It’s hard to separate the message from the messenger

I recently participated in a focus group.  In addition to a Q&A session, we were also asked to rate the content of some video clips.  We were reminded that the experts in the clip were not trained public speakers, so to please tailor our remarks to what the person had to say, not how s/he said it.

One of the videos was of a man who was responding to a question designed by the research company. When he was answering the question, it was clear he had not prepared:  he had lots of “ums” and “ahs” in between his sentences and his eyes were darting as he was searching for the content.

As we (in the focus group) began to express our reactions, many people remarked how unprepared he sounded, noted that he had too many ums and ahs, and – overall – seemed evasive; in other words, they didn’t listen to the content and didn’t trust his message.

The lesson for all of us is that it is hard, if not almost impossible, for listeners/viewers to separate the message from the messenger.

You ARE the message.  Your communication skills can either enhance your message or serve as a distraction.

So, if you want to be HEARD, do not underestiimate the value of preparation, practice, feedback and the necessity of improving your delivery.

9 steps to responsive listening

“When I speak, I only know what I know. But when I listen, I also know what you know.” This quote by Tony Alessandra is apropos to any phone call or in-person meeting.

I have created a checklist that will help you be a more responsive listener.

1. Look and Lean. This should be your posture when someone is asking a question.

2. Intend to listen. Focus on the question and questioner. Don’t let your mind wander or begin to answer the question before the person has finished.

3. Clarify. Engage the person to make sure you understand the question.

4. Rephrase. Restate the question, in your own words, to make sure you are both on the same track.

5. Read between the lines. Assess a person’s tone of voice and facial expressions to discover a hidden message.

6. Acknowledge the questioner. Giving a compliment or adding a value to the question can help you build rapport. “You bring up an interesting point.” “That’s an important aspect to consider.”

7. Empathize. Validating feelings or emotions shows your sensitivity to the person’s concern. “It is frustrating, I am sure.”

8. Sad and Glad. If someone has had an unpleasant experience with your organization, tell her/him how sorry you are, and express gratitude that s/he brought it to your attention. Then explain what you will do to mollify the person.

9.  Take notes.  This shows your commitment to the questioner.  (If on a phone call, tell the person you are taking notes.)

Communicate clearly

In every speaking opportunity (be it one-on-one or in a group), there is one skill that will enhance your message and help the audience remember what you have said.  It is a very effective tool.

The pause.

(When scripted, Barack Obama uses the pause well, which highlights many of his strengths including clarity. When off the TelePrompTer, he fills the space between sentences with ums and ahs, making him sound tentative and obfuscating the message.)

Here’s how the pause enhances clarity. You should always stop at the end of every sentence. Because you are stopping and remaining silent for a moment, you are giving the listener a chance to process or reflect upon what you have said; the message becomes clearer.  When you run sentences together, listeners might be keeping up with you, but they don’t have time to really absorb the information.  Retention plummets; nothing stands out.

Additionally, this silence allows you to take a breath and think about what you are going to say next. When you give yourself a moment to think, you can avoid redundancies and digressions and focus on your next sentence.  You become clearer.

To practice, say a sentence.  Then tap your finger twice on the desk.  Then say another sentence and tap.  Repeat this pattern until you get into the habit of pausing at the end of every phrase.  As you practice for the next three weeks, you will eventually vary the pace to sound less mechanical – yet achieve the goal of sounding clear.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about the other benefits of pausing.