Monday, April 30, 2012

Manager Mondays: Team Loyalty, Part 1: It Matters More Than Ever

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature that explores strategies for effective workforce messaging.  Today's topic is the first in a three-part series about how to build team identity -- even in situations where traditional teams no longer seem to exist.

In the old days, company departments were centralized in one physical  location and somewhat insulated from other departments. Today's office is more of a mash-up.   The trend toward open design might mean that accountants sit interspersed with content developers and software designers.  As a  New York Times article recently reported,  " [T]wo-thirds of American office space is now configured in some sort of open arrangement. But even as these designs save employers space and money, they can make office workers feel like so many cattle."  

That's if the workers are even there at all.  People might clock most of their man hours remotely from the road, from satellite offices, or from home.  Managers might be in the same room as their direct reports only two or three times a year -- if ever.

In addition to physical separation, there's task specialization.   In their book, organizational communications experts Peg Neuhauser, Ray Bender and Kirk Stromberg talk about the new workplace, where department employees may only rarely work together.  Instead, they find themselves assigned to six or eight projects at a time to accomplish the portion of the work that falls within their department's scope. In each of those projects, they're working with a different mix of people.  These temporary task forces usually last only until the project is finished; as they disband, members jump into other projects with other colleagues.

If you are a manager, how do you encourage team loyalty in a business world where team boundaries are blurred, and teams are constantly changing?  How do you ensure that your direct reports present a unified "brand image" as they interconnect with others in the company?

Last Thursday in Manhattan, I noticed that a good percentage of the surrounding sea of street humanity was wearing identical dark blue jerseys.  (As I side note, I just want to mention that no self-respecting New Yorker likes to call them jerseys. What an unfortunate term for a perfectly good part of a hockey uniform!)  Game 7 of the first-round NHL playoffs was about to start, and at the entrance to Madison Square Garden, jersey-clad fans were popping out of every cab, emerging from every subway stairwell, and converging on the arena like zombies in a horror movie -- only noisier.  No introductions were necessary as spontaneous group chants  broke out:  "Let's Go, Rangers, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!" Soon-to-be-hoarse young male voices randomly shouted player's names: "Mc- DON-AAA-A-AGH!!"  Earnest strategy debates took place among the senior hockey aficionados grouped under the diamond-vision screen marquee. (See the two guys in the center of the photo above, wearing their Rangers jerseys over their business attire? They were talking statistics and probabilities as only Wall Streeters can.)

The Fans Of Game 7 were only unified for that one night, but the holy tenets of fan behavior were in play, so for the next few hours, strangers acted like a cross between best friends and Marines storming a beach.  (To victory, I might add.  Next stop, Stanley Cup...!!!) 

Ahem. To sum up this case in point: on that one occasion, New Yorkers spanning all ages, ethnicities, and income brackets had come together, forming a temporary tribe of supporters for their hockey titans.  Together, they were exhibiting:
  • identification with their team. (Blue jerseys everywhere.)  
  • enthusiasm for the mission. (Beat the Ottawa Senators!)
  • confidence in their mutual awesomeness. (After all, they were all on the same side!)
Organizational leaders, take note:  your followers need to be exhibiting these same three characteristics, in order to perform with zest and achieve their best.

How is your messaging cultivating the classic behaviors of team loyalty?

Here's the first of three strategies that you as manager can adopt to make it easier for your troops to engage and work with a kaleidoscope of characters and still feel, and act,  like part of a team -- your team.  (Watch for the other two parts of this series in weeks to come here on the Remarkable Messaging blog site.)

>  Building Team Loyalty, Part One:  Articulate Your Group's Purpose and Distinct Assets.  

What do you as a department bring to the table?  What's the subject matter expertise that everyone else is looking to you to provide?  What does "going the extra mile" look like in your world? When have you felt most proud of your team's contributions?  Don't assume that your folks know the answers to these questions.  Start looking for chances to highlight these concepts in your everyday interactions.  There are three good ways to do this:

a.  Insert a vision-casting introduction -- Before you get your next department meeting underway, or in your first sentence of your next group email, state what your department is all about:  "As you all know, our group exists to _________________."  Then do it again, at the next meeting or in the next email:  "In our group, we're all about ____________."  Then do it again.  And AGAIN.  Prefacing your communications with your team distinctives will seem repetitive and silly to you, but  bear in mind that the average message needs to be conveyed seven times before it sinks in. Just do it.

b.  Include a closing "purpose" thank you line.  -- When you end a group communication, make it a habit to relate the information you've just conveyed to your overall group purpose:  "Thanks for your efforts to resolve this issue as we all seek to close performance gaps so we can continue to provide our company with excellent ______________."

c.  Adopt team slogans or symbols.  As you make it a habit to put your group's purpose front and center, you'll start to hear your team members talking about it as well.  That's pay dirt!  Pounce on anything they say that supports the group purpose, and repeat their own quotes back to them in meetings: "As George put it the other day...."  Whenever possible, turn your team's own words into slogans that drive everyone's understanding of your worth and contribution.

