Monday, July 30, 2012

Manager Mondays: Why You Should Share Your Backstory

Welcome to Manager Mondays, where it's all about communicating more effectively with employees.  This time, it's literally all about you.

The Summer Olympics are underway, and its viewership is reported to be the highest ever among American TV watchers.  Not just for the main events, either.  We're also glued to our screens for little-known events such as synchronized diving and skeet shooting, happily absorbed as we learn terms for feats and maneuvers that we never knew existed before this moment.   

Right now I'm watching the Japanese beach volleyball team get another Side Out.  And as I spectate, I wonder: Why are we caring so much?  What keeps us in such a prolonged fever pitch of Olympic interest?  After all, if any of these sports had been displayed in any other venue a month ago, we'd have changed channels quicker than that overhead serve the Japanese guy just hammered. So what makes all this random competition so compulsively riveting now?

Experts are saying that our sustained interest in everything Olympic is due to all the personal history we're being told about each of these athletes. For example, I just heard about how the guy playing on the American beach volleyball team has a rare medical condition that he only recently discovered by accident, when he took his wife for a check-up and the doctor happened to look at his arm.  So now I simply have to watch him play. I was going to turn off the TV to finish writing this post, but not any more.  Suddenly I care about this guy.  A few more spikes and he might need oxygen or something. Mr. American Volleyball Man may be 6 foot 9 inches tall and able to bench press three of me, but doggone it, now I'm kinda worried about him.

That, right there, is the reason why Olympic sports broadcasts don't just provide so-called "color" commentary  --  they make that commentary positively, iridescently, day-glo.  We hear everything they can dig up about every athlete, because backstories create emotional involvement.  And emotional involvement is what keeps us engaged and paying rapt attention -- even when the station goes to commercial break.

As Olympics-watchers, we're especially moved by the stories of athletes overcoming tragedy.  We're interested in what athletes do in their downtime, but we really want to know how how they keep going when they face personal setbacks.  Their real stories offer real truths that feed our inspiration.

The same is true at work.  If you want your staff to care, add some personal color commentary to your communications.  Tell some anecdotes.  Disclose some facts about yourself.  Give some history.  Explain how you overcame.  You'll get more love if you let down your guard and let your people find out a little more about you.

Of course, there are dangers to this approach, too.  There's such a thing as TMI.*  The goal is to build rapport, not be a bore.  And some stories from the past, like frat parties and failed driver's tests, might not help build your image as an inspiring leader.  But that's no reason to keep your distance.  

Here are some tips to navigate the world of self-disclosures: 

Do's and Don'ts for Sharing Background Info

Keep it short.  A woman who mentions that she ran a charity 5K last weekend gets accolades.  A woman who goes on to talk about that 5K for the next five minutes gets pegged as a self-absorbed superior do-gooder fitness freak.  There's a word to describe a boss who believes all his workers are, or should be, fascinated by everything he does and every opinion he voices.  It's called narcissistic.  Don't be that guy.

Keep it unobjectionable. Be sensitive to cultural differences, generational divides, and the limits of civil discourse. Not everyone wants to know what you new tattoo looks like, why you chose it, and where it is located.  Still fewer people want to actually be shown it.  (By the way, this kind of TMI moment is as good a reason as any to limit alcohol consumption at office parties.) 

Keep it interesting.  Describing your latest battle with the slugs on your backyard tomato plants may not be fascinating fare for non-gardeners.  However, your fight to get the squirrels out of your attic might be the kind of hilarious escapade that passes into legend.  How to tell?  Give your story idea a test drive with your friends before you launch it at work. 

Keep it "Everyman." Once I was on a non-profit task force whose chairman was a huge restaurant aficionado. He liked to talk about his outings to  expensive steak places and other five-star eateries.  At the time, I was a single mom who dreamed about affording an outing to Chuck E. Cheese. I learned to slip away from those meetings before my resentment could boil over or my depression could bottom out.  

Keep it relevant. When you kick off the budget meeting with an amusing tale about your child's lemonade stand, it can introduce an adorable "aww" factor and boost your humanity quotient.   It can also pave the way for an analogy later on: "I just don't want us to spend all our cash on lemonade mix and then run out of paper cups."

Keep it real.  The reason you're sharing your backstory is to build rapport.  Real situations from your real life will resonate with your staff.   But keep it positive, too -- otherwise people may think you're out to get sympathy.  

Keep it appropriate to the current emotional climate.  Let's say your whole department is seething with anger about the new no-overtime company policy.  Is this a good time to reminisce about buying your first new car?  Probably not.  However, sharing your stories about how the company got through a previous austerity cycle might be a helpful reminder that tough times are usually temporary.    

Be interested in other peoples' backstories, too.  If you want people to care, you need to show that you care about them.  Be curious. Strike up a conversation.  It's not considered intrusive to ask people how they manage their commute to work, or whether they have any plans for the weekend, or what they're going to do on their vacation.  Asking such questions might also lead to some unexpected common bonds.  (Who knew that Nate the new guy grows tomatoes, too, and makes a killer slug repellent from seaweed?)

Your Backstory Is Your Philosophy

When we give people a glimpse of our non-work world, we fill in some blanks about ourselves that help others "get" us better.  Anecdotes reveal priorities.  People at work want to know that their boss can understand their needs and struggles. When the college diploma on your wall draws a comment, and you  tell about how you earned it at night school while working as a furniture mover by day, that story resonates with anyone who's ever stretched to meet their goals. By telling them about your life, you show that you can relate to theirs.

