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  • April 21, 2016

Thoughtful Communication

Comedian/actor Eddie Izzard makes an interesting point in his 2011 stand up Dress To Kill about communication. Decorative Illustration Through a (famously misunderstood) historic example of JFK’s 1963 address in Berlin, he illustrates how what you say, is often overshadowed by how you say it. The literal translation of what JFK said could have been interpreted in one of two ways. It could have been interpreted to mean he called himself a jelly doughnut. Because of the powerful way he delivered his message however, and the connection he had crafted with the Berlin crowd, they properly understood his meaning and responded enthusiastically when he declared himself a Berliner at heart.

Izzard’s assertion that listeners react to “70% how you look, 20% how you sound, 10% what you actually say” remains an important lesson in communication. While I may quibble with the percentages, he’s 100% right overall. Our meaning is often only as effective as our method. What we say is squeezed through the lens of how we say it.

In a recent project retrospective, one of our clients cited the value successful communication had within our engagement. Where I think that dialog was most successful was in our ability to balance content and context.

“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” -Winston Churchill

The balance between conveying ideas and packaging them for consumption is a fundamental client services survival skill. As a partner, hired for our expertise in our work, it’s our responsibility to present our findings whether our point of view is greeted enthusiastically or not. We have to boldly stand behind our assertions, armed with conviction.

At the same time, we have to package that insight for consumption by our partners. Our great ideas are only as great as our ability to sell them through to our clients.

We balance advocating our hypotheses with nurturing consent. I can have the best idea in the room, but if no one wants to listen to me, it’s a pretty lonely idea. How do we remain faithful to the integrity of our ideas without over-selling them?

Work backwards from intended results

Working backwards from the intended conversation outcome is a great place to start. In the project that sparked our retrospective we worked through planning sessions with their internal development team, we presented designs in a full amphitheater, and we conducted a 1:1 stakeholder interview with the university’s president. These are all different audiences, contexts, and content.

Identifying our goals in each interaction shaped the paths we pursued. With the dev team we wanted to walk away with gnarly, granular details about implementation. With our large amphitheater audience we wanted to stoke enthusiasm. With the president of the university we wanted to recruit him toward our vision.

Working back from these goals shaped our meeting agendas, which in turn helped us design each meeting and interaction.

Analyze the audience

Diagnosing the audience is another critical lens.

What is their level of digital acumen? Is a term we internally take for granted as commonplace like “CMS” going to confuse them?

How familiar are they with us? Do we need to credential ourselves a bit?

How close are the they to project? Do they need deeper context on how we arrived at today’s meeting?

What are they feeling? Are they dying to have this conversation or dreading it?

We have more or less understanding of these audiences at different times during the project. That’s often where the relationship forged with the client project manager is critically important. Their perspective can help accurately prep for these interactions based on what they know about the dev team, the leadership team, or the university president.

Stay flexible

Last but not least be ready to abandon all of preparations and plans if needed. We have to be able to “read” the room, and adapt on the fly. Staying faithful to a bulleted agenda despite losing the room slowly loads those bullets into a gun aimed at your foot.

We may need to adopt a more serious tone unexpectedly. We may need to dwell on a point longer than intended. Stay focused on the meeting’s goals, but get fluid in the approach. We need to accomplish the meeting’s intended purpose, but we want to nurture arriving at that conclusion effectively.

A project is an ocean of conversation. There is a longer term narrative, and longer term goals = need to be considered alongside each individual interaction. There’s a “winning the battle vs losing the war” metaphor dying to be made here, but this isn’t a war, it’s a partnership. We’re all invested in its successful outcome. That means great ideas are fought for. It also means change is nurtured. Being thoughtful about balancing those priorities can be the path to success.

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