Bad communication is like a tax we all collect from each other continuously, every year, and every day.
What can you remember from that hour long presentation you heard this morning? Can you name three real takeaways that have stuck from all the time you spent in meetings and presentations last week?
Let’s face it in business and commerce right now we have a communications crisis – we tie each other up in long meetings, presentations and reports with very little memorable to show for it.
But there is a better way. As Andy Bounds (one of the GOATS of business communications) has said many times, elevating your communication skills must be one of the easiest ways to stand out in the commercial world, and the amazing thing is, it really is not that hard. The amazing thing is why more people don’t focus more on this, given the gains up for grabs. We can make messages stickier and more memorable, and yes, even fun.
I think we can make our communications twice as memorable, twice as interesting, and take up half the time. Wouldn’t that be something – imagine how many hours could be saved. Maybe we could even work a 4 day week. How?
Three key ideas are at the heart of this:
- Start from the mindset of “no-one wants to read your sh*t”
- Work on making messages sticky
- Tell better stories
Lets dig into each of these a little
- No-one wants to read your sh*t
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.Steven Pressfield (read more of Steven’s esxcellent work here)
In other words, we (as the writer) must focus. We must reduce our message to the simplest, clearest form. We must make it interesting, or fun or sexy. And above all we must focus on the beginning – the first paragraph, first sentence, first word even. We need to offer the reader something. Grab their attention, justify the substantial investment they will make to continue reading.
2. Make messages stick
Why do some messages stick around for millenia and others barely register? Think the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the Good Samaritan or the Pied Piper. Sadly, unworthy or plain false messages can easily be made sticky (here’s an example). However there are some simple steps that can be followed to make any message stickier, and we would do a massive favour to ourselves, our colleagues and all our business associates if we paid a little more attention to just a few of them:
- Cold open. Something unepected, maybe doesn’t make total sense, shocks, surprises or breaks the script, jumps straight to the punchline, makes people sit up and take notice.
- Use an existing mental model or schema. Think about an analogy, a metaphor. It’s something you can easily piggyback on to give the audience a quick “a-ha” moment where a new idea clicks home.
- Create a STAR moment. Something They Always Remember. Emotion will do this, making them laugh will do this. A moment of marvel or inspiration may do this.
- Fill a gap. Create a gap in your audience’s understanding of the world, which triggers curiosity, and help them fill it (triggering the famous “a-ha” moment).
- Make it concrete. Don’t leave your audience struggling to conceptualise something or make it real. Make it tangible for them, put it in terms of something they can easily understand or imagine.
For more on these check out the excellent book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s over a decade old but in the era of fake news is more relevant than ever.
If you think these are too difficult to weave into day-to-day work then just spend a bit of time reading some articles from The Economist (for example this or this). They are brilliant at using some of these techniques (particularly the first) to capture readers early on an make ideas real and tangible.
3. Tell better stories
We are all storytellers, no matter what our job title says we are, and we must tell our stories as fast and as compellingly as possible.Jeremy Waite (read Jeremy’s excellent rules for commercial storytelling here)
Stories have a powerful effect on us, from a young age they were the way we learnt about the world around us and have been fundemental to the way humans pass on knowledge for millenia. There is evidence that our brain is literally wired for stories. As soon as we hear a story parts of our brain light up, we release dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. One of the easiest ways to connect with people and be truly memorable is to tell a story. That’s why almost all famous Ted talks and all the best commercial presentations follow the arc of a story.
Now, you might think that in most day-to-day situations the material at hand is just too run-of-the-mill, too plainly factual to put a story around. And you would be wrong. You can use elements of storytelling in almost evey situation, but it helps to know some basics.
Every story starts with a journey, a hero and a villain. But the story doesn’t start until you introduce some kind of conflict or obstacle which may stop your journey reaching it’s destination. “Intention and obstacle” form the foundations of any great story.
A classic structure for a story is “Once upon a time … and then, day after day … until …. and then”.
In reality, there are a very small number of different story plotlines, perhaps as few as seven. A very common one is the hero’s journey (or quest). This is the classic Star Wars storyline and the resonance of that particular storyline is one of the reasons behind the enduring, inter-generational cross-cultural appeal of that franchise. But one common mistake as the speaker or presenter is to turn yourself into the hero. No! Your audience is the hero, you must be the mentor (the Yoda role). You need to take your audience on a journey.
One of the most famous commercial examples of this is Steve Jobs’ launch of the iphone in 2007. The journey is laid out at the start by the repeated emphasis on the contrast between what things are like now, and what they could be. The loftiness of your idea, vs the commonplace of the status quo. By driving a greater and greater wedge between these two realities the audience is set up for the key message and is taken on the journey. The style of this presentation has been analysed well by Nancy Duarte here. Granted, most of us don’t have the presentational skill of Steve Jobs, and we probably aren’t in the fortunate position of doing the release of one of the most successful products in the history of the known universe, but this basic structure can be used so easily in so many situations (careful though, just don’t make yourself into the hero).
We can all improve our communcations. We can reduce the tax we collect from others, we can do more in less time. With better more powerful and memorable messages we actually have the power to change the world.
We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to each other, and it is really easy to start. Read the work of Steven Pressfield, Chip & Dan Heath, Jeremy Waite, Nancy Duarte and others. Sign up to Andy Bounds Tuesday tip. Its about incremental improvement. Good luck!