In a deeper way, people can feel better about following you when you demonstrate that your life has structure and purpose in ways to which they can personally relate.  That lemonade stand story is more than cute; it shows that you're emotionally invested in your family.  It tells about how you handle power, and about the value you place on relationships. All of that context helps people respect you and care about making you proud and happy.  People up their performance when they have a boss they feel good about pleasing -- not one they feel they have to keep appeasing. 

Your self-disclosures also reveal what you think is important or praiseworthy.  The "Cab Driver Who Couldn't Find The Airport" story that you tell when you return from the business trip is not just a humorous tale; it's also an indicator of how you react to poor performance.  And when you ask your employees, "In a situation like that, do you think it's worth it to send an email to the taxi company?" you invite a discussion about values and responsibility that goes way beyond casual coffee break conversation.

We're All In This Together

Candid comments about our personal lives can add color to our working relationships.  They can level the playing field and alleviate tension. Remember, the objective of telling your backstory is to increase rapport and help your team view you as a real person, not some kind of reclusive power-monger.  The more they can share in your story, the more likely they'll remain open to your leadership.

At the same time, letting your team know more about you gives them permission to be more of who they really are.   Injecting a little of the real you into your work conversations can be a way to acknowledge, and encourage, everyone's common humanity.  And that's one way to maintain a healthy workplace culture.

Think back to the times in your life when you felt the most open with bosses or other authority figures.  You probably remember some personal facts about them.  Maybe you can recall their favorite pastimes, music preferences, or movie celebrities.  Your memory might also contain some facts about their background and career path.  How did you find out those things?  They shared their backstory.

In fact, if you had a really comfortable relationship, you might even remember their favorite Olympic sport. That reminds me: it's time for women's synchronized diving.  Did you know that both girls on the American team collect rubber ducks? Go Team USA! 

*TMI stands for Too Much Information, an expression that means the inappropriate sharing of facts that might best be left unspoken.  See tattoo comment above.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Top Tens

Here we are again at Friday Fundamentals, a series of posts whose purpose is to present helpful communications tips and techniques to help you "tell it well." This week, it's all about a proven attention-getter that sparks reader curiosity even as it moves large quantities of information into their brains.

Today the Olympic Games open with a flourish of spectacle -- and a tsunami of human interest trivia and sports statistics.  Listening to the brouhaha in the media during the past few days, I was struck by the sheer volume of facts that are being broadcast already, before the first competition even starts.  Athletes' names, countries, backgrounds, training regimens, doping histories (!), coaches, and details of their personal lives are being proclaimed with wild abandon.  Even their fast food choices are public knowledge.

And then there are the rankings: who scored what in the preliminary rounds, which teams are the odds-on favorites, and where each competitor stands in his or her quest for the gold.

All of this furor has reminded me that, when there is a lot of information to convey, it helps to size it down into something more graspable.  And one of the best devices EVER to hold audience attention when presenting a lot of information, in my opinion, is the Top Ten List.

Have you ever used a Top Ten List to add interest and variety to your regular communications?  If not, then here are --

Beth Rickert's Top Ten Reasons To Use A Top Ten List

1.  A Top Ten List adds credibility to any subject matter.  Want to reinforce your stance on a subject? Conduct a poll about it, and then publish the findings in a Top Ten list.  It's an engaging way to present  popular survey answers that underscore the point that you want to make.  

2. It injects variety.  A Top Ten List alters the pace of a long essay or speech.   It's like a background scenery change in a one-character play.  It gets you out of straight paragraph mode for a while, and your audience will enjoy the change.

3.  It appeals to basic human curiosity. Top Ten lists are fun and fascinating because they awaken the Mrs. Kravits inside of each of us.  Remember her?  She was the nosy neighbor from the old Bewitched TV show who was always peeking through the blinds, spying on Samantha Stevens next door.  We all want to know what other people think is cool, worthwhile, or important. So we latch onto Top Ten lists like leeches, because they promise to tell us what the neighbors are thinking.

4.  It allows you to pass on a great deal of detailed material in a palatable way.   Using a Top Ten list, you can present a plethora of material that might otherwise be hard to swallow, and keep your readers coming back for more.  

5.  It cashes in on the mystique of the number ten. I never have figured it out totally, but if you take a bunch of facts, number them from one to ten, and title them  "Top Ten [Whatever]," people seem to be ten times more likely to read them.  The number ten as a total quantity seems to have its own appeal.  After all, who would want to read the Top Nine ways to do anything?  Or listen to the Top Eleven songs of the week? 

6.  It lets you turn nagging into friendly persuasion.  Once I was asked by a big non-profit organization to write an article telling local organizers to send thank you letters to volunteers after that big organization's multi-site national event.  Basically I just shoveled all the relationship-building benefits of expressing gratitude into one long list and I titled it Top Ten Reasons To Say Thanks.  It was a slam dunk: the response was terrific.  It's still in their event manual, years later.

7.  Top Tens are keepers.  A very smart businesswoman I know lists her Top Ten Keys To Great Customer Service on the reverse side of her laminated business card.  That's one card that stays in prospective clients' hands, wallets, and bulletin boards and is referenced time and again. Like I said --  very smart! 

8.  David Letterman has paved the way. The late night TV show host has made the Top Ten a comic institution, giving it both cult cachet and cultural relevance.  

9.  Catch the interest of  the "numbers" people in your crowd.   Got accountants?  Engineers?  Computer scientists?  These are the types that are least likely to stick with a steady flow of words, words, words.  They see a Top Ten and they feel like they're instantly in more familiar territory.    Word-loving people like us don't get why they're automatically happier with a number standing sentry at the beginning of each paragraph, but they are. Go figure.  

10.  Turn any trivial matter into an Olympic-sized pursuit.  If you have to talk at length about a subject that your audience might feel blah about, putting your discourse into a Top Ten framework will up the ante and stir up some latent competitive energy.  