I was in a group once where the boss kept mentioning that we were often the ones who uncovered a big problem that other departments had missed -- or, as she put it, "the elephant in the room."  We kept talking about new problems as elephants, and eventually we adopted the elephant as our team symbol.  It was a positive reinforcement of our team's value and purpose.

Bottom line: you want your tribe to know, and be proud of, who they are -- wherever they are.  So message accordingly.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Visual Thinking And The Death Of PowerPoint

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series that explores basic ways to enhance your communications skills.  Today, it's about the value of engaging visual thinking via fluid graphics to enhance a group presentation.

Fluid Graphics: A Case In Point

Just the other day, I presented a complex plan to a group of people using this method.  As a task force tackling a project with a hot deadline, we had already had a couple of meetings.  But some parts of the plan were still cloudy.  What were the top-priority objectives? How would everything connect?

Our dialogue needed focus. We needed to get past the talking stage. Define the pieces. Divvy up tasks.  Get to work!

So this time when we met, I led the discussion graphically.  Here's what I did:
  1. I put a big piece of blank flip chart paper on the wall.
  2. As I talked through the project overview , I started positioning sticky notes on the paper, using different colors and sizes to represent various project elements.   
  3. Using a marker, I labeled the slips with key words as I went -- just enough to make them understandable -- but I wrote no other text on the chart.
  4. When all the elements were on the chart, I placed arrows between them to indicate flow and sequencing.
  5. Once I'd set up the project representation in graphic format, I asked for feedback. 
From that point on, the group went into overdrive.  As team members brought up additional thoughts, alternatives, or  objections,  I re-positioned the colored squares and arrows to show how their ideas changed the flow.  The group could instantly grasp how different approaches impacted deployment.

The result?  Details that had formerly stalled discussion were no longer obstacles as people literally "saw the big picture." Everyone could tweak the structure until it made sense.  When the session ended, people could take cell phone pictures of the finished flip chart so they could leave with a ready-made visual reference (and send it to colleagues who weren't at the meeting).

This story has a postscript that's too good to skip.  The next day, I brought the flip chart to the executive committee meeting to present the project proposal on behalf of the group.  As it turned out, the senior managers had some new information to add to the mix.  No problem.  I just labeled a couple of fresh sticky notes, rearranged the ones already on the paper, and moved some arrows to show how the new elements would fit into the flow.  The instantly-revised plan got the committee's attention, approval and quick sign-off.

Visual Thinking: A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words... And At Least Thirty Minutes

As this story shows, a dynamic use of fluid graphics during live presentations can:
  • illustrate complex ideas and relationships;
  • enhance communication about those ideas and relationships;
  • unify a group around a central thought process;
  • minimize distraction;
  • empower collaboration and problem resolution to elicit team consensus;
  • simplify the process of winning stakeholder approval.
AND... do it in half the time.

Because of all these advantages, a growing number of organizations are adopting this methodology in problem-solving meetings instead of its old-school, idea-killing, time-guzzling predecessor, the PowerPoint presentation.

The big bonus: as we've just seen, you don't need to be a trained graphic artist to use fluid graphics!  Sticky notes and  markers are tools that anyone can use.

To read about other ways that companies are using fluid graphics to boost creative productivity, click on this story from the Wall Street Journal, or check out  The Back Of The Napkin by the dean of graphic communicators, Dan Roam. This book is a great primer for using graphics to talk through just about any question or proposal. Dan says, "You can solve any problem with a picture."  He uses simple drawings instead of sticky notes, but the concept is the same.  You can click here to browse Dan's website,  Napkin Academy, and access its many free resources.

Do you need to help people visualize something today?  How can you use fluid graphics to not only get your point across, but to also:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Magnifying the Appeal: Word Swaps That Work Wonders

When we need to create persuasive messaging, we wish we had a window into our readers' brains so we could see exactly what words would trigger their trust and buy their buy-in.  We long to uncover which magic words will result in a "Yes!" response.

