Ideate, Structure, Communicate

Adding the step of structuring your content after you create it and before you communicate it makes it much easier for the audience to understand and boosts your confidence, increasing the effectiveness of an interaction.

Most of us learned the five-paragraph essay in school. When we are writing an academic paper or article we know to first preview what we are going to tell people. Then we share each point starting with a header sentence and give proof through concepts, numbers, and examples. After sharing our ideas, we know to summarize in a closing paragraph. But not many of us are taught to speak that way.

Often, we speak whatever comes to mind, in the order it comes to mind. We may start with one interesting detail and then another unrelated detail and then tie the two together in a relevant concept. Or we may just share a stream of data and let the listeners connect the dots.

Because the brain assimilates information better when it knows what is coming, structuring our communication first is much more effective. In education we call it ‘anticipatory set.’ Think of the process as creating buckets for the brain so it knows where to put the information it receives.

I was recently coaching a young professional who caught on to this structuring-before-communicating concept very quickly and demonstrated it well while giving a speech to a few hundred people. Instead of jumping into the details of a slide, this professional first described what the audience was seeing and contextualized the information. I could actually see the audience following along closely and nodding their heads as they assimilated the relatively complex information shared.

Including the preparation of structuring content between ideate and communicate is even more important when on video conference because the higher level of distraction inhibits focus. The audience has distractions in their own environment and also on screen. The more you guide their focus the more effective the communication.  The implicit nature of structure (preview, signaling, summary) is a means for guiding their focus.

We already know how to do structure in writing, and it works well there. It makes complete sense to do it while speaking. It is just a matter of preparing a bit in advance. That preparation can be done far in advance for really important interactions and in the moment every day.

30-Second Prep– Pause for half a minute to formulate your thoughts and articulate what overarching concept you want to express.

 2-Minute Prep– Before a meeting, scratch on a piece of paper or capture notes on your phone the key points you want to share and the theme that ties them all together.

1-hour Prep– Prepare talking points before a meeting or delivering a presentation that begin with the overarching concept, specify key points, and then give details on each key point.

Try one of these content structuring preparation options this week and see how it changes how you speak and how your audience reacts. The advance structuring has the benefit of the audience better assimilating the information you are sharing and the bonus of increasing your confidence. Both improve the communication interaction.

 

 

Be The Steady Hand

With a steady hand on the tiller, you can set the direction and guide the course. Leaders of the 21stcentury are frequently encountering times of uncertainty and chaos, including the current pandemic. Your leadership can be the calming factor that allows others to be their best no matter the external factors. But, conscious and centered leadership during difficult times requires an established practice to build the skill and discipline to leverage mindfulness when others are freaking out.

It only takes one person with collected presence to calm and steady others. You can be that person. With practice and intention, we all have the ability to generate the collectedness and clear-headed perspective needed to move forward in unpredictable times. One leader who is doing his job “with a steady temperament that inspires confidence” is U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome ‘Jay’ Powell who is leading the effort to stabilize the U.S. economy with a myriad of lending programs and reductions in the benchmark interest rate.

“None of us has the luxury of choosing our challenges. Fate and history provide them for us. Our job is to meet the tests we are presented.”  Jay Powell, Federal Reserve Chairman.  He is meeting the test presented to him with quick action with a calm demeanor.  He is being a steady hand.

To be leaders with the steady hand we need two elements: self-composure and a calming communication style. 

Self-Composure

Self-composure cannot be faked.  We need to lead from our own foundation of grounded strength, checking in on and managing our own internal state before we engage with others.

 “Here [from the inside out] is where leadership presence is cultivated, and only then can it be felt and shared by the team.” Center for Compassionate Leadership.

We can each cultivate an inward focus and strength to find the place of calm within us when needed. In my work with leaders I hear many different ways that people hone their inner strength. Many read to learn, some meditate, some journal, some find introspection through exercise, some have formal coaches that guide them.  Once a base level of self-centeredness is established, it is real life practice that allows us to develop self-composure in all types of situations.  Tapping into that inner assurance, accepting what is in the moment and knowing we will do what is most needed next — that is the steady hand that can guide the course.  Then we can bear witness to others experiencing anxiety and dissonance in times of uncertainty and be a grounded empathetic force so others can do their jobs well.