Try this example: imagine two articles in the town councilman's mass-mailer newsletter.  One is titled Town Recycling Regulations.  The other's headline is Top Ten Things To Remember When You Recycle.  Which do you feel more like reading?  

The Top Ten list, of course. That's because it not only sparks your curiosity, it also promises the potential of competitive advantage. You're already thinking: "The truck won't leave behind my bundles of cardboard at the front of my house, because I'll know the maximum dimensions, thanks to this cheat sheet here! But, ha ha ha!  My neighbor's cardboard bundle will be left behind on the curb, because it will be pathetically oversized!"

Well maybe that's both extreme and a bit distorted, but you get the point.  When you see the recycling rules formatted as a Top Ten tip sheet, you might be more inclined to feel that your town councilman is giving you a helpful resource with insider knowledge that can increase your expertise and mastery -- and less inclined to feel as though he's just bossing you around, darn his gol-danged hide!   (Hmm. I guess the town in this example is somewhere in the backwoods.) 

Aaaaaaanyway --  my Fundamentals tip of the week is just this:  try putting out your own Top Ten List the next time you need to grab people's at-TEN-tion.   

Okay, gotta run -- time to turn on the TV and watch the big preparations in London for tonight's extravaganza.  I won't be alone.  In fact, I'm sure that watching the Olympics will be one of the Top Ten activities that all my blog readers all over the world will be doing this week.  Enjoy!  Go Team USA!     

Monday, July 23, 2012

Manager Mondays: Motivational Quirkiness

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature that explores strategies for effective workforce messaging.  Today's post is about motivating staff using unconventional messaging methods.

If your summer plans include a trip to an amusement park, you'll probably encounter skee ball lanes, shooting galleries, and other so-called "games of skill" when you stroll down its midway arcade.  The young hawkers behind the counters will urge you to knock down pins, shoot water pistols at targets, or throw balls into cans.  Many times those hawkers look lifeless and uninspired, and for good reason. It's a fact that vacationers pay to go to an amusement park for the rides, not the games.  Guests have already spent a lot at the front gate for hefty admission fees, then at the concession stands for overpriced food.  By the time they make it to the midway, how many of them want to spend the few dollars left in their pockets for a slim chance to win a stuffed animal? Yet the arcade workers' summer-long mission is to try to wring more cash out of them.    
You might feel sorry for those kids who run the gamesYou might think, what a monotonous, thankless way to spend summer vacation.  Could there be a more depressing job?   

But if you happen to be visiting Worlds Of Fun, an amusement park in Kansas City, you'll encounter a different breed of young carnival barker.  The kids manning the Worlds Of Fun game kiosks will seem hilariously happy.  They'll arrive at their posts highly energized and stay that way all day.  They'll engage in all kinds of hi-jinks to cajole you into playing their games.  

If you ask them why they're smiling, you'll get a surprisingly consistent answer.  It's because they love their boss, a thirty-something college drop-out named Cole Lindbergh.   

Once a summer worker at Worlds Of Fun himself, Cole's been running the park's entire games operation fulltime for over ten years now.  He has to make sure those sorry little kiosks turn a super-sized profit.  And he does.   How?  First, by hiring extroverts; then, by making their jobs enjoyable to the point of mythical.  

Actually, Cole never outgrew the role of summer carnie midway pitchman.  Instead, he elevated it. He now pitches to the pitchmen. Cole has figured out how to creatively cajole his workers to play his game. And as he does, he becomes their role model for success.

What are Cole's key motivational strategies that help him consistently surpass his business targets?
  • Competition:  Divide workers into four teams, then lead them in a friendly sales contest that grows in intensity as the summer progresses.
  • Fun: Convert daily mandatory employee meetings into rousing pep rallies, with plenty of comedy, interaction, encouragement, and affectionate relationship-building.  
  • Originality:  Do quirky stunts to underscore best practices, including making funny music videos and posting them on Youtube.  
Yes, music videos.  Cole Lindbergh's videos about Worlds Of Fun games have become legendary, garnering thousands of Youtube hits. Parodies of popular songs, they're frenetically paced and exude tongue-in-cheek coolnessHis games workers are fanatical contributors to these projects: they help shoot, edit, and create special effects for the videos, plus they sing, dance, and act in them.  Then they watch them over and over with pride, memorizing Cole's offbeat rap-style lyrics. 

And by the way, the songs happen to be teaching tools.  They contain sales principles and scripted pitches that Cole's kids can personalize to create winsome -- and revenue-generating -- banter.  The approach may seem over the top, but it definitely works. 

"Believe me when I say, I make winners every day!"  goes a line from one video called I'm In A Game.  The kids sing along, not realizing that as they do, they're pouring a powerful identity boost into their psyche, and aligning themselves with a positive corporate mission statement.

Another video's lyric pays homage to the power of persuasion:

Sometimes people just don't play games. 
I'm asking how they're doing and they say 'No way!'
But I persist -- and I say,
'You could win a prize', and they say 'OKAY!'  

There you have it.  Effortless indoctrination into the sales technique of overcoming objections. 

The videos have also become recruiting tools, going viral in the high schools of Kansas City and guaranteeing Cole a steady stream of smart-alecky super performers.

