My kids often get asked what they want to be when they grow up.
They respond with various different job roles or industries, just like I did as a kid. Fireman, teacher, photographer, footballer, solicitor etc.
With hind-sight (and of course, everything is perfect with hindsight), I wished I had responded with the sort of person I was going to become, not the job I would have.
Not just the sort of person I was going to become, but a set of behaviours that I would deploy.
Behaviours that could transcend careers and make me effective no matter what career I ended up in.
And those behaviours, in my opinion, are outstanding communication behaviours.
What do you want to be when you grow up? An effective communicator.
Excellent communication skills are universal. They transcend careers, jobs and industries. They are wholly lacking from most workplaces. They will set you apart from others. They really can be a super power in the world of work.
In this post we’re going to look at the 11 principles that I’ve seen be successful in my life and that I teach in my online learning course. They’re also the foundation of the award winning Superpower at work in-person Workshop. And there’s a reason it wins awards – I apply all 11 to the workshop too!
How did I come up with the 11?
I studied communication at School, College and University. I still study it today.
Early in my career though, I knew the theory, but I couldn’t realise it in practice. I was useless at communicating in the workplace.
So, I studied great communicators in the workplace and deconstructed what they did. I added this to my theory to understand how it all pieced together in real life.
I started speaking on the conference circuit and sucked. So I deconstructed amazing talks I found online. I got rid of the superficial advice most presentation coaches teach and stripped it back to the science underneath.
After all, for every presenter who had high energy and used structured arm movements (classic advice), there was a speaker who did the opposite but had an amazing talk. So it was more than just the classic advice – it ran deeper than that.
I came up with the 11, after years of studying high performers.
These 11 became the foundation of the Communication Workshop and Zero To Keynote workshops. They became the foundation of myself.
There were two other reasons why I applied these. And when I understood these two – my career really took off.
Relationships are how the world works
With good relationships you can have crunchy conversations, grow your network, influence people, inspire groups of people, play politics, get work done, discover opportunities others don’t get to see & be recommended for jobs, promotions and work.
How do you build relationships? Through effective communication one person at a time – ideally face to face.
Many people focus almost entirely on business effectiveness (actually, plenty of people don’t focus here at all, nor on being liked but that’s for another post…..), often at the detriment to their relationships in work and life.
Getting business results is essential. But so too is being liked, admired, respected and trusted. And this is done through communication. Person to person.
It’s about being consistent, clear, resonating with others and having the awareness to know when to be liked and when to be effective.
Sometimes we have to be effective and disliked. Sometimes we have to be liked at the expense of business results, for example if someone is not delivering because they are going through emotional challenges.
But most of the time we need to tread the line between the two.
We must continuously balance being effective and liked. Great communication skills is how to do it.
Power is required for influence
There’s only one form of power (the ability to get stuff done) in an organisation that is sustainable – that is relationship power. (Idea hat tip to Manager-tools.)
Here’s a triangle explaining the three main types of power at play in an organisation. Role power, relationship power and expertise power.
Role power is given by title and position (and many people don’t deserve either of these). When role power is abused it becomes destructive and tyrannical.
Expertise power is useful and helpful. Let’s say you’re the only person who knows how a process at work works. You have power. Power to get a pay rise, power to do what you like, power to influence decisions. But without relationship power, it can become corrosive, and when you are no longer the expert – what else do you have?
The third power in an organisation, and is open to all of us, no matter what position or level in an organisation is Relationship power.
This is why I focus almost entirely on building, maintaining and supporting positive relationships. It’s how the world of work (and life) works.
The 11 principles
Here are the 11 principles that underpin my view of communication.
- All communication has a Purpose, Audience, Context
- Be Enthusiastic
- Communication is something the audience does
- Stories go where facts cannot
- Don’t waste the audiences time – know your content
- Practice is preparation
- People remember how you make them feel
- Non-verbal is a superpower
- People resonate with those who are like them
- You CAN hack your body
- Listening is the greatest compliment
1 – All communication has a Purpose, Audience, Context
My awesome professor at University made this his foundation for all he taught, and it stuck with me.
