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Speaking Skills: Finding the Point of Suitable Assertiveness


Communication SkillsIn all Communispond's communication training products, from Executive Presentation Skills® to Persuasive Dialogue™ to everything in between, we teach learners that there are two sides to all communication. Even when you're holding forth from a stage to a roomful of people, you are still only one side of the communication process. If the audience isn't receptive, then your message isn't received, and communication doesn't take place. And since all audiences are put off by both undue forcefulness and unwarranted timidity, one of your most important speaking skills is finding the area between aggression and diffidence, which is known as assertiveness.

Unfortunately, recent news indicates that area is not as easy to find as we might hope. A paper published in May, “Pushing in the Dark: Causes and Consequences of Limited Self-Awareness for Interpersonal Assertiveness,” in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reports on experiments conducted on negotiation by researchers from Columbia University. (The link connects to the Columbia University summary of the paper; the full paper is behind the Sage Journals paywall here.) 

Our understanding of speaking skills comes from all sorts of places, and here it came out of a negotiation course. The researchers, Daniel R. Ames and Abbie S. Wazlawek, conducted three elegantly simple experiments among MBA students enrolled in the course. The students were organized into negotiating pairs and asked to conduct mock negotiations over issues like licensing rights. After the negotiations, they answered questions about their assertiveness and their counterpart’s assertiveness. But they were also asked to guess what their counterpart said about them. 

  • 57% of those who were deemed under-assertive by their counterparts thought themselves either suitably assertive or over-assertive.
  • 56% of those who were deemed over-assertive by their counterparts thought themselves either suitably assertive or under-assertive.

In other words, when people are trying to be suitably assertive (as you need to be when exercising your speaking skills for a negotiation, a presentation, or just clear communication) have about a 50-50 chance of finding the right level.

There was also another surprising pattern in the study results. Many people who got assertiveness right mistakenly thought their counterparts believed they were pushing too hard. The researchers called this the “line crossing illusion.” These people believed that they had crossed the line into aggression, when they were really just suitably assertive. Ames and Wazlawek pointed out that the line crossing illusion can be expensive. When people think they have been aggressive in a negotiation, they are more likely to try to repair the damage to the relationship establishing during negotiations, and this often means accepting a less valuable deal to smooth things over. Such people, in other words, try to fix something that isn’t broken, which can mean both sides might lose out on what might have been a better deal. At Communispond, we have always felt that deficiencies in speaking skills are costly.

Any kind of communication, whether it is a negotiation, a presentation, or just a conversation to conduct business, requires assertiveness. But if it’s as difficult to find the appropriate level of assertiveness as Ames and Wazlawek have shown, then we have to add a new capability to the standard portfolio of speaking skills. i.e., determining suitable assertiveness. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to test your level of assertiveness with an honest, friendly audience before risking the real communication event.

Stories Sell


Every sale, even the most highly technical, has an emotional component. Tap into that component to give your customer a compelling reason to buy.

When describing your product or service, don't merely rely on specs and a list of features and benefits. Have examples of how existing customers use the product, as well as the results of its use. And always remember that the more tangible the results the better.

If it's a new product, tell a story about what it might do for the customer. For example, tell the customer, "Imagine if you could..."

The closer the stories tie to the customer's world- and the more dramatic the results-the more they'll be open to all those fabulous specifics and features you're so fond of sharing.

Your Mother Was Right


Maybe it's just us here at Communispond, but did your mother ever tell you, "It's not what you say, but how you say it." Well, if she did, call her and tell her she was absolutely right!

Many of us plan our messages to be conciliatory, neutral, and/or not threatening. However, our audience sometimes reacts emotionally. What gives? Usually, it's not what we say (our message), but how we say it (our tone of voice and word choice).

Some of the simple words you can use to defuse an emotional situation include the following:

"Topic" instead of "issue"

"We" instead of "you" or "I"

"Concern" rather than "problem"

So, if you're anything like us, you've been reminded that your mother was indeed right ...yet again. Now, what did she used to say about washing your hands?

Communication Skills: Use All Channels


Communication Skills TrainingI may have mentioned here before that as a youth I was a fan of the original Star Trek television show. I always loved the moment, which occurred in nearly every episode, in which the Enterprise approached another ship. Captain Kirk would say, "Open hailing frequencies," and Lieutenant Uhura would flip some switches and say, "hailing frequencies open." In later years, I came to think of that moment as a sort of metaphor for communication skills. If you truly want to communicate, don't confine yourself to just one frequency, open them all.