Cole succeeds because when he selects his unusual motivational methods, he makes sure to target his specific workforce.  
  • His summer jobsters are a social, fun-loving, media savvy crowd.  Therefore, he engages social media to make their job enjoyable.  
  • Young people worship coolness and peer acceptance, so Cole gives them plenty of ways to feel cool and admired.
  • Teenagers are rebellious.  Cole has crafted a boss persona that is awkwardly hip and endearingly anarchistic -- and as far from parental as you can get.  
  • People in this age bracket crave variety and succumb easily to boredom, so Cole presses the Refresh button constantly: he roams the arcade wearing outlandish disguises, brandishing goofy props, and pulling surprise stunts that keep his gamesters in a state of good humor and anticipation all season long.
  • Young people have identity struggles and want to feel significant.  Cole dispenses recognition in many ways to shore up their self-esteem and foster a tribal atmosphere of belonging and trust.    

Can you learn from a Cole Lindbergh?  Others have.  He's made a video of leadership tips which you can view here.  In it he shares his advice to other managers who have trouble motivating their employees.  Among his tips: four serious principles for getting the best from your staff: 
1. Be honest
2. Be loyal
3. Be enthusiastic
4. Treat others the way you would want to be treated.

For a behind-the-scenes portrayal of Cole's approach, click here for a link to an audio podcast that aired last year on the PBS radio show This American Life.  

As he plays the role of lovable loser to his staff of one hundred young carnies, Cole Lindbergh shows us a workforce communications style where witty meets wise.  Some managers might draw the line at appearing silly, but Cole boldly crosses that line to get big results. Ask yourself:  What am I willing to do to make a connection with my employees and motivate them to succeed?

With a little midway luck, I bet you can think of your own original, fun, and good-natured competitive ways to help your workers love what they do, and in the process turn them into your dream team.  

Are you game?  Step right up and give it a try! 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: The Chicken Check-in, or Organizing Content for Better Retention

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series that presents insider tips for crafting good communications.  This time we're crowing about simple ways to make any message easier to remember.

Pop quiz!  Answer quickly.   How many chickens are in the barnyard in this picture?  Go ahead, count them -- I'll wait.  (Humming in background: Old MacDonald Had a Farm... )  Got your total now?  Read on to find out if you're right.  And don't worry; this is all leading somewhere.

Did you say two?  Wrong.  Here's a hint: Chicken number three is standing half in shade, half in sunlight, in the upper left quadrant of the picture.  But don't take it too hard.  You're  proving a point for me.  Keep reading.

If you found three, you're right -- sort of.  There are three chickens visible to the average viewer: two  in the foreground, and one in the background. Keep reading.

If you counted seven, you probably used the maximum magnification setting on your monitor to discover that there are four more chicken-sized silhouettes in the background, barely visible in the shadows.  But the seventh one on the far right is actually some kind of peacock.   

So the trick answer is really six -- but never mind that.  I put you through this exercise to illustrate a point.  Follow me now as I explain:
1.  The chickens represent concepts.  
2.  The barnyard is your short-term memory.  
3.  Keeping track of the chickens in the barnyard is trickier than you think.

Neurological Limits to Learning Retention

Back when I was first studying the principles of adult learning, I was told that an adult's short-term memory can retain a maximum of  seven concepts at a time.  I've since found out that that's a generalization.  Actually, depending on the individual and the situation, the maximum number of items that short term memory can process simultaneously is more likely to be five.  And like the chickens in the picture above, only a few of those items are actually in the "foreground" of short term memory at any one time.

What does this mean for communicators?  Precisely this: if there are lots of separate facts in your material, it's best to train them out in blocks of five or fewer.  This makes it easier for your audience to fit them into their memories and get comfortable with them -- an essential consideration if you want your audience to add them into their current knowledge "database" and deploy them later in practical ways.  

Also, for maximum retention it helps to present those facts in a way that sets them into clear relationship with each other and highlights their relevance.  That way, your audience can painlessly see their connection to practical usage. 

Introducing Your Chickens

Think of the barnyard analogy.  Let's say you're a chicken farmer showing off your chickens to some visitors.  You point to a chicken and introduce it by name:  "This one over here's named Trudy."  Your visitors register that chicken and input it briefly into their memory.  But as soon as you point out another chicken (Amy), then another (Wanda), the visitors start to waver in confusion.  To them, the chickens look pretty similar.  Which one is which?   

You, the farmer, may be serenely unaware of their state of mind.  That's because you're operating within your area of expertise.  Your memory is steeped in lore about your familiar and beloved chickens.  When you say each one's name, a flood of background knowledge  infuses your brain with recognition, meaning, and positive emotions.  

The visitors to your farm, however, experience none of that reassuring rush of context.  Their short-term memories soon get overheated.  By the time you introduce the seventh chicken (Bridget, who's actually a Congo peahen), your visitors have forgotten the name of Chicken #1.  (Can you remember it now without looking back a few paragraphs?)  

In fact, at this point in the story, your visitors may have detached entirely.  Having become increasingly frustrated at their inability to follow your chicken roll call, they  may be heading back to their car, without even stopping to buy eggs at your farm stand.  Are they to blame?  No -- you are. You should have  introduced your chickens in a user-friendly way by using some simple devices to organize your content for better retention

Okay, freeze.  Take a step back.  Assess your own engagement level with this story, at this moment. I hope you're following along smoothly, because so far I've already used a few of those simple devices to retain your interest and connection to my material.  And if you're still reading, that means they've worked.

Here they are:

Six Ways to Organize Your Content to Empower Learning Retention

A.  Plan for an Engaging Presentation - To have a stronger impact, enhance your delivery.  You can:
  • Employ multimedia - Add a variety of sound and/or images to plain words. 
  • Give opportunities for interaction - Invite your audience to enter into the presentation, via games, discussion, Q & A segments, etc.
B.  Organize Into Subgroups - As noted before, it's a stretch to expect people to retain more than five items at a time.  To reduce complexity:
  • Present points in sequence - Fit your content into a natural progression that will make the most sense to your audience. 
  • Highlight  categories or common themes - Package and pace your material so that your audience can receive it smoothly and store it into their long-term memory in neat bundles  of comprehension.
C.   Give Illustrations - It helps to put your new information into an existing framework that's already within your audience's "comfort zone." To do this: 
  • Use a familiar analogy - A string of abstract concepts is easier to grasp when you can say "It's just like..." and relate it to something that your audience already understands.  
  • Use storytelling -  Weave your material into a narrative that personalizes it for your audience and captures their imagination. 
These are just a few of the many ways you can organize your content to increase your message's perceived value, impact, and usability.  

