Every day, managers have to persuade employees to work smarter, faster, and more efficiently. As rules around the restrictions on Covid-19 change, managers have to persuade their employees to change, to be willing to innovate and adapt on an almost-constant basis.
Not only this, but they have to persuade their bosses or colleagues to give more resources to allow them to carry out projects. They have to persuade colleagues to collaborate. None of that is possible without first finding ways to connect with those people, in ways that show them you understand where they are coming from.
In business, communication is all about adaptive behaviours, and persuasive communication relies on you knowing the triggers of the person you’re speaking to. If you don’t make an emotional connection, then you are unlikely to change the way people feel and think, and therefore you will be unable to change what they do. When people compliment you on giving a great speech, it usually isn’t because of the brilliant oratory or the fine choice of words, it’s more about the fact they felt inspired and moved by it. That all comes down to connection.
If you really want to communicate successfully, you first have to understand your audience and know what they need to hear and where they’re coming from. You have to talk to your audience in the right tone of voice and in their language. You may speak brilliantly and deliver your messages with crystal clarity, but if you haven’t tried to connect they won’t have tried to understand you, and you won’t have communicated. You won’t have persuaded a single person to change their mind.
Successful communication is not only about what you say and how well you say it; the acid test will always be whether people have truly understood you, what they take out of what you’re saying, and whether you have engaged with them sufficiently to get them to turn ideas into action. This only happens when leaders spend time thinking hard about the audience.
What emotional state is your audience in?
Preparing for any communication session means first trying to understand where your audience is coming from. Poor communicators do little to adapt their message, tone, style and delivery to the needs of the audience.
Do they feel antagonistic? Are they in a state of fear or uncertainty? You have to acknowledge the emotional state they are in, and the issues that concern them, if you want to connect. What will interest them? What will make the connection? What will engage them and make a difference? What do they want to know?
Good leaders need to be able to think about and understand how people from around the world, with different belief systems and cultural roots, receive and process information: what filters they use to edit out as well as edit in information; what are their underlying, often invisible, assumptions that will shape how they hear and interpret what you say?
These are the questions to ask before moving on to think about what people need to know, what you want them to feel and what you want them to do.
When people feel that you don’t understand them or their point of view, they often think you might be talking down to them or at them, and your chances of bringing people with you will be severely diminished. Not everyone looks at the same set of facts with the same lens. People always listen from behind their own filters – filters that may be cultural or emotional, or they may be in place because of their unique perceptions and experiences, or even misunderstandings.
Persuasive communication is a process
It starts with an understanding of what it is you’re trying to achieve, and who you most need to influence in order to achieve your objective. This requires you to know what you want those people to do, exactly, to help you get there. To be persuasive, you need to be clear about the benefits to them of doing what it is you would like them to do. Until you have defined these benefits, whether they be positive rewards or the avoidance of danger, you have little chance of success.
You have to think hard about the people you depend on for success, and what motivates them, or frightens them or annoys them. It is only when you are clear and accurate about this that you can start to connect with them, by showing them that you truly understand where they are coming from. Why do they think, feel, believe and do what they do? How do you know this for sure? How are their feelings impacting on their behaviours? All of these are essential questions to understanding your audience.
Are they overreacting – or have you under-communicated?
To truly understand the impact of your communication on your audience, you have to understand how they are reacting and whether this is now advancing you towards your cause. Most of all, you have to understand whether you have connected. This is an area most managers tend to ignore, ill-advisedly.
Research done for my book by the online polling company YouGov, 4,000 people were asked ‘how well managers relate to their employees, in terms they understand’. The result was worryingly low – with as many as 55% of employees saying their managers never do so. (More than 80% of managers think they do.)
Successful communication is not about what you say; it is about what is heard. The acid test will always be whether people have truly understood you, what they take out of what you’re saying, and whether you have engaged with them sufficiently to get them to turn ideas into action.
To be more audience-centric, always consider the following:
- Are you crystal-clear about what you are trying to achieve, and how this audience impacts on your ability to achieve your goals?
- Have you defined the problem in the right way, in a way that will resonate with this audience?
- Have you truly spent time thinking about your audience, about how they think, feel and act now?
- Have you thought hard about how people might be feeling, and how those feelings might be impacting on their behaviours? What is causing them to behave the way they do now, and what would better enable them to behave differently?
- Have you made sure that you will talk to them about their concerns, their issues, before you try to make them understand yours?
- Have you thought through the benefits of actions you propose, as benefits relevant to your audience?
- How, for example, will company growth be of specific benefit to them?
- Have you thought through who else might be talking to them, and what those influencers are saying?
- How would you counter those arguments?
- Have you checked what your audience has heard? Always best to do this during the conversation rather than later. This way you have a chance to correct any misunderstandings in the moment.
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