He used to fall off stage. Or walk out of the room mid-sentence. Or drop his notes.
He was the craziest lecturer I had at University.
But he got our attention every time he did one of his acts. It snapped us back in the room.
I’ll never forget him.
His lectures were the ones that stuck with me the most. He was an expert communicator – but then, what do you expect from a world-renowned lecturer of communication?
He taught us that everything we do (even when we stand still and say nothing) is a form of communication.
And communication always has a purpose, an audience and it happens in a context.
The more we become aware of our purpose, the more chance we have of getting our communication right. The more purposes we try to shoe-horn into our communication – the harder it is to get it right.
Let’s say you’re putting together a talk for your colleagues and your purpose is to get them excited for a new way of working.
Being efficient, you also try to educate them about the new accounting system at the same time. You also see yourself as a cultural ambassador, so you also try to get them onboard with a new HR scheme around giving back to the community. But this new way of working (main purpose for communicating) is a big impact to them, and all you’ve done with the other items is water down the message.
Great communicators are clear about what they want to achieve. And they do the hard work (even if this means multiple messages) to get that purpose done.
I see people mixing purposes of communication all the time and it rarely works.
Pick a single purpose – what’s the main point? And stick with it.
Make the communication about that purpose and little else. There are other opportunities to communicate the other points.
Everything we do also has an audience.
Who are you seeking to communicate with? Who are you trying to reach? Who do you want to influence? And how do they like to be communicated with?
If you know a lot about your audience then tailor the communication for THEM, not for you. If it means using a different style to resonate with them, so be it.
The more audiences you have, the harder it will be to get it right. Narrow it down.
I once saw an amazing talk at a tech conference by a woman from corporate HR. She was brilliant and the talk resonated with me given my work in HR.
The problem was, the majority of the audience wanted a technical talk – they were developers there to learn about code and tooling. They were mostly less than impressed.
The feedback devastated her, but she was simply at the wrong conference, in-front of the wrong audience. It wasn’t her audience.
Should she have tailored her communication? Maybe. More likely the conference organisers should have lined up someone else. Wrong audience, wrong conference.
Be sure you have the right audience. Be sure that when you do have the right audience, you tailor the message to them.
All communication happens in a context.
Are you communicating through a tweet, from the stage, in times of trouble, in a group setting, face to face, emotionally charged?
What dynamics are happening in the room, environment, audience? Is it a noisy room? Do you have people from different cultures? Is the medium the right choice? Is the company going through hard times? Or enjoying rapid growth?
As with Purpose and Audience, the more contexts that are at play, the harder it is to get your communication right. You’ve heard the saying “it was taken out of context”. Very real.
Great communicators get clear about what they are trying to do, who they are trying to reach and in what context that communication will happen – and they narrow down and get it right.
This may mean they have to repeat the message in different communication deliveries, like a meeting, an email and then face to face. But communication is hard.
Don’t try to be efficient with communication at the expense of being effective.
Your audience demands and deserves good communication.
Think about what they want, and if you have to leap through rings of fire to make it effective – do it. It’s not about you. It’s about them.
Get clear about your purpose, audience and understand what context the communication will happen in.
And spend time working on your message to get it right. It takes time, care and consideration, and few people put that sort of effort into what they do, say and send.
And when you do – and you practice, learn and get it right – you will have a rare Super Power in the world of work.
And it all starts with knowing what you are trying to achieve, who you are trying to reach and in what contexts that communication will take place.
When I ask people to be enthusiastic, do you know what they do?
They start being animated and waving their arms around.
That’s not being enthusiastic, unless that’s your default behaviour. That’s being animated.
Get yourself on to the internet and search for TED talks. Find them and then watch 20 random talks.
Almost all of the presenters are enthusiastic about what they do, but they all have different ways of delivering it. Some are animated and have high energy, some are calm and confident, others seem shy and nervous, but you can tell they are passionate about what they are speaking about.
Most presentation training is nonsense. They’ll teach you to walk the stage, go big and go home with your hands and to add energy yada yada.