We may not be able to discern the exact arguments that will seal the deal, but we can choose words that will position our points more attractively in the reader's eyes. (Or in the hearer's ears, if the text is destined for an audio track -- more about writing specifically for audio in future posts -- stay tuned!).

Magnifying lenses make small objects seem bigger than they really are.  Similarly, well-chosen words can bring your selling points closer toward your audience's acceptance threshold, and magnify their appeal.

Here's an example. Take a moment to read the two sentences below.  See if you can spot the difference in perspective.

a. You have to register in person to receive the discount.

b. You need to register in person to receive the discount. 

Which version is more likely to get a positive response?

Most people I've tried this on will agree that version b is stronger and more compelling.  Not convinced?  Go back and read it again, this time out loud.  Hear how your own voice inflects each sentence differently.  Doesn't have to just sound heavier? Doesn't need to sound more energetic?

Word Swap Principle # 1:  Pick the Word With a Nicer Sound  

Some words hit with a big blah.  The have in you have to is one of them.  The short a sound is one of the least attractive sounds in the English language.  Think how these words sound: Fat. Flat.  Splat. By contrast, the long e in need to is a sharper, more alert sound.  Think: Me! See! Whee!  Phonetically, that long e syllable makes a distinctly different impact.

>>> In general, words with long vowel sounds are more appealing than words with short vowel sounds.

Word Swap Principle # 2:  Pick the Word That Feels More Active 

Some verbs are passive. Run from them.  (I could have said avoid them just now, but avoid is a passive verb that pales next to run.)  Passive verbs are static; on a basic level they don't prompt the reader to envision motion; therefore they do not contribute any force to your point.

In our examples above, the word have is about as passive as you can get.  It means, basically, just standing still and holding something.  Need signals tension -- a gap between what is and what should be.  It moves the reader's emotional needle.  It creates an inner image, a dynamic feeling -- so it's much more compelling on a gut level.

Speaking of guts, sometimes we're afraid to use bold, active words.  Don't be.  Risk it.

In his book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson tells the story behind the famous 1978 Berlin Wall speech he wrote for Ronald Reagan.  Do you recall its culminating phrase? "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  There's a great example of active phrasing.  In the days leading up to that speech, the State Department, the National Security Council, and even then-security adviser Colin Powell, all tried to squelch that phrase.  One diplomat suggested an alternative:  "One day, this ugly wall will disappear."  How passive was that? Reagan stuck with the bold, active version, and its explosive impact toppled Soviet power in Eastern Europe.  (By the way, Reagan's controversial term for the Soviet Union, evil empire, starts with a long e.  I'm just saying.)

>>> Words with kinetic overtones win out over words with static overtones.

Word Swap Principle # 3:  Pick the Word That Inspires Happier Thoughts  

This principle for achieving positive effect is more obvious, but sometimes executing it right is subtle.  Back to our examples above:  in version a, the phrase you have to turns the emphasis back on you, stressing your burden of responsibility.  It also focuses on your powerlessness, by emphasizing your lack of choice. It's a drag, really. Who wants that?

On the other hand, in version b, the phrase "need to" focuses forward on the desirable outcome.  It makes the whole sentence sound more like a cheerful, helpful tip to get your discount!  Far from powerless, now you are empowered to get what you want.

People don't like work.  But they love getting presents.  Phrasing toward the latter, and away from the former, will always yield better buy-in.  It's totally psychological -- an illusion, really -- but totally effective.

Peter Pan was right when he maintained that it takes more than fairy dust to get people to fly.  They also need happy thoughts.  Replacing a Captain Hook expression (like the downer have to) with a Tinkerbell phrase (like the much peppier need to) will always give a lift to a piece of writing -- and waft your reader closer to a positive response.

>>> Words with positive connotations beat words with neutral or negative connotations.

So always use need to instead of have to.  It's a small swap with a remarkable effect.  Try it next time you have to -- I mean need to -- generate a message to influence others' actions, feelings or attitudes.  (Oh wait, isn't that all communication?)

Do you have other word swaps that work for you?  Do you know other principles that increase a writer's power to persuade?  Feel free to leave a comment and tell us about them.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Manager Mondays: Communicating Change: An Easy 3-Part Template

Is it just me, or has change management become a rather misused and overused catchphrase in today's business world?  (This question might deserve its own blog post; leave a comment to tell me what you think, and it may get one.)  All high-falutin' talk aside, the truth remains that in everyday organizational life, managers are most often the ones tasked to break the news about change to their troops.

