When I was just starting in my corporate career I was invited to attend a seminar on effective communication. Our guest lecturer that day was an outside consultant who, after being introduced with the requisite list of accomplishments, took the stage to address his audience. He began his presentation around communication – noting its importance and criticality in advancing our careers – until he stopped to clear his throat and then cough. He excused himself and then began again. Thirty seconds later his voice cracked. He paused, looked at all of us and excused himself before walking to a table that sat at the end of the stage where a pitcher of ice water and two empty glasses were placed.
There he proceeded to pour water into the first of the two glasses – only to watch the ice and then the water tumble onto the table, the floor, and his shoes. There was an awkward silence before a murmur of laughter rumbled through the room. I turned to the buddy I was sitting beside and asked, “Wonder how much they paid for this joker?”
Our speaker seemed shocked – but then he laid the pitcher down and walked back to the center of the stage before addressing the audience, still holding the empty glass.
“I just offered you the most important first step of effective communication,” he began, and then he held the glass aloft before adding, “Before you can ever become a world class communicator….whether you’re addressing an audience of one or of one thousand….”
He paused and reached to the glass and slowly pulled away the strip of saran wrap that covered its top before continuing.
“You have to find a way to get the lid off.”
And so the audience realized the joke was really on us. I never forgot that message.
In time I was to recognize his clever trick was a metaphor for many of the larger issues in communication. Namely:
There really are barriers that separate a speaker from his or her audience
Often times those barriers may be invisible – to either party – or both. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that they are there
The only way to get to real dialogue is to find a way to figuratively “punch holes” in the divide
Why is this so important?
Secret 1: Because it’s The Power of Story that differentiates great communicators from the masses. Facts and figures might address the logical left- brain but it’s story that hooks the heart. And it’s heart that ultimately dictates decision-making. You tell me – does the little vignette of the spilled water go further in pointing out the barriers to communication than a rundown of facts and figures? The answer is obvious – and it’s stuck with me for 35 years.
Secret 2: This remains difficult for many – especially those gifted with oratorical skills. It’s difficult because it seems counterintuitive to find that really great communicators must stifle the impulse to speak – they must pause to listen. The world-class practitioners are made great not because of their ability to impress their audience with words – they’re made great because of their willingness to comprehend the words of others.
I saw this repeatedly in the corporate world – great speakers with no followership. Said another way – Big Hat, No Cattle.
Secret 3: The Magic of Audience Engagement. Best in class communicators do more than tell a great story. They do more than actively listen to their audience. They make the audience a part of the formula.
The third insight surprised me – and I’ll offer a story to explain it. A number of years back I was able to join a group of senior sales leaders for a breakfast meeting with football icon Lou Holtz, who had joined us as a keynote speaker that day for the sales force.
If you’ve never heard Holtz you’ve missed the opportunity to hear a truly great speaker – motivational, glib, and wildly entertaining. But beyond all of those positives I learned something else in our breakfast meeting that was a subtlety that distinguished him from a great many others. He spent the better part of our hour together asking questions about our company, our strategy, and our vision for the future. Then he asked for names of sales people who exemplified excellence, dutifully collecting the names on a pad in front of him. I was impressed but frankly unclear on what he might do with the reams of notes when he was only going to be on stage for 45 minutes and he was speaking to an audience of several thousand in less than 3 hours.
And then I watched a maestro weave every name, every example of greatness into his story. When he talked about personal goal setting and the determination to realize those objectives he did more than talk about his journey - he referenced people within our organization who had done the same. When he talked about overcoming seemingly hopeless obstacles he recounted his struggles, and then likened them to people within our company who had done the same thing. The representatives in that audience began to hear peers’ names mentioned by this nationally known figure as easily as they might if Holtz worked alongside them in the field.
The effect was mesmerizing.
Three basic secrets – and yet tomorrow morning somewhere in America a speaker will walk in front of his or her audience and “bomb.”
As they say in the business – Easy Say, Hard Play.