Anyone who studies communication skills understands the importance of opening all frequencies (i.e., channels) of communication in order to get a message across. There are a lot of variables (including germaneness, realism, simplicity, and size), but it is well known that adding graphics to a text message increases both learning and retention in adults. If you have any doubts, just look at advertising. For most of us, it’s second nature to create a PowerPoint file when we have to do a presentation. PowerPoint slides give the audience something to look at. As long as our visuals are relevant and well designed, they increase the richness of our message.

Use your communication skills to approach your audience (whether of one or a thousand) through both their hearing and their vision. Visuals can illustrate, support, and amplify your remarks. Making a point graphically, with a chart or a picture, can be more effective than simply stating it. And doing both at the same time can dramatically increase the point’s impact for anyone, regardless of their favored communication channel. In most live communication, our other senses (touch, smell, taste) don’t usually come into play. But sometimes you can recruit even those senses to an extent with visuals or descriptive language that stimulate those senses.

But there’s another reason that effective communication skills involve using all communication channels. If an audience absorbs and processes information through multiple channels, that means they are attending to those channels whether or not you intend to use them. Audiences take in a lot of information about you just from looking at you. A generation ago, Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor, researched communications extensively to determine the impact of different kinds of information on audiences. In studies of inconsistent communication (in which the speaker's words don't match his or her body language), he estimated that the receiver takes 38% of meaning from how the speaker sounds, 55% from how the speaker looks, and only 7% from what the speaker says.

The fact is, your audience probably attaches more importance to their interpretation of your posture, your mannerisms, and your facial expressions than they do to anything you tell them. From watching you, they gather information they use to make judgments about your sincerity, your credibility, and your intelligence. They can't help it. Human beings are virtually hard-wired to make these judgments. Helping them make those judgments accurately is what communication skills are all about.

Dog Bones and Selling


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There's an old fable about a greedy dog that sometimes applies to sales professionals.

One day, a dog found a terrifically yummy bone and was carrying it back home to enjoy it at her leisure. While crossing a bridge, she looked in the water to see a reflection of another dog with what looked like a much juicier bone. Suddenly, she snapped at that bone and dropped the one she was carrying into the river, never to have it back.

When on a sales call, it's easy to be distracted by new information or other sales opportunities. Have the discipline to note them, so you can follow up-but don't lose sight of the deal you went there to make or you may miss out on each one.

You'll Get Objections, So Plan for Them


"He who has truth at his heart need never fear the want of persuasion on his tongue." - John Ruskin, British poet (1819-1900)

All due respect to the eloquent poet, but even being right is no defense against being pushed back from an audience. Here are some of the most common objections:

  • "I like the way I do it now." (Make sure they understand the rationale for the decision, as well as how it will benefit them.)
  • "It will take too much time and effort." (What is the return on investment for their efforts? Paint them a picture of the future.)
  • "I can see why you like this, but why should I bother?" (Remind them repeatedly of the benefits they will reap.)

Presentation Skills: Great Power, Great Responsibility


200224217 001If you have been through Communispond's Executive Presentation Skills® program, you have everything you need to be one of the most effective presenters in your company, or even your industry. Effective presentation skills mean the power to move people. It is an extraordinary power, and as they say in the superhero movies, "With great power comes great responsibility."

We often talk in the corridors of Communispond about that responsibility and the importance of using the powers of persuasion for good. That’s why we were interested in a TED Talk we ran across this week. The talk, by Julian Treasure, is called “How to Speak so that People Want to Listen.” The title is unfortunate, because it hints that it’s another one of those “Ten Hints that Will Make You More Successful” stories. In fact, it goes beyond presentation skills to discuss the content of your communication. Treasure’s “Seven Deadly Sins of Speaking,” for example, are gossip, judging, negativity, complaining, excuses, exaggeration, and dogmatism. His “Four Foundations of Powerful Speech” are honesty, authenticity, integrity, and love. 

Treasure takes a decidedly moral approach to the matter of communication, and I must say it is rather refreshing. In business, we tend to avoid this dimension. For one thing, most people have learned to distrust moralizers. For another, anything that sounds like moralizing also sounds impractical or unscientific. And finally, how do you know the moralist’s principles align with your own? So, in the case of Communispond, we offer presentation skills, and we teach you the behaviors that audiences perceive as honesty, authenticity, integrity, and yes, maybe love, too. We’re in the business of selling you the awesome powers of persuasive presentation skills. We have to assume you are already honest and authentic and that you have integrity.

