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Business Communication: Think before you speak

February 15, 2013

If you don’t, you might end up eating your words! The best way to illustrate what I mean by this comment is to describe what began as a simple business transaction but ended up as an awful, unforgettable experience. Recently, I was at a client meeting with a person who was clearly in a terrible mood. And it was evident right from the start.  At one point during the meeting, she simply lost her cool. In the course of losing her cool, not only was her tone of voice inappropriate, her language was abusive, shouting obscenities at me. To add to this abuse, she informed me that she would not pay me for my work.

Needless to say, I was shocked! In all my years of business, I’d never experienced anything like this before— this verbal abuse. And I trust it will never happen again. I determined to forgo payment and never have anything more to do with her.

But later that day, I received a call from her assistant - not with an apology from my former client, but with an assurance that the bill would be paid. Letting me know how truly sorry she felt about what happened, she explained that this outburst was definitely out of character for her boss.

It’s apparent, of course, that it was the support staff who did the eating of the words. And yes, it’s true; my former client never did apologize. At the same time though, this ill-behaved woman realized she was wrong.

Her bad behavior convinced me that if her or her company’s name came up in conversation I would never recommend either. If she thought before she spoke, it would certainly have been a different matter. As you are no doubt aware, this story is proof that choosing one’s words carefully is never more important than during a business transaction. We all have bad days and we are all capable of speaking before we think twice, but we don’t want to end up eating our words. So here are three tips that serve as an excellent guide to ensure you think before you speak:

Think before you speak

1. Know thyself: Examine the instances where you have either spoken thoughtlessly or been tempted to do so. It is likely that they occur in similar kinds of situations. (For example, meetings with an impatient boss, a demanding client or difficult employees.) Once you recognize the kinds of situations that “push your buttons,” you will be more prepared when they arise, and will have strategies to avoid falling into the trap of not thinking before you speak.

2. Cultivate positive speaking: People often talk about the power of positive thought. It’s equally true that choosing positive words in your business communications may make what has the potential to be an unpleasant confrontational situation, remain a civilized, professional one. For example, if you are about to say, “I can’t possibly deliver ‘x’ by Friday?” stop yourself, and rephrase it to say something along the lines of, “I’d like to get ‘x’ to you Monday rather than give you work that is too rushed. Is that possible?” Take an internal mental moment to rephrase the negative as a positive. And if you do, you’ll realize it’s not usually too difficult to look at most situations as “a glass half full” rather than “a glass half empty.”

3. Keep your goal front of mind: In any given business situation or meeting, ask yourself what it is you hope to achieve. All of the words you choose should flow from that idea. Knowing what the end goal is, discard unnecessary, excess communications, verbal or written. Focus all of your attention on expressing ideas that are essential to achieving your goal. It is frequently true that less is more. So in any business situation, say only what really needs to be said. Strive to make your words positive, relevant and appropriate. If you do, you will not only have more success in achieving your goal, you will find people respond to you in kind.

Oh, and yes, of course you can also use that tried and true technique that your mother probably told you: “Count to ten before you speak!”

For more ideas about how to think before you speak, see The Power of Words: Words that Sell, Profanity and the Power of Language: When Words Offend, When the Boss Says You Don’t Write Well: What do you Do?

Have you ever landed in hot water for speaking without thinking? If you have any tips regarding what you learned from it, let us know at info@thelanguagelab.ca.

How to Negotiate: Fair Deal or Not

January 28, 2013

Image courtesy of Very Quiet from Flickr.

If you want some real insight into the art of negotiation, watch the Seinfeld video with Kramer negotiating a deal about beltless tranchcoats with Jerry’s father, Morty. Not only will the video make you laugh, you’ll receive a painless lesson in negotiating tactics. It certainly makes it clear that when communication is poor during negotiations, the results will be less than satisfactory.

Whether it’s about who takes out the garbage or about meeting the boss to ask for a pay increase, we’re all involved in some form of negotiating, almost every day of our lives. And masterful negotiation depends on well-honed communication skills. Ideally, both parties will then come away from the negotiation feeling satisfied– contrary to Kramer’s and Jerry’s father’s predicament in the infamous “25% negotiation.”

