly re-calibrating and testing the wind, because true leaders don’t respond to events, they make events. We listen to leaders and follow them because of this kind of integrity.
We need more men and women of integrity. Will you be one?
(No Canadians were on the list because we're saving the very special Sir John A. Macdonald for the Friday morning before Canada Day. Watch for him!)
Large entities need to communicate, internally and externally. Some do it dismally. A few others scrape by. Most do it adequately. And a very few do it beautifully.
Earlier this week I had an opportunity to see “beautiful”-- the magic of corporate symphony, and I got to see it in a very personal way-- not as speaker or instructor, but as a patient. Here’s how it happened.
There’s nothing unusual about guys my age getting up in the middle of the night. The unusual was that my large black dog had decided to sleep in the middle of the bedroom floor. It was not a good decision for either of us. You know where this story is going.
Forty years ago I might have performed the perfect ukemi. Even then I’d never practiced ukemi in the pitch black, trying not to crash on my elderly friend. The landing was graceless, the ankle was shattered, and I got to spend the next day at the Ottawa General Hospital.
Emergency intake, triage, curtained cubicles-- the stuff of pain, fear and interminable waits. The place should be grim. But at the Ottawa Hospital it wasn’t grim. The message I got from first to last was “We’ve got you-- don’t you worry!”
To be candid, I’ve been part of the Ottawa Hospital Foundation for years, and I know all about the Hospital’s Core Values: (1) Compassion; (2) A Commitment to Quality; (3) Working Together; (4) Respect for the Individual. But you and I know that everybody has Core Values and Mission Statements which sound just like that. Mostly they’re hollow words. The trick is to make them actually work.
I’m not privy to how the hospital has accomplished this marvel of communication, but let me tell you what I saw, and how I think it happened.
In layman’s terms, this is what I experienced:
1. They were ready for me. Nobody was trying to figure stuff out on the fly. It was obvious that considerable thought had gone into intake forms, questions, procedure, decision making, and ensuring that front-line people exuded confidence, compassion and competence.
2. They were ready for a lot more than a guy with a fractured ankle. Everywhere I looked I could see kits and machines and computers and purposeful staffers, and I saw them dealing calmly with blood and fear and barf and crises. And yet it wasn’t complacent competence, they were demonstrably compassionate.
3. Not only were they a team who knew how to work together, but they were clearly a team who enjoyed working together. They kidded each other, spelled each other off, and showed in many little ways that they cared for one another. They showed that they were just "good people".
4. They learned from one another. Not only the senior doctors and the residents, but on more than one occasion I observed one staffer show another a short-cut or better way to perform even such a menial task as cleaning up plaster.
5. They respected one another. Surgeons treated orderlies as important team members. Language alternated between English and French as a sign of courtesy, yet without risking miscomprehension.
6. Every staff member was empowered. It was a cleaner who noticed that I was shivering and got me a warm blanket. She will remain my hero.
I could go on, but what I want to share is that a large organization can be a symphony of internal and external communication on many levels. And what I also want to share is that stuff like this doesn’t just happen or fall out of the sky.
Communication symphonies happen because somebody has, with clear vision, patience and determination focused on the big picture as well as all the little things. Somebody has cared and insisted that things be done right, and if not, corrected and done again. Somebody has stayed with it until all the doctors and orderlies and nurses and technicians and accountants and IT professionals and plumbers and painters who make up the Ottawa Hospital take pleasure in being the absolute best they can be. And Somebody has cultivated an environment where everyone, regardless of rank, communicates with internal and external participants in a clear, understandable, useful, encouraging, courteous and engaging fashion.
Frankly, that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.
And when you’re hurting and scared and sitting in a cubicle, you’re really glad somebody made it all work. Thank-you, “Somebody”!
There are easily fifty thousand religious groups in the world, most of whom claim to have the inside track to Heaven. Their adherents insist you join them. Ditto for thousands of political parties. Inevitably, some of their representatives (Believers and proselytizers) will accost you with a view to recruiting you. Mostly, this is just background noise.