Think of the next communication you need to craft.   Do a "chicken check-in" before you do anything else.  

  • What are the new ideas you need to introduce?
  • How many are there?  
  • How can you group them so that your audience has no more than five new things to remember at a time?
  • How else can you organize your ideas to help your audience easily map them for future reference? 
It's no use introducing your chickens if they're going to fly the coop.  If you think you can do an indiscriminate info dump on your audience and still get awesome "egg production" (results), you're counting your chickens before they hatch.  Instead, incubate your ideas just a little more to nest them into categories and groupings that will hatch the outcomes you want to see.  

When you organize your content well,  your target audience will remember it well --  and apply your words of wisdom in ways that will make you rule the roost.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Manager Mondays: Dealing With The Silence, Part 2

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature about crafting good internal organizational messaging.  This is the second post in a two-part series.  Last week, we talked about developing a state of high trust to set the stage for honest feedback-gathering.  This week: some ideas for how to get people to talk, once trust has been established. 

Answer this question honestly:  

When you start conversations at work about troubleshooting problems or improving quality, which type of response are you more likely to get from your team: 
  • imaginative engagement
  • noncommittal neutrality
  • robotic resentment 
Would you like to improve the quality of that response?  Then read on...

It's interesting how many  expressions in the English language equate dialogue with battle.  Having a difficult conversation is described as navigating a minefield.  A failure to persuade is often grounds for bringing in the big guns.  And when someone is asked to give his opinion, he may respond, "That's a loaded question."   Loaded with what?  I don't think we mean marshmallows!  Dynamite, more likely.  

All of these battle metaphors should tell us something: the average person often feels threatened when called upon to speak out.  

This is especially true in the context of relationships with power inequality, such as the boss-employee relationship.  Managers need to be aware that to employees, a seemingly harmless question from the boss can seem as dangerous as a bomb thrown into their midst.  

The key to getting good feedback is to defuse the inherent bomb-like quality of questions.  Here are some simple ways to do that. 

1.  Frame feedback questions as invitations, and feedback answers as contributions.  Always allow feedback to be voluntary. Solicit people's ideas the same way you would solicit extra donations of time or money.  The truth is, your company pays your people to do the tasks in their job descriptions,  but you don't own their brains.  You should never assume that you have the right to their innermost opinions. Instead, ask for their input the same way you would ask people to participate in a charity event:  

a.  Invite them to participate in a worthy causeDon't just mention the kind of information you're looking for; also state the outcome you hope to achieve. For example, you might say, "Please help us improve our ____  program by sharing your thoughts about _____."   (This should be perceived as an outcome that is for the good of all.  If not, you may need to offer incentives to participate, such as bagels and donuts, free movie tickets, etc.) 

b.  Explain the extent of the commitment you'e asking for. Just as you would define what is expected from participants at a charity event, let your people know exactly how they'll be expected to share their opinions.  Are you asking them to attend a meeting to discuss a certain topic?   Respond to a few questions via email?  Participate in an online survey? Drop by your office for a chat?  Paint a detailed picture.

c.  Articulate limits right from the start.  State whether any consequences or further actions might result from employee's participation in this feedback-gathering process.  Reiterate how comments will be used, and how they won't be used. If the topic is of a sensitive nature, give formal reassurances of anonymity, confidentiality, etc. Let people know to what extent their remarks might be shared with others in the company, and how.

d.  Afterwards, send a follow-up email with your thanks for participants' feedback, and let them know the results, however minimal. The point is to let people know that they made a difference.  For instance: "We were able to pass along several great suggestions to the _____ department." or, "Your insightful input will help guide future work on streamlining the _____ system."  Tie it back to the worthy cause: "This will keep our ____ program on track to yield optimal results toward this year's goal of  _____."

2.  Whenever you ask for feedback, craft your inquiries with soft edges.  Remember the expression "loaded question" and take the time to prepare questions beforehand so they come across as unloaded as possible.

a.   Talk about possibly, not definitely.  Back off from black-and-white questions.  Remember that power inequality is a factor, and requests for firm conclusions might sound too demanding.  Instead, use phrases such as: "What might be a better way to.."  "What could be the cause of..."  "What factors may be contributing to..."

b.  Use question formats that are easy to answer.   Rehearse the possible answers a person might give to determine whether the question is going where you want it to go. If a question seems complicated, break it down into two or more separate questions.  Use simple, straightforward language.  Offer options to pick from.   (Survey Monkey, which offers ten-question surveys for free, also gives tips on how to construct questions.  If you're not experienced in this area,  I recommend using Survey Monkey to design your questions, even if you don't use their online survey to deliver them.)

c.  Keep all queries blame-neutral.  Never force people to point the finger at people -- themselves or anyone else --  even in confidential surveys or private conversations.  Doing so would betray any high trust  (see the first blog post in this series). Instead, construct questions so they focus on identifying systems, tools or processes that might need to be revised.

d.  Finally, don't be stupid.  Phrase questions objectively.  People can  tell when you're fishing for your own agenda.  A friend of mine recently showed me an anonymous employee satisfaction survey that his workplace distributed.  An "Agree or Disagree" section contained statements very similar to these:   
"I am grateful for the opportunities that XYZ Company has afforded me."  
"I constantly think about ways that I can improve my performance for XYZ Company." 
"Since XYZ Company treats me so well, I should always be loyal to XYZ Company." 
"I know that XYZ Company management always has my best interests at heart."
"If XYZ Company gives me more employee benefits, I should work harder for XYZ Company."
If you think I'm making this up, I'm not.  My friend and I marveled at the audacity of anyone who would send out such a ridiculous survey, but there it was. Talk about loaded!  This is not feedback-gathering.  It's abuse.  And its effect will be as destructive as dynamite to the culture and morale of that workforce.  