But as we all know, negotiating in business isn’t an easy thing to do. It often involves conflict, or possibly asking for something you fear you may not get. And fear can really get in the way of successful negotiation. So, what can you do to improve your negotiating skills? Consider this; the three main stages to any successful negotiation, as you’ll see, below.

The Language Lab’s Top Three Tips to Successful Negotiation

Prepare: You first need to understand exactly what the negotiation is about. What is being asked for? What are the expectations of both parties? What are you looking for and what can you offer? When you can answer these questions without stumbling, your preparation is complete.

Listen: The temptation in a negotiation is to jump in with your arguments, bombarding the other party with your needs. You want to allow the other person(s) time to speak. And you must truly listen. Take your time; be dignified. Think of the negotiation as a conversation, not an argument. If you are a good listener, you’ll find that more questions may arise. Asking those questions of the other party will likely give you a more complete idea of what he or she thinks. Moreover, it can only help improve further negotiations with that person.

Understand: Once a solution has been reached, make sure you understand exactly what that outcome means. Not only do you need to understand, both parties must be clear. Paraphrasing the outcome of the negotiation, i.e. restating your understanding, in your own words, is helpful. Sharing a summary of notes taken during the discussion is also an effective strategy. Of course, you want to be sure you get the final results of the negotiation in writing, particularly if it involves an offer or financial transaction.

Negotiating can be intimidating, but if you approach it with patience, good will and good grace, it needn’t be adversarial. You may not always get what you want. Then again, you may get 25 % of what you want; who knows! However, the more you approach negotiating in a spirit of clear and considered communication, the better you will feel about the process. Not only that, the better you will be at negotiating.

For more tips on negotiating see: Negotiation Skills - How to Negotiate Effectively or Mind Tools: Win-Win Negotiation or Effective Negotiation Skills.

Do you have any tales to share from the negotiating trenches? Email me at info@thelanguagelab.ca or comment on the blog.

How to Make Yourself Understood

November 30, 2012

Image courtesy of Victor1558's Flickr photostream.

The other day I was the guest on a CBC radio show, Ontario Today. I was invited to speak about the concept of plain language and to answer audience questions. (You can hear the episode here.)

Kathleen Petty, the host of the show, pointed out that ‘words that confound and confuse’ are part of daily life. This is particularly true of certain professions (legal and medical) where technical language and jargon are heavily used.

Much of the rest of the call-in show was devoted to discussion about how to clarify jargon. (This is something I also discussed in a previous blog post, Just Say It…In Plain English.)

But chatting with Ms. Petty and her callers made me realize how much of the time poor communication isn’t only about jargon or unnecessarily convoluted language. Sometimes it’s about something far subtler. Let’s just call it “the missing link.”

In science, the missing link is about life forms scientists can’t locate, the essential fossils connecting certain stages of human evolution. In communication, the missing link is usually a crucial detail, or an assumption. Let me give one example. Where is the missing link in this scenario?

Two businessmen are planning a lunch meeting at a restaurant a few long blocks away from their office. One says to the other, “Let’s meet in the parking lot at 1 pm.”

Funnily enough at 1 p.m. one man is in the parking lot of the restaurant, the other in the parking lot at the office.

The missing link was the crucial detail — which parking lot. Of course, these days it seems that this is the reason that the cell phone was invented. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were fewer public conversations where people were shouting into their phones, saying things like, “I’m at X, where are you?”

In the above instance, the poor communication was about lack of detail. And lack of detail is in fact one of two chief causes of failed communication. The other is a tendency to make assumptions. I’ll illustrate this further with two famous sayings:

God is in the Details: If not God, certainly efficiently managed business communications are in the details. Take time with any communications regarding process (where, when, how, why) to make sure every detail is crystal clear.

To Assume Makes an Ass Out of You and Me: Assuming someone else understands what is in your head is like assuming your spouse understands why it bugs you when they don’t tighten the pickle jar lid. You know that you want the pickle jar lid tightened because you don’t want the pickle juice on the bottom of the refrigerator; your spouse may think it’s just one more example of you being unnecessarily fussy about small things. So, in business communication you often need to explain your thinking. Clarify, enumerate, and provide detail. Do not assume that what is important to you is important (and comprehensible) to anyone with whom you are working. Do not end up with spilled pickle juice!