But when the Believer is someone important to you-- a child, a spouse, a brother, a work colleague, an old friend, you can’t just blow them off. If the relationship is to be preserved, it’s going to be up to you.
First, understand your very different perspectives. The Believer’s "Big Picture" and your "Big Picture" are radically different. To the Believer, it’s “Get on board or go to Hell”, but you, in good conscience can’t see it that way. The Believer is prepared to gamble the relationship. You, on the other hand, want to preserve it. If the relationship is going to be preserved, there’s only one person who can do it-- you!
Frankly, there are no snappy answers, but there are a few principles which may help:
1. Make it clear that in this conversation you are the host, they are the guest.
2. Respect them: the person opposite shares 99.9% of your DNA. But for the grace of God, you might be in their shoes.
3. Respect their dream. To you, their message may be abhorrent. To them it has become central to their identity. If you show disdain, you will lose them.
4. Show humility. There is a possibility you are not the smartest person on the planet. Be prepared to listen, respectfully.
5. Discern why this conversation is happening. Are they earning “points”, or are they genuinely concerned for your welfare? Do they really understand what they’re selling, or are they playing a recording? Be patient--remember, you are the host.
6. If they are genuinely concerned for your welfare, express your gratitude. This is not the same as agreeing with their position.
7. Hear them out before you respond. Don’t be in a rush to counterattack.
8. Questions are better than attack-- far better to leave them doubting themselves than to provide evidence that you are an agent of Satan.
9. Understand their fear-- if they were to begin to question their own position, in their logic, they may be risking Hell. Don’t take that lightly-- would you?
10. Once you have patiently and courteously heard them out, ask “Is there anything else?” Be sure they have “said their piece”.
11. End the conversation cordially, let them go away and reflect.
12. Make sure they understand that you love them because of who they are, regardless of what they believe.
If you do this, it will likely end well.
Go in peace!
Hope this helps! Send to a friend.
You’re under the gun, but your brain is paralyzed. Mush. Frozen. Your expertise is a myth, your talents are on vacation, and creative juices have dried to dust.
You sit staring at the screen, immobilized by the pending train-wreck. You want to pull the covers over your head and cry yourself to sleep.
That was exactly me when I sat down to write this very Friday Briefing. I couldn’t even think of a topic! That’s the worst kind of Writer’s Cramp.
And then I realized that was my topic!
Here’s what works for me every time I suffer Writer’s Cramp:
1. Focus and prioritize. Allow no distractions.
2. Commit the time to get this done, whatever it takes. Allow yourself a short health break every hour, but permit no escape hatches.
3. Sketch a simple outline of exactly what you need to deliver. Any style that works for you is fine, but you need to get a visual of the job.
4. Start somewhere. Anywhere. If your work product must be persuasive, such as a legal pleading, write out your concluding paragraphs. In many cases, a serviceable title will get you going. Just start. The trick is to force yourself to get moving.
5. Be patient. Initially, you won’t care much for your developing work product, but as you keep grinding away you will begin to like parts of it.
6. Play with these good bits – move them around, fill in between them, revise them, write sequels and prequels. Soon you will see a cohesive entirety emerging. There is a magic to this-- it will inject the enthusiasm that was missing.
7. As you realize that you are out of the woods you will be enormously tempted to put the piece aside to attend to other important matters. Don’t. You will lose the momentum. Continue to fill and move and cut and revise and polish until you have a work product with which you could go public.
8. Now, if time allows, put your finished product aside and give yourself a good break, or even come back to it the next day. Fresh eyes will take your work from good to great. If those fresh eyes belong to someone else, so much the better!
Hope this helps! Send to a friend.
(Side note: when you are removing bits, don’t delete them; rather cut and paste them at the end of your work. They may come in handy.)
On a related productivity note, you may find my blog “A Toad Day” helpful. It’s also on LinkedIn.
Working together, we can make you a powerful communicator!
Does voice mail drive you crazy? Me, too. I hate it. Everything about it. I hate leaving it. I hate getting it.