Don't think you can coerce people into collaborating with you to solve your company's problems.  And don't invite passive sabotage by bullying your people into supplying feedback.  Instead, invest time and effort to design feedback-gathering initiatives that make your employees feel like valued experts.  Work hard to earn your team's trust.  Then give them a forum for the honest exchange of ideas, criticism, and realistic commentary.  They will repay you, not with robotic, resentful compliance, but with interested, imaginative engagement.  

And silence will be a thing of the past.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Know Your Target Audience

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a weekly feature of this blog devoted to improving your communications skills.  This time we're talking about improving your odds of attaining your communications objectives by understanding exactly whom it is you're trying to reach.

When you craft a piece of writing, a verbal presentation, or an email, you start with a pretty good idea of your message, or  what you want to say.  You're also clear about your mission, or what you want to accomplish.  But to help your message fulfill its mission, you also need to know your market -- that is, the segment of the population that you want to reach.

"Market?"  I can hear some of you saying.  "Isn't that a very sales-y way to put it?"  Yes, it is.  Face it, all you artists and English majors: if you're looking to impact people with your words, you are seeking to sell to them.  The transaction looks like this:

Basic Communications Success Formula
  1. I present you with ideas, packaged in the form of writing, speech, or other medium; 
  2. You give me the response I want, packaged in the form of approval, attention, belief, action, or (possibly even) money.
It's a sale, all right.  Why else do we call it "reader buy-in"?

So make like a Marketing major, and do some serious thinking about who's on the receiving end of your message. Profile your audience. Start by asking: What are...

  • Their unifying elements -- What do these people have in common?  Are they professionals, management, or entrepreneurs? Homeowners or renters?  Baby boomers or Gen-X'ers?  
  • Their priorities -- What do they think is important?  What are their wants, needs, pursuits, hobbies, and interests?
  • Their propensities -- What behaviors do they usually exhibit, and when?   Are they passive or active?   Do they respond to intellectual rationale, or emotional pitches?  
  • Their boogiemen -- What are they fearful or anxious about?   What things threaten their sense of well-being?  What risks do they always have on their radar?
  • Their dreams -- What transcendent ideas matter to them?  What fuels their passion to make a difference?  What legacy do they seek to leave?
Answering these questions will help you develop a distinct picture of the people to whom you're aiming your communication. With this profile in mind,  you'll naturally find yourself selecting words and illustrations that resonate with your target group, and rejecting approaches, concepts and metaphors that will turn them off.

The concept of profiling came to life for me when I helped develop and implement a sales training course.  The learners were taught to chat with a prospective buyer and listen for facts that would help them sell.  For instance, if the prospect mentioned that he had a very busy life, the salesperson would mentally add that fact to his customer profile and highlight the time-saving features of the product.  If the prospect was facing financial challenges, the salesperson would highlight the product's cost-saving features.

The salesperson who conducts customer profiling in this way seeks to gain a sales advantage by sorting a potential customer's verbal clues to match a product to their needs and wishes.  In a similar way, we communicators need to present our "product" in a way that captures the' interest and imagination or our target audience.

The best communication presentations are the ones that draw nods, elicit sympathy, and spark affinity.  They make people laugh, or cry.  They inspire them to take action, or hold their ground.  We say that they hit home.  But how can you hit home unless you've first discovered where your listeners live, moment by moment -- in their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and concerns? 

Too often, writers write as though they think they have an automatic psychic bond with the people they want to impact. Or, worse still, they assume that their readers' tastes and motivations mirror their own.  They don't really think about who they're writing to.  It's the equivalent of talking to someone without looking them in the eye.   The wise communicator will try her best to find out ahead of time exactly who her listeners are, and approach her topic in the way that most respects their point of view. 

Blindly stereotyping your audience is a bad way to proceed.  People interpret stereotyping as contempt -- and they're right.   Do NOT make assumptions.  Nothing aggravates an audience more than being told who they should be, or  what they should be thinking, feeling or doing.  

However, having an accurate picture of your audience will empower your communication.  If people sense that you understand them and have their interests at heart, they will allow your message to proceed past their defense perimeters.   

Don't go into your communication blindfolded, trusting in your awesome writing ability to make a psychic connection with your readers.  Care enough about your communications goal to research exactly whom you're trying to reach.   Then use that awareness to edit out anything in your message that might communicate non-acceptance or accentuate the differences between your world and theirs.  

Are you sending your communications out scatter-shot, assuming they will find their mark?  Or are you delivering your ideas with targeting precision?


Monday, July 9, 2012

Manager Mondays: Dealing With The Silence, Part 1

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature about good workforce messaging.  Today we're starting a 2-part series about getting silent employees to speak up.

Here's a common business communications scenario:
a. A manager sees something that alerts him to a potential problem.
b. That manager investigates the issue in question by asking his direct reports.
c. Crickets.*

Does this ever happen to you?

If it does, then you may be in need of some serious crisis intervention, and not even know it.  Because worker silence in the workplace is usually a tip-off that the culture is polarized, and communications are pretty badly stifled.