Not true. Watching talks online shows this.
Instead, be enthusiastic about what you’re communicating first, then address any flaws in your presentation or communication style. After all, we don’t have to be on stage to be enthusiastic – we should use this concept in every form of communication we do.
Enthusiasm is contagious.
Why do you need to be enthusiastic?
You’re highly unlikely to convince somebody of your argument without enthusiasm. If you’re not enthusiastic about it – why should they be?
And in most communication, we are indeed trying to influence someone to do something.
- “Buy this”
- “Support this new idea”
- “Give me some money”
- “Help me”
- “Promote me”
- “Hire me”
Enthusiasm is not drama, acting, bouncing across stage. It is energy, focus, knowledge and intention on a subject. People can see it, feel it and be moved by it. People want to be around enthusiastic people.
How to be enthusiastic
Find something to be enthusiastic about.
This sounds stupid but many people simply aren’t enthusiastic about what they do.
If that’s true – are you really doing the right things? It’s going to be tricky to be enthusiastic about something you are not enthusiastic about.
If you really aren’t enthusiastic about something, then act enthusiastically. Find something in what you’re doing to be enthusiastic about. Throw yourself in to your idea, work or thoughts. Find some way to drive out enthusiasm.
Or simply pretend – if that’s what you need to do.
But be careful. People will see through fake enthusiasm quickly. And it will be draining to fake enthusiasm about something you have no care for. That’s not a life.
And if there really is nothing to be enthusiastic about in your work or message – then find something else to do.
It’s why the best salespeople in the world excel at selling things they believe in. After all, if you have a good product you believe in, you can sell it without any doubts. You’ll be enthusiastic about something you believe in.
Be aware though, sometime enthusiasm is not needed. For example, if you’re about to make 50 people redundant – try not to be too enthusiastic about it.
Again, what’s the purpose, audience and context? Understand these elements and apply enthusiasm at the right time and in the right doses.
Communication is something the audience does
The listener does indeed share some responsibility for communication to happen, but how many people do we work with who just aren’t interested or engaged? Plenty.
If we send an email, address a room, build a PowerPoint, drop a text message or have a face to face conversation and the listener does NOT understand/receive/interpret the message then we have failed to communicate.
It is our fault.
We must understand why our communication doesn’t land.
A lot of this has to do with Purpose, Audience and Context, but we should also truly try to understand the other person(s) we are communicating with and move more to THEIR preference for communication.
This is where DISC becomes a really helpful tool. I’ve covered this before here. When I run a communication workshop we always start with DISC to discover our own preferences, strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communication. It’s a great tool for understanding others too.
Ultimately, we are looking for feedback from the receiver / audience of the message to show they have received and processed the message. Without that, we’ll not know whether the message was received.
If the feedback is that they did not understand our message, what do we need to do differently?
Most people just shout louder, repeat the same message, force it, badger and they often get the same results.
It is our responsibility to ensure the message lands.
It is our responsibility to adapt the way we communicate. The listener shares some responsibility, but we should also work out how we can engage them better.
Do we need to choose a different time? Different medium? Change the message?
If you send an email and the person doesn’t do what you asked or respond – that’s your fault.
Did they receive it? Did they understand it? Did they read it?
If you stand on stage and deliver what you think is an inspiring and motivating talk, yet nobody moves into action. That’s your fault.
Communication is hard and sometimes people assume they have communicated just because they sent, said or broadcast something.
Communication happens in the head of the listener – it is what THEY do.
So, it’s your job to understand them, communicate in a way that resonates with them and then adjust as you go, always learning what works and what does not.
But you also need to work on yourself. Why do people listen to you? Why do they not?
The messenger is the medium in today’s world. It matters who is communicating.
Sad as it is, we sometimes believe people because of who they are, not what they are communicating. So, you must also work on yourself.
Become more effective by ensuring you’re projecting the right image, using the appropriate language and demonstrating presence – all can be learned.
I meet too many people who think they are already awesome at communicating. And they believe the reason they are not heard is somebody else’s fault. It’s not – it’s on you.