Calming Communication

Calming communication style can naturally arise from a state of composure, but there are certain speaking characteristics that are typically associated with calm communication. Public safety professionals such as police and fire use ‘command and control’ in emergencies and speak in a low and slow voice to keep the calm for others so they can achieve the task at hand. Research shows that voice pitch and speech rate have a statistically significant correlation with perception in crisis communication.  The two primary characteristics of calm communication are a slower pace of speaking and lower pitch of voice.  The slower pace of speaking also includes more pauses and more distinct enunciation of words. A common association of voice pitch is the higher the pitch, the greater the excitement, the lower the pitch the more mellow. The structure of the communication is also important; well-organized information implies the leader is in control of the interaction, even if the outside circumstances are not controllable.

Silveria Jacobs, Prime Minister of Sint Maarten, demonstrated a steady hand style of communication in her ‘Simply. Stop. Moving.’ speech that went viral.  Her word choice was both assertive and empathetic and she used a low and slow voice with many pauses.

As leaders, we cannot always control external circumstances, but we can control our reactions.  We can use our foundation of grounded strength and a calm communication style to be the steady hand for others. 

Where to Look and Other Video Conference Tips

Bringing forth our best communication skills on a video conference makes interactions much more engaging.  It is not quite in-person, but video is a much richer interaction than over the phone.  What do we need to keep in mind on video?  The question I get most often is,  ‘where do I look on the screen?’  If we look at the people or content it can seem to others like we are looking in our laps. Not good. The short answer to that common question is move your eyes around, just like you would in person.  The long answer is part of my  four tips for better video conference communication

  1. pretend you are in person
  2. use both verbal and nonverbal communication
  3. avoid distractions
  4. stay audience aware

1) Pretend You Are In Person

It is easy to feel more casual when interacting over video, but it is better to treat the situation as if we are in person.  We can ask ourselves, ‘would I be dressed this way and doing what I am doing if that person was here with me?’  That typically means that we are dressed professionally (at least on the top half). It also means we are sitting in a chair at a table or desk.  Importantly we are notmultitasking getting some other project done or checking email while engaging with someone. 

2) Use Skillful Verbal & Nonverbal Communication

Our voice can be interesting if we vary our pitch, volume, and speed of speaking.  Our voice can put others to sleep if we keep the same tone, volume, and pace the whole time.  It helps to remember we are speaking with someone, not to someone.  We can speak faster to show excitement and slow down when a point is super important.  It also helps to call in on a phone instead of using computer audio because the sound of our voice is clearer and there is less environmental noise.

Effective nonverbal communication shifts a bit from in person to on video.  On video only our upper torso is visible and therefore body language expression needs to occur in that area.  Our facial expressions need to animate more, and we can use head tilts and nods to show we are listening.  Now to the details on where to look, the most common question.  Going back to the first tip – pretend you are in person – we look many different places when we are in person, so we should do the same on video.  What is different is the many different places are spatially limited to the screen. I recommend looking directly in the camera because then it appears we are making eye contact.  But don’t looks just there because then it is like a broadcast reporter staring into the camera.  Move from the camera to the other people on video, to the content displayed on the screen and then back to the camera.  This way it will appear more natural, much like it would in person. It helps to drag the box with the video of other participants to the top of your screen so when we look at them, our eyes are just adjusting slightly, and our heads don’t need to move down to see them.

The last element of nonverbal communication on video is hand motions.  If we use hand motions where people can’t see them, they may wonder what exactly we are doing with our hands.  Better to move our hand motions up to the level of our chest and shoulders.  It might feel a bit odd at first, but when we watch ourselves on video it looks natural.  We also need to move our hands more slowly to avoid blurring in the video. Keeping our voice, face, eyes, and upper body animated on video conference shows we are engaged and helps keep others interested.

3) Avoid Distractions

We are curious beings and if there is something visually interesting going on in video behind the speaker or listener, we can easily get distracted.  Before getting on a video conference, test the system and look at all that is in the view window.  Do we want people looking at that picture of us in our bathing suit or dancing on a rooftop? Is our to-do list on the whiteboard?  Is there an unmade bed or unfolded laundry visible in a home office? Clean up the view window to reduce the distractions.  We can also give officemates or roommates heads up that we are jumping on video, so they don’t inadvertently come into view.  Turning off alerts or going into Do Not Disturb mode on our devices eliminates another form of distraction.  Not touching our hair, face, or clothing is another way to avoid distraction.  It helps to remember we are being watched and to look at ourselves as well as the other participants as we are moving our eyes intentionally around the screen. 