In thirty-six years as a lawyer, I’ve heard about twenty good voice messages, and three zillion bad ones, including dogs barking, throat clearing, restaurant noise, the lion cage at the zoo, and what was probably a domestic altercation. These ones all mercifully hung up without any identifying information.
But most of them go something like this: "Uhhhh, Norm? Oh, um, I guess you're not there! Um, oh, well, I just thought I'd call, but you're not there. Um. Oh. Well, um, oh, uh, yes, well, yeah. Oh, yes, um, uh, call me if you have a chance. Bye."
I'd love to call them back and tell them they sounded like an idiot, but I don't do that for three reasons. First, I'm a nice guy. Second, they didn't identify themselves or leave a phone number.
But third, mostly because it would be an act of great hypocrisy. I've left far more than my share of babbling gibberish. The telephone was mature technology before I was born, yet the thing still terrifies me, especially when there's no live voice on the other end.
But here's the thing: we all know that voice mail happens-- it's an inconvenient truth of professional life. And, as professionals, we don't want to sound foolish.
So, what's to be done? Well, the trick is to be ready for the times you get a machine. Here are a few helpful tips:
1. Be emotionally and intellectually ready for the eventuality. Seriously!
2. It's not impolite or un-Canadian to exit without leaving a message.
3. If you do leave a message, speak clearly and pleasantly.
4. Visualize the listener and be engaging.
5. At the outset, announce yourself and leave your phone number. Twice.
6. Give a succinct reason for your call, not your life story.
7. To increase your chance of a response, leave a hook.
8. Repeat your name and phone number, clearly and strongly.
9. Sign off in a friendly and appropriate manner.
If voice mail absolutely terrifies you, keep a little script near your phone, something like this, "Hi, (the other person), this is (your name). Sorry I missed you. I'd be really grateful if you could get back to me at (your number) at your earliest. I just wanted to follow up on ___________________________. I have a few questions. Again, it's (your name), (your number). Looking forward to hearing from you!"
If your listener trusts you, your impact is multiplied. To be a powerful communicator you need to know how to earn trust.
There are eight keys:
1. Tribal solidarity: Are you part of the listeners’ community, or are you a stranger? If you speak the language of their group, you have the advantage. If your listeners are strangers, take time to identify shared values and experiences.
2. Consistency with your earlier story: Listeners have memories. If what you say today doesn’t square with what you said yesterday, you have a credibility problem.
3. Consistency with other witnesses: If your story doesn’t mesh with what the listener has already heard (or will soon hear) from others, don’t ignore this, and don’t dance around. Explain the difference and respectfully show why your story is preferable.
4. Consistency with other evidence: You need to understand what the listener has already experienced and learned about the subject matter, and you need to treat his body of knowledge and experience with respect. If you plan to build on that, understand how you will make your new value proposition. If you are going to contradict what the listener has already accepted as gospel, you had better have a good plan. If you dodge the issue, the listener will assume the worst.
5. Willingness to speak against self-interest: Nothing earns credibility like being honest about information which harms your own position. Obviously you’ll do this intelligently and as part of the bigger picture, and you’ll show how your proposition is the better one. But you won’t pretend that there’s not another proposition. Stay in control of the conversation-- it’s possible to be strong, confident and candid all at the same time.
6. Body language: Do you trust people who won’t look you in the eye, who babble like fools, or who slump and mumble? Of course you don’t. So, don’t be that guy! Stand up, speak up, look ‘em in the eye-- if you want to be believed, look believable.
7. The company you keep: If your listeners don’t like your friends, they probably won’t like you or your message, either. If you know that there is distrust between your audience and your own community, deal with it right up front, and do this with the utmost respect. Speak from your heart to their heart. If you show respect and courage, you will earn the right to be heard.
8. The novelty of the proposition: Perhaps your proposition is “old hat” to you, but if it is brand new to your listeners, expect scepticism. Don’t hate their scepticism but understand it, respect it, and earn your way around it.
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Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.