More about polarized culture in a future post.  It's a big topic and I want to give it big treatment, eventually.  For now, let's just focus on fixing those silent shrugs and  zipped lips.

In his somewhat dated but still-insightful book, Unblocking Organizational Communication, pioneering British behavioral scientist Dave Francis tells us that the number one reason for silent employees is insufficient trust.  He states that in order to have communication that sustains a healthy community, a condition of high trust is indispensable.  Francis defines high trust as a state in which "people trust those with power."  (Similarly, one of my other favorite authorities on organizational dynamics, Pat Lencioni, identifies lack of trust as the most basic dysfunction in his well-known book The Five Dysfunctions of A Team.)  

Francis describes high trust as an 'enabling force' that allows organizational vitality to flow constructively.  That means that people are working for the organization, not against it.  He calls high trust "the outcome of a sound 'psychological contact' between leaders and led."  Where trust is not high, people tend to use use silence as a barbed wire barricade to protect themselves.

To Turn Down The Silence, Turn Up The Trust

Francis' three-part recipe for developing high trust in the workplace is simple:
  • honesty
  • consistency
  • realism
So, here's a very simple two-part diagnostic to identify the source of any silence, using these three measures to evaluate how high the trust is in your group.

First, ask yourself: How do I score my own messaging?   Think back to your interchanges over the past year or so.  Give yourself a grade for each of these criteria on a scale of 0 to 10. For instance, for honesty, 1 would equal "I lie all the time," and 10 would equal "I always tell the truth."  (For extra credit, you can also ask a couple of your staff members to grade your messaging in these three areas.  But if they shoot a reply right back to you and give you 3 10's, be warned: you are either a communications god, or you may have far deeper trust problems than you realize!)

Second, once you have your own scores figured out, ask yourself:  How does my parent organization's messaging score on these three fronts?  Think of recent awareness campaigns, media events, press releases, and organizational announcements from the C-suite.  Do your top execs have blogs,  send newsletters, make speeches, or post videos on the company website?  Then consider those as well.   Include any messaging that goes to you and your level of management, as well as messaging targeted to the whole organization and the public.  How honest, consistent, and realistic have they been lately?

This little armchair exercise can give you a pretty reliable indication of where any silence-causing gaps in trust are originating.  They can also pinpoint where the communications repair work has to start.  Because if trust is not high in any one of these areas, fear will tend to permeate the whole culture.  And where there is fear, people don't open up -- they clam up.

The truth is, a company can spend huge amounts of time and technology developing ways to capture employee feedback, but if the top-down messaging doesn't score well in the areas above, any money spent on surveys, studies, and suggestion boxes will produce skewed results. In fact, such efforts can actually increase the communication distortion.  In my jaded opinion, the more that a company employs external consultants to find out what its employees are really thinking and feeling, the more prone it may be to massage the ultimate findings beyond recognition to protect the top executives' version of reality --  making it all a wasted exercise.  In such a case, the board and the shareholders may hear a perky presentation on company morale, complete with pie charts and percentages --  but everyone else winds up in the same roomful of crickets, as stony silences persist. 

Regardless of how well your company is doing, is there a way for you to increase the honest feedback from your troops?  Yes -- simply by adhering to rigorous discipline in the simple areas of honesty, consistency, realism -- and above all, acting from honorable motives.  Or as a highly-trusted colleague of mine once put it when asked about her own approach: "doing the right thing."  The wonderful news:  there is nothing that is preventing you from shifting gears today to do honest, consistent, and realistic messaging... in all your interactions, in all situations, with all your people.  It may take some personal rewiring, but the results are well worth it.  

The Consequences of Crickets

Here's a true story to illustrate the importance of dismantling the communications barricades at your workplace. Last Friday I had lunch with my friend Laura, a top-performing and well-respected health care professional who recently changed jobs.  I asked her how it was going.  "Oh, my new job is so much better. It's like night and day!" she exulted.  Intrigued -- and thinking of future blog posts --  I invited her to tell me more.  It turned out that her new place of employment was within the same health care network as her old one, in her same health care field of concentration.  Plus, she was doing exactly the same things she did in her old job.  The big difference was the climate.  "At this office, everyone just cares. The staff and the bosses are friendly and open with each other.  You can say how you really feel."

In Laura's case, high trust was the make-or-break factor in her decision about where she would contribute her considerable skills, expertise, integrity and talent.  This brings to mind one of my personal career mottoes (and I have many):  "Healthy organizations attract healthy people; unhealthy organizations attract unhealthy people."  

Do you want to attract and keep high-calibre Lauras on your team?  You need to deal with the silence.  

Silence in the workplace says plenty .  If you suspect that you aren't hearing trustworthy feedback from your people, turn your inner investigative camera on yourself for a while and rank your own trustworthiness.  Then start messaging so that your staff gets the message that it's safe to open up.  

Can your staff say how they really feel, without fearing repercussion?  Do you speak with them honestly, consistently and realistically -- so they feel able to do the same with you?  

If your company has crickets*, the only effective exterminator you can call is yourself.  

How does the topic of workplace silence resonate with you?  Leave a comment below... and return next week for Dealing With The Silence, Part 2.

*For my international readers: crickets are American insects who emit soft chirping sounds at night, when all other noises have ceased. They've come to symbolize an environment of utter unbroken quiet.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Prezi and the Further Death Of PowerPoint

Hi Friday Fundamentals followers,

Feeling adventurous?  

Do you have a little time this weekend to explore a new, refreshing  way to communicate?

Meet Prezi, a presentation format that allows you and your ideas to escape the plodding, predictable rhythm of the linear PowerPoint world.