Communication happens in the head of the listener.
Stories go where facts cannot
Stories work. We are pre-wired to listen to stories.
Hard facts are useful, but they rarely move people to action. Stories have characters we resonate with, obstacles we want them to overcome and personal growth that we can align around.
We want to know why we should put in effort at work to get behind new initiatives. Or why we need to change to support the goals of the business.
Stories are how we compel people into action. They are how we explain complicated ideas. Stories go where facts cannot.
Stories are emotional. And emotion and motion come from the same place.
Metaphors, anecdotes, real-life stories, fiction, humour – they all play a part in telling compelling stories. Effective communicators tell stories. And stories resonate.
If you ever find yourself listing and presenting facts to people – turn them into stories.
Not good at story telling? Practice. Practice. Practice.
Don’t waste the audiences time
Good communicators don’t waste people’s time. They use just the right amount of time. Not too much or too little.
They don’t use lots of words when a few will suffice.
They don’t tell the whole story when only part of it is needed.
They don’t send essay emails when a one-liner will do. In fact, excellent communicators don’t often send emails 🙂
They know their purpose, audience and context and tailor the message for each, even if it means they have to communicate in different ways for different people.
Don’t try to be efficient in communication unless you are effective first.
But don’t take up people’s time. In the spirit of this element, let’s move on.
Practice is preparation
Good communicators practice. Practice is preparation.
That tricky 1:2:1 with a low performing employee – practice what you will say and how you will say it.
That talk at a conference – practice it. Walk through it, learn it, tie it your stage movement if you want.
That sales pitch to the execs about a new way of working you want to embrace – practice it. Think about what questions will come back at you. And practice your response.
That job interview you’re nervous about – practice your pitch, find typical interview questions and practice your answers.
Those listening skills that could be better – practice.
Practice is not perfection, it is preparation.
The real event will never go as you expect, but by being prepared you can deal with nerves, disturbances or other issues that pop up.
Practice writing by writing more. Practice presenting by presenting more. Practice listening by listening more. Practice non-verbal communication by studying others, studying yourself in the mirror or gauging somebody’s eye colour during a conversation. Practice.
By being prepared, you’re already leaps and bounds ahead of others, but you’re also learning how to better yourself.
I always start the communication workshop with a giant caveat. I cannot teach you to be an effective communicator in one day. But I can give you the tools and techniques needed to move ahead, the rest is up to you – and that requires practice.
People remember how you make them feel
We remember the highs and lows more than the in-betweens.
Researchers believe we tie memory to emotion.
So, if you want people to remember you, try to make them feel something. Some people do this by trying to make people feel bad. If that’s your brand, then go for it. I prefer to try and make people feel good.
We cannot make anybody feel anything – that is up to them. But we can deploy the various ideas in these 11 principles to try and move people to feel something.
I deploy a lot of positive language, good body language and positive interactions to ensure people feel good in my presence.
People remember how you make them feel.
Make them feel something, anything, and help them to remember your message. Tread carefully though, treat people like people and ensure everything you do is congruent with your values and ethics.
Think about the long term also.
Feeling annoyed, frustrated and fed up with someone may aid memory, but people don’t like to feel like that on a long term, on-going basis. We seek to avoid painful situations, so tread carefully.
Non-verbal is a superpower
Psychological safety, charisma, control, confidence, assertiveness, effective communication – they all require and utilise non-verbal cues and information. It’s why I focus so intently on non-verbal communication – it makes a huge difference to how effective you can be at work. And it can be learned. It can be studied. It can be improved.
Effective communicators can read others, control their own non-verbal (to an extent) and are aware of how their body language affects the message and communication.
There’s lots to learn here, but let’s just sum it up.
If you are not using your natural awareness of body language to be an effective communicator, there is a great deal to gain by understanding the basics.
And yes, I said natural ability.
We all have it, all you need to do is draw attention to it, tease it out and learn to consciously study it.
If you want to get started with the basics, then check out my new Super Power Communication Course.
Remember, non-verbal communication often communicates the emotional aspect of your message. Ensure it’s congruent with the words that come out of your mouth.