For more tips about making yourself understood, have a look at Smart Business’s article, Make Yourself Understood. As it points out, managers spend 75 % of their time communicating with staff. Even though that communication is largely in person, “unfortunately, misinterpretation and miscommunication are rampant.”

But on a positive note, communication skills are exactly that — skills that can be honed and practiced and improved upon. So, the next time someone suggests meeting in the parking lot, make sure to ask, “which one” and “where.” That way, you will know that you, at least, are making yourself understood, not leaving out details or making assumptions. And you won’t be on your cell phone frantically saying, “I’m here, where are you?”

Do you have an example of how inattention to detail or making assumptions created an awkward situation? Let me know in the comments or send me an email: info@thelanguagelab.ca

Don't shoot the messenger

April 16, 2012

When I was in my early twenties I had a revelation while playing paintball with my buddies. There we were, a group of inexperienced, loosely organized players, having had little practice, up against a highly skilled, well-oiled machine of a team. Yet, I managed to capture the opposing team’s flag, winning the game for my team. What an amazing thrill it was and such a sense of accomplishment.

Sitting there in the sunshine on the grass after the game, somewhat spent, I thought to myself, “How is it that our team managed to win the game.” What I realized was that, unlike my opponents, my team, a closely-knit group of friends, used to getting slaughtered, were more efficient at collaborating and communicating with each other. Although highly skilled, and superior in their ability, they seemed to play beside each other rather than with each other. They lacked that collaborative spirit and the ability to interact and communicate efficiently with each other, as a team. For them, it was more about each man acting as an independent unit, whereas for my buddies and me, it was about talking about the next move, communicating and connecting with each other.

Photo by West Point Public Affairs.


Like winning a paintball game, success in business relies on collaboration and effective communication, be it with your client, your customer, you colleague, or your employees. And the method we use can have a profound impact on the nature of the communication and whom it reaches.

Over the past two decades I have witnessed the emergence of a whole host of new methods of communication: fax machines, mobile telephones, text messaging and, of course, the web and social media. Each offers or has offered a new and exciting way for people to connect with each other in a way that was not possible before. Each new innovation resisted or shunned, in its own way, by the generation that preceded it.

I vividly remember hearing a businessman friend of the family spitting bile about fax machines, and complaining that no one needs a fax. In his mind, you could just as easily put a document in the post. He wasn’t succumbing to the lure of a new electronic device for communicating that was now faster, bigger, and almost irresistible. I sometimes wonder if our fax-loathing friend thinks that fax machines are now almost a thing of the past.

And today a similar situation exists with social media, whose impact expands far beyond the reaches of the almost antiquated fax machine. Today’s generation of social media participants and evangelists can’t even conceive of what we all did before. At the same time though, there is a generation who can’t believe there are so many people who are willing “to waste their time with it.”

But social media is different. Fax machines, mobile phones and text messages did not come with an implied promise to revolutionize your business. The web and social media do. So ignoring the web and social media is not an option – the lure of a revolutionized business is even stronger with a communication tool that is now, faster, bigger and more far-reaching. But did this situation turn social media into a time waster?

Picture the scene: back in the mid-eighties, a businessman grudgingly buys the cheapest fax machine he possibly can. He then starts going through the phone book and tries to fax his brochure to everyone. A month later he has a massive phone bill and a broken fax machine. So why do people treat social media in the same crazy manner? Why do they race to follow/fan/connect with total strangers regardless of their interest? Why do they broadcast automated meaningless adverts?

When social media is done properly as a part of inbound marketing, a process for getting your clients to seek you out, rather than you having to hunt them down. All you have to do with social media is attract your potential clients as you do in real life situations when trying to make friends. Be friendly, thoughtful and interesting. People will be attracted to you in the same way they are in real life.

If you want to realize social media’s promise to revolution your business, it’s like winning a paintball game on your first try – communicate, but do it a collaborative and interactive way!

The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Jason Rudland is an inbound marketer and owner of Get Me In Google! a full-service inbound marketing agency, specializing in attracting website visitors and generating high quality leads.

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