With a Prezi presentation, you can zoom in, zoom out, and zoom all around your story.  You can display it in order, or take it out of order -- back up, skip ahead, then go back  again, with only a click or two -- and without disorienting your viewers.  Once you place your material on Prezi's mural-like master backdrop, the screen becomes your tool to spontaneously focus your audience's attention anywhere you want.

I'm just a beginning Prezi user myself, but already I'm sold.  

Seeing this concept firsthand is much better than reading about it, so I'd like to share with you my first very Prezi.  I developed it to showcase the innovative process flow that  my team used during Convoy of Hope's recent Long Island charity event (more about that event here.).  It has a few rough edges, but it's a good showcase for what a Prezi can do.

Before you take a look, I want to warn you: navigating Prezi is deceptively simple.  You can zoom in by clicking on any part of the image.  Then, zoom out by clicking anywhere on the surrounding background. Or use the side scroll bar to center the image on your screen, then use the forward arrow on the bottom navigation bar to advance the show in its already-programmed sequence.  (Wow, talking about it is a lot more complicated than just doing it.)

Ready?  Click here to begin.  When you're done experimenting, come back here to read the rest of the post.

---  pause for Prezi viewing  ---

Are you back?  What did you think?

If my sample Prezi has made you eager to try it for yourself, type the following url into your browser window to set up your own Prezi account for free:

Or watch the new series of youtube videos that the Prezi gang has just published for beginning users by clicking here.

Prezi is so intuitive it's addictive, but first you have to adjust to the fluidity of its design process.  Hint:  if you relax and treat Prezi like a videogame, you'll soon be whizzing around the screen, placing text, sizing fonts and importing images like a media mad scientist.

One downside: if you have to re-enter the PowerPoint world after playing with Prezi (as I do, since I'm currently finalizing a PowerPoint training module that I need to deliver next Tuesday), prepare yourself for a big psychological shift.  It's going to feel heavy, like the sensation you get when you haul yourself back up out of the pool after a nice frolic in the water.  No worries --  your Prezi will be there again when you're free to dive back in.  You can even convert your existing PowerPoint presentations into Prezis.  Try it, and then invite your next audience to jump into the Prezi pool right along with you.  I guarantee they'll be enchanted and  impressed.

I hope you like Prezi.  Enjoy the new-found freedom of the zoomable presentation -- and leave a comment to tell us about your first im-Prezi-ions!  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom of Expression

Hi remarkable communicators,

I have an awesome tracking tool for this blog that allows me to see where my "hits" are coming from -- that is, which countries in the world my audience comes from.

Amazingly, in the past month I have had dozens of viewers visit Remarkable Messaging from all over the globe, including the UK, China,  Malaysia, Germany (hi Pete!), Singapore, Russia and Ukraine.

So to all my far-flung readers, I want to say: we are having a wonderful Independence Day here in the United States.

  • Local New York news radio is focusing on the "cooling centers" scattered around the city, safety tips for the elderly and infirm during today's hot temperatures, the Nathan's hot dog eating contest at Coney Island, and the Macy's fireworks display on the Hudson River tonight.
  • In national news, the presidential campaign is in full battle mode.
  • Human interest stories include barbecue grilling tips, fireworks safety, and appreciation of veterans groups.
  • The health care debate is still as hot as ever.  "Tax, or penalty?" Discussions are all over the dial on talk radio stations.
  • Feature stories are showing repair crews from as far away as Canada converging on the Mid Atlantic states and people griping about utility companies being too slow in restoring power after a powerful thunderstorm hit the Washington, D.C area some days ago. 
  • We are mourning the death yesterday of a beloved TV and movie personality, Andy Griffith, and remembering his contributions.
This may not sound like an especially uplifting collection of communications.  But to me, it's fantastic.  Because we have a country where anyone can get on a camera and say what they think about anything.  We are deeply divided much of the time, but always united in our conviction that by golly, we should be able to say whatever we feel is important to say.

Freedom of speech is a concept we take very seriously here in America.  No one will arrest you for bad-mouthing the president.  You won't get thrown in jail for singing the wrong song or displaying the wrong slogan on your T shirt.  You can print a flyer about anything, pass it out on the street corner to anyone, and your family won't get threatened.  

On the other hand, if you attack someone or vandalize their property because you don't like their race, religion or sexual orientation, you WILL be in trouble -- because they have freedom to express, and live out, their identity and beliefs just as much as you do.  Even so, you won't be pulled down the street by a mob and beaten.  You'll get some cops at your door and a summons to appear before a court.  Your case will be tried with a jury of your peers doing all the heavy lifting about guilt, innocence, and/or punishment.  

There are lots of things wrong with America, of course.  But a lot of things are right.  Our standards of freedom can seem too excessive at some points, too restrictive at others.  But the point is, freedom itself is still a bedrock non-negotiable for Americans.  

On our Independence Day, 2012, this country is still celebrating, squabbling, debating, singing, complaining, and rhapsodizing.  And precious little of that conversation is ever subdued by fear of reprisal.  Because we have a right to say what we want to say, doggone it.  And say it we do.  

As communicators, let's take a moment today to be grateful for every country in the world that allows freedom of speech. And let's say a prayer for those countries that don't.  

Oops, maybe not.  There are some public venues in our Fourth of July festivities today where a prayer from the podium would not be permitted.  Civil liberties legislation has seen to that. 

Well, the debate continues.  What constitutes freedom of speech, and when do you have to be silenced for infringing on others' sense of freedom?  Boundaries keep shifting, differences keep fomenting.  The point is, debate IS allowed, and laws ARE possible to change, and the political process IS owned by the people.

God bless America -- and help us cherish our freedom of speech enough to keep arguing about it.