A change might be positive -- "We got the big account!"  -- or negative -- "We're closing the plant."   Either way, your team has to tackle some new territory, and that can be stressful.  The initial change communication  is a critical element.  It can pave the way for a smooth transition, or it can start a cascade of emotions and assumptions that complicate the whole endeavor.

If you've been handed the dubious privilege of executing change management for your firm's new initiative,  here's a simple formula for getting the word out, without having the floor drop out from under you.

Remarkable Change Messaging - In 3 Easy Steps

Part 1:  We Know...  

This first part of your change management message should tell the truth about the present state.  People accept change best when it's founded on reality.  So get your reality ducks in a row.  What hard facts can you discover about the factors that led to this change?   What measurable data, research, market trends, or information can you state to support the change?  Lay them out in a clear, neutral summary.

In creating your picture of the present state, you will start to frame the change for your audience.  They will start to get the idea that this understanding calls for action; this is truth that can and should be leveraged strategically: We know that the current situation is this.  

Part 2:  We Need... 

This second part of your change management message should inspire a vision of the future state.  People buy into change when they see its necessity, and/or its benefits. What is the target outcome? Where do you want to wind up?  What's at stake?  Why is it important?  Establish a direction: We need to achieve this.

Part 3:  So now...

In Part 1, you've set up the true context for change.  In Part 2, you've explained the need for change.  In doing so, you've created a tension between the here-and-now (present state) and the yet-to-come (future state).  Your audience is fully engaged with you now, and ready to absorb the impact.  Now it's time to outline the plan for going from the present state to the future state. At this point (and no sooner) you finally dig into the specifics: the action steps, who's going to do what, the timeline, when things will start to happen, what the pivotal pieces will be and who will own them:  So now we'll do this to get there.

Change Messaging for Remarkable Results

If you keep to the above formula in all of your initial communications to various stakeholders (inhouse staff, vendors, customers, etc.), you'll establish a clear rationale for the change and set balanced expectations for its execution. You'll also set the tone for an ongoing transparent dialogue about the change, its effects, and its effective execution.

Good messaging at the start of the change process can encourage good communication throughout.  

A few other things to be mindful of

Communication is key during times of change. But remember, keep it simple.  As you present your 3-part message, steer away from embellishments that could cause complications, either now or later on:

a.  Don't say what might not be true.  If some facets are still being finalized, acknowledge that  you don't yet know certain particulars about the change process.  Say you'll fill in the blanks as soon as you can.
b.  Don't make promises you can't keep.  Assure your staff that you'll try to accommodate their requests whenever possible, but don't write a blank check.
c.  Don't minimize the difficulty.   Leave room for, and acknowldege, all reactions.  Be prepared to absorb some negative feedback.  Show that you are taking your team's role, and their required effort, quite seriously.  Commit to be available for questions and ongoing problem resolution.
d.  Don't vary the message.  If people start questioning the change or proposing alternate courses of action -- and they will -- answer by repeating Parts One and Two above.  Keep your message consistent.

Getting More Help

There are many other aspects to managing organizational change,  I totally recommend getting more training on the subject if this is turning out to be a focus in your career. Organizations such as the American Management Association offer courses that can give you an edge.  But if you don't have the time or the funds to go that route right away -- or if you could just use some light guidance for your present situation --  now at least you have a simple messaging formula to start you off on the right track.

Managers: which of these new projects is coming up on your agenda?

  • a new product or service to support
  • a revamped procedure to train out
  • a budget cut to administer
  • a business expansion or acquisition to oversee
  • a marketing campaign to deploy 
If you answered "None of the above; it's business as usual around here," just wait a while.  Given the business realities of 2012, I'm betting that will soon change!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: The Wisdom of Checklists

This week's Friday Fundamentals feature showcases another basic trick you can use to enhance your communication skill.   

We all know it's a challenge to capture and hold our audience's attention, especially when your platform is a words-only written piece.  People don't read any more. In fact, many people zone out when they're faced with a solid block of text, like this one. (I hope you're still reading!)

Audience engagement is important because without it, the message doesn't get delivered.  Wise communicators fight to win their audience's attention because that's the only way they will achieve the purpose behind their communication.   