4) Stay Audience Aware

On video we only get a little square headshot of our audience to receive nonverbal listener feedback.  That means we need to be acutely aware of the nonverbal signals given and we need to seek more verbal feedback.  Take turns looking at every person who is in the meeting.  This is more easily done if we use the gallery or multi-person video option.  Still remember to look at the camera in between looking at people.  If we see someone distracted – either looking down or up or (worse case) leaving the video screen – we can stop talking and ask questions. Overall it is just a good idea on video to pause more often and ask more questions.

Video conference is a great way to have more of a human connection when you cannot meet in person. Being intentional about how we communicate through this method improves our interactions.  When we pretend we are in person, skillfully use verbal and nonverbal communication, avoid distractions, and stay audience aware, then the people on the other end of this technology will be much more interested and engaged. 

What is the Connection? Find Commonalities for Better Conversations

Conversations bring people together or drive people apart based on our perceived commonality or differences. All humans are 99% alike from a DNA perspective. What is missing from the equation for harmony is just the perception of similarity. Luckily, our perceptions can be changed. With a bit of intention and effort, we can perceive others as similar to us and increase the chances we can get along.

I invite you to experiment with two methods for finding connections and improving interpersonal interactions. The first is discovery of similarity and the second is reminder of humanity.

Discovery of Similarity

We can find surface-level commonality with people we meet, such as a hobby or an element of our work. Taking it on as a discovery process can be fun. Austin, Nevada City, San Francisco, Tampa – what is the connection? Places I’ve travelled in the past month and met people just like me. They might be a different gender, from a different culture, or their skin might be a different color, but we can still find commonalities. Meeting new people, what comes to my mind first is:  What do I have I common with this person?  I discover connections by asking questions: ‘where are you from?’  ‘what do you do for fun/work/hobbies?’  ‘how was your weekend?’  These small talk methods are simple ways to find connections. Typically, conversations will proceed at a surface level with these types of connection creators until we find something in common. Then we tend to dive deeper into that topic, be it food, kids, sport, music, books, or recent movies. Generally, it feels good to be connected, but that is not always how it goes.

Reminder of Humanity

Sometimes initial interactions seem to bring up differences rather than commonalities.  They may reveal a difference in culture or political leanings. In these cases, we may feel separation and perceive that the ‘other’ is not like us.  It is in these times when we can remind ourselves of all being human – that we are 99% like each other.  As humans, we have more in common than we have as differences. The exercise here is to repeat the phrase ‘just like me’ and follow it by a basic human condition:  ‘just like me this person wants to be understood,’ ‘just like me this person is forming their opinions based on information they have received,’ ‘just like me they want to be healthy, happy, and loved.’ In really challenging situations it is helpful to drop to an even more basic level: ‘this person has a beating heart and their lungs are filling with oxygen, just like me,’ ‘this person is somebody’s daughter/son, just like me.’

Human commonalities are so much more significant than a political opinion, religious practice, or social norm. When we see this reality of sameness as more significant than difference, our perspective changes. With that internal perspective shift comes a subconscious change in body language – facial expressions and stance – that others perceive. It often also leads to a shift in our language to be more inclusive and accepting. The result is the other person feels more accepted and is more inclined toward getting along.

For example, in a recent interaction someone used the term ‘God fearing’ frequently in conversation. At first, I was put off by the term as it reminded me of the judgment I felt from some religious people having grown up Catholic. That brought up difference instead of sameness in my mind. Then I remembered that we were both human and I made a conscious choice to listen for commonalities from this person. I heard common values of family and integrity and dedication. With that I was able to shift my perception toward sameness and I could hear the term ‘God fearing’ to mean trusting in and leaning on a belief in times of uncertainty. We had in common the human desire to feel a sense of security.  

This skill of seeing commonality takes time to develop, and it can be helpful to practice on strangers with whom we are not interacting. Airports are a perfect practicing ground. Particularly with people for whom our initial reaction is irritation or judgement. I practice the ‘just like me’ exercise and seek to find a commonality. I see that the person standing in the wrong line has a kid in tow and I remember what it was like to travel with young ones. I hear that the person talking loudly on the phone next to me is appeasing an upset boss and I connect with the feeling of being stressed and striving to meet high expectations. Once I find something in common, I am amazed at how quickly my perspective and attitude toward them changes. I also enjoy this free ‘Just Like Me’ meditation.

The start of every good conversation begins with a connection between people. When we find that connection it changes our perspective and likely our language and approach to interacting with that person, bringing us together instead of driving us apart.