The sixth deadly communication sin is ill-timing, that is, saying the right thing at the wrong time.
I'm ashamed to confess that in getting out this blog and the Friday Briefing, I nearly fell into a diabolical trap set for me by myself. A narrow escape, but for the benefit of my fellow communicators, I’ll come clean.
It was like this. Over the last week I’ve spent most of my spare moments crafting the most insightful, entertaining, witty and educational piece about the communication foibles of a certain personage. It was entitled “Alternative Facts-- Alice in the White House”. You can see where that was going. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was clever and brilliant.
But as the week progressed, the utterances spewed by His Orangeness became even weirder and there were sinister undertones that late in the week led me to re-think my thesis.
But, dang, the draft was really pretty amazing in terms of style, with catchy phrases, tone and tenor, if I must say so myself. In my ear a voice whispered, “They won’t care! They’ll laugh and think you’re a reincarnation of Shakespeare! It was brilliant. You’ve worked ever so hard. Nobody will question the gaps. Just send it out. Send it! Send! Yes..... Send......”
If you’ve ever suffered temptation you know there is never evil cackling in the background, no pungent odour of smouldering brimstone-- just sweet reason and flattery.
But you also know that if you want to practice what you preach, you need to suck it up and do the right thing. The draft went in the trash. I do need to practice what I preach.
In effective communication timeliness is everything. Some wag put it this way: “The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Getting the cheese too soon, even slightly too soon, was deadly for the first mouse. Saying the right thing at the wrong time is just as deadly for your message. And perhaps your reputation.
Why is this so? Simple. Successful communication is all about listener readiness.
Think about the hunter and the duck. If you expect to get the duck, you need to aim a little ahead of it so that the bullet and the duck arrive at the same place at the same time. Otherwise the duck flies on to quack another day.
The same calculus applies to effective communication. You have to be aware of what is happening in the minds and hearts of your listeners. You need your words to arrive precisely when the listeners are intellectually and emotionally prepared for them. If they arrive before listeners are ready to buy in, your words are wasted. If they arrive too late, you have stale inventory.
Robert Cialdini in his new work Pre-Suasion drills down into the process of ensuring that the listener is ready for your message. He cites studies that show, for instance, buyers are five times more receptive to your sales pitch if you ask them what they don’t like about their current provider, rather than asking them what they do like. It’s about understanding what drives your audience, about being smart in setting the table.
Public speakers know that one of their key challenges is timing, and nowhere is this more important than at the opening. Grab attention right out of the gate and get down to business quickly. Be certain the audience is on board with you before you begin to deliver the important stuff. Some helpful tips can be found in my December 10, 2016 blog “What Great Communicators (and Leaders) Can Learn from a Border Collie”.
Timing is equally critical when ending a talk. Once, when I was a young lawyer I delivered a long and passionate elocution at a sentencing hearing. After I sat down, quite pleased with myself, the grizzled old duty sergeant leaned over and growled in my ear in his best Vanier French,“Young man, you need to know when to shut up.” Best advice ever.
Above all, understand that successful communication speaks to the heart before it speaks to the mind. Appreciate the importance of allowing the listener time to come on board emotionally before you try to make your intellectual point. If you deliver a message before the listener is ready, it is not only going to wasted, but may actually create opposition or resentment. Similarly, speaking before you have listened honestly and openly is the verbal equivalent of carpet bombing-- great kill ratio, but unlikely to win hearts and minds.
Finally, keep in mind that sometimes the best timing is no timing. Sometimes its best to say nothing. There may be nothing useful for you to say and your conversation partner just needs to vent. Until you fully understand what they are saying, and why, if you simply deliver a pat answer you will do nothing but alienate. Unless you understand the situation, keep your silence. There will be another day.
In music, golf, chemistry and baking bread -- nearly any human enterprise-- timing is of the essence. Effective communication is no different. In your development of more persuasive communication, make timing a matter of strategic consideration. The message may be powerful, but always ask “Is this the right time?”
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.