About a year ago, I sat down with a new client. He was -- and is -- a team leader at a growing start up. He started our conversation with this: “People think I’m a jerk. That I’m arrogant and condescending. And my team’s performance -- and mine -- is suffering as a result.”
That he brought this challenge to a presentations skills coach may not seem like the most obvious choice, but it was a smart one. Because this client isn’t a jerk. He’s actually a warm, intelligent and interesting guy who happens to be an introvert who isn’t very comfortable with -- or good at -- speaking and communicating his ideas and expectations. As a result, he came across as cold and brusque, and the people around him didn’t like him, nor were they motivated to deliver results.
My client's situation highlights a truth that I’ve seen play out over and over again as I coach business leaders to be better speakers and more effective communicators: Speaking is what I like to call a signal skill.
If you're a compelling and confident speaker, people assume you're good at other things too. If you're a great speaker, people assume you're a magnanimous leader, a brilliant strategic thinker, a trustworthy advisor, a pragmatic financial manager, a charismatic and friendly person. The act of speaking clearly and confidently in any context -- from conferences to status meetings to impromptu hallway conversations -- signals that you have competence in a variety of areas.
The good news is that anyone can access the power of speaking as a signal skill. You don’t need to to go back to school, take an online course or spend an unwieldy 10,000 hours to improve your ability to speak well and communicate effectively. It is a learned skill that takes hours, not years, to improve. A few small changes to how you prepare, frame and deliver your communication will make a big difference in how people perceive you and how quickly you’re able to achieve your personal and professional goals.
For this client, we came up with three strategies that helped him communicate and connect more effectively with his team and leadership peers:
1. Focus on your audience first.
Like many leaders, my client thought communication with the people around him was all about what he needed to share. This is an incredibly common mistake. If you want to be a great speaker, your content needs to be about your audience and what they need to hear. When my client started thinking about what his various audiences needed from him, his communication got a lot more relevant and meaningful -- and more human.
2. Bridge the gap with personal stories.
When he shared feedback and direction or communicated with his team in any way, he was very matter of fact. Instruction and information was served up clinically, without emotion. His disdain for fluff had him forgo examples, anecdotes and personal stories, because he didn’t want to waste his team’s time. But his team -- like all of us --needed stories and examples to connect with him and his content.
So, he started using more metaphors and analogies and sharing more of himself in status meetings and casual conversations. It felt forced at first, but as he became more comfortable and he saw his team respond so positively, he saw first hand that sometimes it’s the squishy stuff that sparks people to move mountains.
3. Talk like a person, not an expert.
My client had a tendency to use fancy words and a lot of technical jargon when he was talking to his team, vendor partners and leadership colleagues. He wasn’t trying to show off -- he just has a rich vocabulary and deep expertise and defaulted to technical language and acronyms when he talked to people, mostly because he thought it was efficient. Of course, no one knew that. They just thought he was arrogant and condescending. And that perceived coldness had a cost. So, he started using more conversational language, and when technical jargon was required, he would provide context for it so it was easier for people to understand.
The result? Not only is my client’s team now one of the top performing groups in the company, he consistently gets great feedback. Not about only about his communication style but also about who and how he is as a person and a leader. He’s heard things like “really strong leader with great ideas,” and “I can’t believe how much he’s changed -- he’s a new person!”
Of course, he didn’t get a personality transplant, he just got better at speaking. And that started sending the right signals and direction to the people around him.
I encourage you to reflect on your own speaking and communication skills and consider the signal you might be sending out. What might shift and improve for you and your business if you took your presentation skills to the next level?