Take this quiz: What's your main purpose for putting words together?  What are you usually trying to do?
      • Promote an event
      • Sell a product or service
      • Influence behavior
      • Build trust
      • Improve performance
      • Increase awareness
      • Attract new customers
      • Enlist support
I'm betting you mentally checked off more than one goal.  Whatever your answers were, you were engaged in the process of picking your choices, right?  That's my point.  A checklist activates audience imagination. It gets readers to mentally try out different options, or to set priorities.  To jog their memories, or visualize further action.  That's why wise communicators use it as a powerful tool to accomplish all of the above.  (A little checklist lingo, there.)

The humble checklist is an old-school device that's getting a new mantle of respect in the 21st century. In the past few years, hospitals have embraced checklists as a way to reduce surgical complications and cut costs.  They're also more popular than ever in mainstream books and publications.  This morning over breakfast, I opened Real Simple magazine and came across a beautiful three-page spread of checklists.

Today, right after I publish this post,  I'll be crafting a checklist as part of a PR campaign targeting 75 churches  to drum up volunteers for a charity cause.   By the way, you can google Convoy of Hope to read about their amazing work, and if you want to help with their Long Island event on June 9th, email me at  Oops! I jumped off topic there.  That wouldn't have happened if I were following a checklist.

I first realized the power of the checklist when I was a filmmaker covering the aerospace industry.  I watched test pilots use it during their preflight "walk-around" to ensure all systems were go before taking their plane up and pushing its limits.  Today, the preflight checklist is an everyday reality on launchpads, aircraft carrier decks, and civilian airport tarmacs.  It's one of the reasons that the airline industry has a great safety record.

Format-wise, a checklist also has the advantage of breaking up text visually.   It looks less intimidating to the reader, so therefore it's more likely to be read.  A string of paragraphs doesn't rivet audience attention -- or move their finger to the scroll bar -- nearly as effectively as a single, mighty checklist.

Speaking of which, here are some tips for how to construct a powerful checklist, presented in the form of a -- you know what.

Guide to a Remarkable Checklist
  • Pick your material.  Any group of things that you want people to remember can be put into a checklist.  But be selective: too many items will bog down your reader.
  • Decide whether to make an action checklist or a shopping checklist.   Don’t mix the two. 
  • Use consistent structure. For an action list (like this one), start each item with a verb.  If it’s a shopping list (a menu of things to remember or options to choose from), start each item with a noun.  For example, my Convoy of Hope checklist will give potential volunteers a checklist of roles to sign up for:  Doctor, Nurse, Dental Hygienist, Haircutter, Children’s Worker, Photographer… uh-oh, back off track again!
  • List things in obvious order.  As we mentioned in last week’s Friday Fundamentals post, lists are better when they’re organized.  Make sure you don’t present items out of their natural sequence (if there is one).
  • Keep sentences short.  If you have more to say about each item, use the format shown here: bold your first sentence, then add other key thoughts in regular font.
Even with the checklist's increased popularity, I often wonder why it's still so undervalued and underused.  Do we think it's too obvious -- too "duh" for our sophisticated target group?  Um - have you watched reality TV shows lately? Flowery is out.  Mundane is in. Your audience doesn't want sophistication.  It wants simplicity. And checklists provide just that.  Or is the problem that we think a checklist might sound too bossy?  Just ask Martha Stewart: people are hungry to be told what to do.  A checklist gives them a sense of empowerment, reassurance, self-worth and direction.  Checklists are the chocolates on your cozy pillow of well-crafted information.

Last night I attended a seminar that missed a golden opportunity when it failed to provide attendees with a checklist.  The subject was buying real estate, and a series of speakers gave short talks about various aspects.  We heard from a title insurer, a lawyer, an agent, and a mortgage banker.  There was a lot of helpful information given.  I glanced around.  People's non-verbals signaled polite interest, but with a degree of detachment.  No one was taking notes.  How was anyone going to retain this material?

At the door there were plenty of giveaways:  pens, magnets, business cards and boxes of mints, all inscribed with the participating experts' company logos.  What was missing?  A checklist of everything a person needs to think about when buying property, featuring the speakers' names and contact info.  That would have been a truly strategic add-on to maximize the value of the seminar and lead to follow-up sales.  And it would only have taken some thinking ahead, a couple of hours of prep work, and some photocopying.

Aha.  I think I just answered my own question about why more people don't use checklists.  It just doesn't occur to them -- or if it does, it means more work, and more logistics -- and they're just not that into it. 

Don't be one of those people who posts an online article, puts on an event, or places a blurb in an employee newsletter without even considering how this simple formatting device might cement your goals.  Try including a checklist in your next project.  Then ask: did it get remarkable results?  Check!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Kindness is at the Heart of Effective Training Design

How do you approach teaching adults a skill?  Pick what's most important:

a. Make sure I know who the learners are.
b. Make sure I thoroughly grasp the skill myself.
c. Make sure I understand how the learners need to use the skill.
d. Make sure I apply the principles of adult learning.

