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.
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.