Treasure is a clever speaker, because in this talk he really is discussing the moral issues that we don’t much talk about in business, and he has disguised it as a “Ten Hints…” lecture. It is, as advertised, a talk about “How to Speak so that People Will Want to Listen,” and Treasure is a sophisticated marketer. But he has a mission beyond providing hints and tips, and he is up-front about it. In today’s world, he said, “We speak not very well to people who simply aren't listening in an environment that's all about noise and bad acoustics… What would the world be like if we were creating sound consciously and consuming sound consciously and designing all our environments consciously for sound? That would be a world that does sound beautiful, and one where understanding would be the norm.”

I don’t want to misrepresent Treasure’s talk. In addition to the lofty stuff, he also provides some practical techniques for voice warmup, and I think these are well worth your time. If you care about presentation skills, have a look at his talk. But pay attention to his moralizing, too, because both his “deadly sins” and his “foundations of powerful speech” are on firm ground and can help you think about communication in the same way that Spiderman needs to think about his great powers.

Nothing Succeeds Like a Success Story


Salespeople love to tell their prospects and customers about past successes, but did you know there's a right way and a wrong way to do it?

Don't lead with the success stories. It sounds like you're bragging and you don't know if the customer needs the reinforcement. Do use them to back up your proposal as added proof. A good success story:

  • Is an "apples to apples" comparison of customer and product.
  • States the challenge.
  • Explains your solution clearly.
  • Shows how that solution worked for the client, being as specific as possible. Real numbers are much more powerful than, "the customer loved it."

A Rather Violent Metaphor-But it Works


The 19th century American Orator Henry Ward Beecher had this to say about getting too fancy with your words:

"Never be grandiloquent when you want to drive home a searching truth. Don't whip with a switch that has the leaves on, if you want it to tingle."

Now, while we would never advocate using a switch on your audience (tempting as it may be), the point is valid: Say what you want to say. Don't try to get too fancy or couch the presentation to take the sting out of the message, causing its importance to be lost.

Simply put, if you have something to say, say it.

Selling Skills: Gathering Intelligence


salesYou may not have thought of intelligence gathering as one of your selling skills, but it's one you need to cultivate in order to plan your sales meetings and your approach to the customer. Fortunately, research is a lot easier today than it once was.

As a first step, you should find out everything you can about the person you’ll be meeting with. Google can help you find out if your customer has written articles, maintains a blog, participates in web forums, or gives speeches at industry events. As a sales professional, you probably excel at relationship building, so consider also applying your more traditional selling skills to off-line sources: co-workers of the customer, as well as assistants and administrative staff at the customer’s company. In the era of flat organizations, finding such people is more difficult than it once was. But if you can find someone to talk to, be up front about your need for information: “I’m meeting with her next week, and I want to prepare for the meeting.” Ask only for public information and use active listening techniques to draw out the person you interview.

Do a thorough exploration of the company’s website. Get an overall feel for what the company is about, and look for company history and profiles of the top executives. The site may also have a mission statement. A mission statement is a public relations document, and it’s usually a lousy indicator of what actually goes on in the company, but it can hint at what management hopes is going on. Other useful stuff on a company web site can include press releases, speeches by the company’s executives, and links to articles published about the company or its products. At the very least, gathering this kind of knowledge will make you look well-informed in your sales meetings, and that is one of your most effective selling skills.

The company’s annual report will give you a good idea of how the company’s management team wants it to be perceived. In addition, if it’s a public company, it is required to file 10-K reports annually. 10-Ks are a lot less colorful than your average annual report, but they include stuff you won’t find in a regular annual report, such as events that could materially affect the company’s business. Use the EDGAR database of the Securities and Exchange Commission to locate 10-Ks. You can find it at www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm. Your company may subscribe to other Internet sources of company information: LexisNexis, Hoover’s, The Wall Street Journal, Dun & Bradstreet, Standard & Poor’s, and so on. Look for key industry trends, company’s competitive position, strengths and weaknesses, and threats and opportunities. Your selling skills will help you determine how to turn these pieces of information into customer needs, which might be filled by your product or service.

Finally, don’t forget industry magazines and websites, general business magazines, the newspaper in the company’s “home town,” and industry associations. Once you have a decent picture of the customer, the company, and the company’s industry, you will be well on your way to understanding how to make the customer’s life better, which is, after all, the primary object of your selling skills.

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