Okay, pencils down.  If you didn't pick option a, my condolences.  You're not going to get optimal results -- even if you do a bang-up job with b, c and d.

The truth is, unless you understand the head and heart of your learner, you can't develop a truly compelling training course.  There will always be some measure of disconnect, or even resistance, on the part of the learner.  Knowing your learner is the most important thing to do before you do anything else, not only because it prevents assumptions, but also because it enables you to care. And if there's one thing that gives learners an inner glow of engagement, it's the perception that their needs have been considered and respected.

"That's just mollycoddling," you might say.  (Well honestly I don't know many people who would actually say THAT word, but you get my drift,)  "If it's something they have to learn for their job," you might continue, "then they just need to learn it, and deal with it. Why should I have to get into their heads?"

Last Friday a real-live Hollywood rescue scene took place 17 floors above the pavement of Manhattan.  On the side of a tall building, a scaffolding motor failed, causing a metal platform with three workers inside to pitch 75 degrees. The men tumbled to the bottom edge of the platform, where they dangled and screamed for help.

The 911 call came in at 10:16 am.  NYPD Emergency Service Unit Detective James Coll got to the scene and rappelled down the side of the building, reaching the men at 10:19.  One worker's hands were already numb from holding on, and he said he thought he was going to fall.  Coll quickly attached his harness to the man, saving his life.  Firefighters had burst open windows by then, and everyone was hauled to safety by 10:24.

Wow.  But what interests me most about this story is what Detective Coll said afterwards:  "I wasn't worried.  This is when the training kicks in.  All we want to do is help someone in need and just take the steps to save them."

For the men and women of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit, their deepest heartfelt goal is to help people in need.  That's what they signed up for.  They put up with a lot of crap, just so they can save a life now and then.  They know training equips them to do what they want to do.  Without it, they'd be powerless to achieve their own self-described  best destiny: that of being a helper to others.  With it, they spring into action, bypassing fear because their training has given them focus.

As training developers, you and I can't look at the material we need to train from a safe, objective, bystander's perspective.   We need to absorb the point of view of that learner who we're sending out onto the building facade.  We need to be able to link the skill we're teaching to an ultimate goal that's of value to them -- that feeds their identity -- that gives them purpose.  Only then can we frame the skill to fit that learner's highest motivation, and organize it into steps that make the most sense for its execution under real on-the-job circumstances.

This is why I say that the heart of effective training design is being kind.  Putting yourself in the learner's place, and keeping their interests foremost, is not only the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons -- ultimately it's also the smartest way to meet the training's business objectives.

Have you gotten out on the ledge with your learner yet?  If not, how can you discover what's important to them, and fold it into your training design?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Manager Mondays: For Maximum Messaging Impact, Channel Your Diner Waitress

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature that presents fail-safe tips for creating remarkable workforce messaging.  Today, it's all about getting your team to care and contribute more.  Let's talk motivation.

Do a quick radar sweep of the projects you have underway.  Are any stalled?  Do your issues logs have a growing number of items that are left open and hanging?  Is apathy, or even passive sabotage, lurking in the air?

Before you charge in and point the finger of blame, consider this: the problem may be you -- or more precisely, the way you communicate. For employees to give that extra 5% that makes all the difference, you need to get your messaging game on.  And one of the easiest ways to do this is to channel the waitress at your local diner.

Work with me on this. If you were a really expert restaurant server (to use the more PC term) and you had regular customers who came in every day to pay you money for your food, you would do some things consistently to:
-  make sure they didn't switch to another eatery;
-  get them to recommend your establishment (and you) to their friends;
-  earn a good tip each time.

In the same way, your staff comes to your business every day to pay you work for your money.  What do you do to build their loyalty and minimize turnover?   To help them be glad they work for your company, and for you?  To ensure that they bestow on you that extra measure of engagement -- that "tip" that's over and above the baseline effort they're required to give?

Channel your inner diner waitress, and the answer's simple.  Communicate! 