People resonate with those who are like them
People resonate with those who look, sound and act like them.
Communication is about the exchange of information and it’s much easier to communicate with people like ourselves. Much easier. But we often don’t work with people who are like us.
We have a real diversity in the workplace and the world of work (thankfully), so we must learn to adjust ourselves to move closer to the other person(s). DISC again is helpful, but so too is deeply understanding our purpose and audience.
We always have something in common with everyone.
It could be kids, a shared birthday, music we like, films we hate yada yada yada. Finding those connections and playing on them is a way to build rapport and trust and start a relationship. What might seem insignificant can lead to rapport. And the best way to build rapport is to sound like the people we are communicating with.
I’m not suggesting you start dressing and speaking in a totally different way and losing what it means to be you. Far from it. But if we’re serious about communication and using it effectively, we must learn to adapt to the audience.
If I am doing a talk at a company where jeans and t-shirts are the norm, I will dress a level above that and maybe stick a shirt on (and trousers!). If I’m consulting at a company where suits and tie are the norm, I will dress in a suit and tie.
My goal is to resonate with the people I am talking to and appearance makes a big difference.
The language I use will resonate with the person I am talking to. I will use DISC to quickly try and work out who I am talking to and use language to resonate such as “I feel” or “I think” to sound like others.
I will use the same analogies as they do (war, sports, emotions etc) and I will try to move as close to their style of communication as possible, without losing what it means to be me.
It’s hard to do this, but when you see it in action – it is a wonderful thing. Effective communicators are like chameleons, able to shift and change to suit the audience whilst remaining true to who they are and what they value.
It’s great to see. But be careful not to lose yourself whilst trying to be like others. Remain true to you and your values. But learn to shift your delivery to resonate with different audiences.
Great communicators make this look seamless – the truth is, there’s years of studying and practice behind it.
You CAN hack your body
Feeling down? Go and stand in front of a mirror and jump around whilst smiling stupidly – will you feel better? Chances are you will.
Head full of crap? Meditate for a few minutes or spend some time in nature. Will you feel better? I suspect you will.
There is plenty of research to suggest that how we talk to ourselves, who we hang around with and how to carry ourselves makes a big difference to how we feel. And how we feel makes a massive difference to how effective we are at communicating.
Learn how to hack your body and you will see your communication effectiveness change with it.
Here are three techniques that I use:
- I listen to music I listened to as a child. It transports me back to a carefree time where my biggest worry was whether or not my VHS player was set to record Red Dwarf.
- I watch a funny video. My go to for instant feel-better vibes is Rhod Gilbert and his suitcase.
- I find a mirror and smile at myself. Usually accompanied with music and stupid dancing.
Feel better? Yep.
And when we feel good about ourselves we are more patient, we are more confident, we are more assertive and we approach people with more positivity. And all of this will reflect in our listening and general communication effectiveness.
Listening is the greatest compliment
Do you remember the person at a networking event who just talked at you all night? Unlikely, or maybe you do but for all of the wrong reasons. After all emotions tie to memory.
Or do you fondly remember the person who listened to you, asked you thoughtful questions and spoke very little? I always remember these people.
We want people to listen to us. We want to feel understood and considered.
Listening really is the greatest compliment you could give someone.
Learning to listen is hard. It requires we give people our full attention, we look at them, we turn our whole body to them, we listen to every word, we don’t interrupt, we don’t assume we know what they are going to say next and that we wait for them to completely finish. We then digest, accommodate and assimilate what they’ve said – and then we thoughtfully respond.
Learning how to be a better communicator takes knowledge of ourselves, a deep study of other people and an ability to move closer to other people’s preferences for communication.
Most of all though, effective communication requires practice and an open-mind to learning.
Nobody can teach you this in a day, or a week, or this long blog post.
It’s a long-term commitment to learning how to be better that will help you build relationships, be effective & liked in work and to yield the power that is open to every single person in every organisation – that being relationship power.
Take one of the 11 elements in this post and practice it, study it, learn it.