  • Build a relationship with your "regulars."  Look them in the eye.  Chat about other things besides what's on the daily menu. Follow up on yesterday's conversation about the family.  Pay attention to their cues; some want more interaction than others.  Relate to them on the level they want and enjoy.  
  • Be professional, but friendly.  Come to the table ready for action, but allow for some banter.  Do what you're there to do, but lighten things up a bit.  Acknowledge tension, but keep a cheerful tone.    
  • Offer them options.  Tell them what's fresh today.  Explain what the specials are.  Warn them away from the meatloaf if it tastes like liver.  In other words, help them navigate their work decisions, but leave them plenty of autonomy.   
  • Be available, but don't hover.  Treat them like adults.  If they don't beckon you, stay scarce and let them get on with their meal.  If they do, be quick to get them what they need.  
  • Roll your eyes, and smile.  You're not in control of the menu (the projects), the diner's decor (the corporate culture), or that noisy bunch sitting at the other table (the jerks in Purchasing who are messing up your deadlines).  But you CAN control your own interactions with your "regulars".  And you CAN draw a smiley-face on the check, even if you're dead on your feet.  In other words, your messaging should always hint that you value the work they do -- instead of harp about your own problems and pressures.

So mentally scroll through your last communications to your team.  If they lack that certain diner flair, turn up the waitress charm this week.  See if you can give your messaging a makeover to lighten the atmosphere at the table.  You'll be rewarded with bigger "tips" -- that is, better buy-in, brighter ideas, and bountiful boss appreciation.  All of which leads to results from your "regulars" that are anything but "regular."

Remember, good waitresses know that you can call the cops if a customer doesn't pay for his meal, but you can't do anything about the ones who don't leave a tip.   Except grumble.  You're not the boss of your employee's work output.  They are.  Don't let that chip on your shoulder mess up your chance to increase team motivation the old-fashioned way - by earning it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Bulletproof Your Bullet Points

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a weekly feature that focuses on basic tricks for effective communication.

This week, it's all about the list.  When you have a rundown of stuff to tell your audience, it's easy to do it wrong.  How you construct your list can either help or hinder your main objective. A bad list is often worse than no list at all.  Whether it's a menu of options, a rundown of do's and don'ts, a set of instructions, or a sequence of events, it's important to stage your telling right so your audience stays engaged.*

Recently I edited a resident's contract for a crisis shelter program.  I was handed a boilerplate document that read like a barking drill sergeant: "No smoking on the grounds.  Must participate in house meetings.  Drug or alcohol use is cause for immediate dismissal," etc.   By the time the unfortunate candidate read through  fourteen such mandates and got to the signature line, he or she was certain to feel like a criminal entering a prison.  Of course there had to be rules, and they had to be tough -- but surely there was a better way to present them!

I found the key in the shelter's mission statement.  It said that it existed to help residents reach a state of self-sufficiency.  Leveraging that statement, I added an introductory paragraph to the contract that explained the crisis center's three guiding values: to provide its residents with immediate safety, permit their day-to-day stability, and promote their eventual self-sufficiency.  Then I re-organized the rules as bullet points under those three sub-headers.  Safety, Stability, and Self-Sufficiency. After some minor editing, the list of rules now appeared calmer and clearer, reflecting the true purpose of the program and highlighting its benefits for each resident.

In fact, the list was more than a list now.  It was a call to participation.  Each rule statement became a role statement that emphasized the candidate's significance to the shelter's success.  When the staff worker reviewed the contract with potential residents, it helped them catch the program's vision right away.  Instead of signing away their freedom, they were starting a positive new chapter of their lives, and contributing to something greater than themsleves.  All because a list had been re-engineered, and made remarkable!

Do you need to construct lists for your writing projects?  Here are some things to avoid, and some things to remember, to ensure that your audience can understand, retain -- and maybe even be inspired by -- the multiple tidbits you need to convey.

Remedial Lists: What to Avoid
Remarkable Lists: What to Remember
Do NOT offer any list for publication unless you organize it first.   A list that is not clearly bucketed or sequenced may be worse than no list at all. 

1.       Gather all the items informally (don’t worry about final phrasing yet), then take a step back and ask:  "How do I want to group these?"  
Do NOT number the items on your list unless:
·         They need to be in a specific sequence (as in numbered steps on an instructions sheet);
·         You want to show ranking or priority;
·         You intend to reference them later on (“As we saw by the customer’ s reaction in Case Study #2….”).

2.       Use bullet points to add clarity and visual punch if your list is a group of non-ranked options.  Generally, readers appreciate a column of bullet points more than lists presented in paragraph format.  It’s less work for the eye, and allows for quicker scanning.  When using numbers (see column at left), place numbered items into a column, too.

Do NOT allow a list to include more than seven items.   A long line with no breaks is visually dizzying and distracting for the reader.  
3.      Divide longer lists into sub-groups according to similarity or function, under appropriate sub-headers.  This makes it easier for the reader to understand, and stay engaged with, the content.

Do NOT let awkward phrasing,  incomplete thoughts, or mismatched grammar ruin the flow of your list.
4.       Once you have your list organized, ask, “Does each item stand on its own? Do they all work together?”  Then go back and edit for clarity and consistency. 

Do NOT publish a list as a stand-alone and assume your audience will know what to do with it.  

5.       Include an introductory statement.  Make sure it  states  the primary purpose of the list, its benefits, and how and when it should be used.

By the way, notice how the above table was constructed.  It's a list. How did I do?  Did you find it helpful?  Leave a comment to let me know.

See you back here soon for more miracle make-overs for messaging mayhem!  - - Beth

* Watch for future posts about the Stage to Engage principle of good communication. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

You Have To Start Somewhere

Writer's block.  What a horrible expression.  So personally panicky.  So punishing for those of us in the messaging field.  Why do writers get to be the exclusive victims of a "block," anyway?  Do we speak of  painter's block,  professor's block, civil engineer's block, baseball player's block?  Nope.  Derek Jeter may be having a slump, a dry spell, or a hitless streak -- but we never say he has a full-fledged block.  That dubious privilege, my fellow communicator, is bequeathed by society to us alone.

As a state of being, a block sounds so final.  So solid.  And so unsavory.  Drains get blocked by, um, bad stuff (ugh!).  Lanes on the interstate get blocked by more bad stuff, such as jack-knifed tractor trailers spilling toxic waste.  When that nimble quarterback gets blocked, it's  really bad -- those linemen are as massive and immutable as Stonehenge pylons.  (The pylons pile on -- a disturbing play on words, there.)

Despite the chilling connotations, I'm convinced that the phenomenon of writer's block is mainly a hoax.  It's  a welcome wish-fulfillment for whiners, a self-propelled prop for procrastinators.  It's so tempting, like cutting school.  And it's just so universally available.  After all, every one of us faces the need  at one time or another to tell important information to our fellow man.  Some of us do heavy word-lifting  every day, as screenwriters, content developers, news reporters, commentators,or authors.  Most of us only need to crank out the occasional blurb, memo, or email to the boss.  But whenever or however a writing task may pop up, the urge to freeze up is never far behind.

Facing a blank screen, and knowing we need to put text on it, is enough to make most of us wish we were out on the interstate in that Hazmat suit  instead, mopping up puddles of strontium 90.

Well, for all of us staring at a blank screen, good news.  I started this blog site as an antidote to writer's block.   My goal is to stockpile an entertaining and helpful series of tips, tools and commentary to help us whip out copy with confidence.  And not just any copy.  Amazing, effective, remarkable messaging.  This blog is going to be the plunger for the clogged drain of our cumulative communication processes. Visualize it, people!  In the future, whenever we feel the breath of that looming linebacker on our neck, we'll simply tab over to Remarkable Messaging and out-maneuver that writer's block with this writer's blog.  And the crowd -- our readers -- will roar with victory! 

So if a writing project currently has you paralyzed, here are my first three tips:

 1.  Start Anywhere.  When your creativity hits a snag, don't worry about making a detailed outline, or formulating that clever first sentence, or crafting a brilliant theme.  Above all, don't wait until inspiration strikes.  Just begin putting text on that screen.  Toss disjointed phrases out into the open. Ask a question.  Describe that vivid scene in your head.  Write a haiku.  Draw a sketch, or make up a sketchy wordplay, like pylons and pile-ons. Remember this one thing: you've got to start somewhere to get somewhere.

2.  Relax.  Next time you're overwhelmed with the terror that comes with trying too hard, do this:  breathe deep, close your eyes, and find some kind of expression down in your soul.  Any kind.  Then, bring it up into the light of day, turn it into words, and go from there.  Be confident.  If you know what you need to say, you'll find a way to say it.

3.  Visit here.  Turn to this blog to turn that writer's block of yours into a block party. These posts will become your friends up and down the street, a cast of characters who'll help make your messages, not just readable, but remarkable. Come back often. Jump in the bouncy castle, make snow cones with the kids, and join the Electric Slide that's underway at the DJ table.  Amble along the block, checking out the scenery, saying hi to the neighbors, until you find the house you're looking for. Then, walk up to the porch and ring the bell.

See you back here soon!  -- Beth