A Word For Presenters

Whenever you’re learning something new, you can no doubt find many people who having already learned the basics, are able to share with you what they know. As you learn what they know, you sometimes seek others with even more information, until you get to the point where you know all you want.  At this point, you may just know enough that you can discover what remains to be known by yourself.

When you’re on the other side, possessing knowledge of a subject and sharing that knowledge with those who seek it, just knowing what they don’t know isn’t good enough. No, it takes someone with both the knowledge and the knack for communicating that knowledge. I’ve known way too many people through the course of my life who, while very intelligent and educated on subjects, fail miserably when it comes to communicating that information in such a way that their audience learns what’s being taught.

Lest you think this is confined to a classroom in the conventional student/teacher relationship, while it’s true that failing to communicate occurs here, it is by no means confined to the classroom. Think about when you were learning to drive and how your father got so exasperated trying to teach you. As you struggled to change gears, or took far too long for their liking as you attempted to parallel park the car, their patience lowered as their voice raised. When you continued to grind gears and jerked the car forward a few feet at a time, their tolerance eroded and your ability to learn was hampered by your increasing stress. In short, they weren’t the best teacher, and you in their mind, just weren’t getting it. You were failing to learn in their mind, and in yours,  you realized you needed a better communicator.

As a Workshop Facilitator, I find myself each and every day having to modify how I communicate to my audience. Sometimes, being direct and straightforward is the way someone learns. At other times, being so direct might shatter what’s left of a fragile self-esteem, and extreme patience and words of encouragement go a lot further.

If you facilitate workshops, lead seminars or teach any subject matter, I wonder how you go about communicating what you know to your audience. I’ve been to some events where the presenter failed to make a connection with their audience and just droned on reading their slides as they came up on the screen. They may have just as well emailed us the presentation and stayed home. But this is an example of where their teaching style and my learning style didn’t jive. No, I like more dialogue, more interaction, question and answers, activities, humour, a lively and animated speaker.

When I first started as a Facilitator, I likely thought I was pretty good. I mean, it’s only natural to think we’re doing okay when we get started, even though we know we have much to learn. I probably wasn’t as good as I thought I was though. That too only makes sense. The more you work at communicating a topic to others, the better you get at communicating period.

In short, you get – I got – better at reading your audience. Looking out at those faces, you can pick up the quizzical look that really says, “I don’t understand”. You can see the glazed over eyes that say, “I’m tuned out” or the tilted head that says, “I hadn’t thought of that before and I’m taking a moment to process what I just learned.” If you read your audience well, you adjust your communication to get more of what you’re after, smiling faces that say, “I understand, my knowledge is increasing and I feel good.” When you fail to read your audience or don’t even try, you’ll have people take extended washroom breaks, leave and not return, or sometimes actually cut you off and say, “What are you talking about?” Of course, you won’t see any of these if you aren’t engaged yourself as presenter.

The people in an audience are most probable to have different learning styles. Each brings their past knowledge in your subject, from absolute novice to those with some familiarity and of course those who may actually know as much or more than you. Good presenters touch everyone and their message resonates with each person in the audience so all leave feeling they got something out of the time they invested.

I know when I’m at the front of a room, I’m scanning faces all the time, watching the body language, checking levels of engagement and I try to get to people quickly who may be struggling to keep up, grasp a concept or have a question. It may be someone needs an analogy to something they already know and comprehend completely that makes learning something new relatable. For some, they might need a comical moment of entertainment, some visual or audio enhancement of what’s being shared. When I see those, “Oh, now I understand!” faces, I know that the message I’ve been communicating has been received as I intended.

This is the objective and responsibility of any presenter; communicate your message so that your audience receives it as you intended. If you succeed then great. If you fail to communicate your message, it’s not your audience; look in the mirror. And yes, I’ve looked in the mirror. A lot. That’s how to improve.


Hearing But Not Listening

Hearing and listening are indeed closely related but they are not interchangeable words for the same experience. One may hear a great many things without truly listening at all. To listen is to not just hear; but to receive, pause, internalize, reflect and process. It’s ironic that so many people, wherever you may travel will lament that they just want to be heard. The proof? At some point in a conversation people will say as they become increasingly frustrated, “You aren’t listening; you don’t understand.” There’s this co-relation between power and listening; the less we have, the less we feel listened to.

When we are really listened to; when we feel that the person we are in conversation with is tuned in and gives us their full attention, we also feel that we’ve got their respect. I’m sure you’ve had conversations with people where you didn’t feel listened to, where you didn’t feel heard at all. When you paused for a breath the other person spoke immediately, or worse yet, you never even finished speaking before the other person rode over your words with their own. How did you feel?

And we are all guilty of not listening; all of us. Some of us do listen better than others at times, but no one can honestly claim that they listen effectively at all times, in all situations, to all people. Ask your teenage children if you’re a good listener.

Not being heard is one of our great frustrations though isn’t it? We get annoyed that Politicians hold conferences, speak their minds and then refuse to take questions, leaving those in the audience frustrated at not being heard. Phone a number of businesses these days and you become immediately frustrated with the automated answering services which ironically tell YOU to listen first to all the choices you’ve got and push the corresponding number on your phone. Why do we have to listen when we’re the ones phoning?

One of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to build a workplace culture where the customers or clients are not heard; where the end users are not listened to and their feedback ignored.

The surprising thing is that for many people, just being listened to is enough. Not everyone wants or quite frankly, needs someone else to come up with the solution to their problems. People are pretty good at finding their own solutions given support. What many people just want is to feel they have someone’s ear.

I have found that when someone feels they are being listened to, they eventually get past the surface stuff; they come to the point where they go deep. Whether this takes 10 minutes or many conversations later, when a person feels truly listened to, their trust in the person listening increases which allows them the space to share what is of most importance and significance to them. This is the best compliment a speaker can give a listener.

Now in a conversation, there’s a mutual obligation between speaker and listener. The speaker has an obligation too. It’s equally important when communicating that we choose to speak in words and phrases our listeners comprehend. I’m not just saying in the same dialect, but rather in the words they understand. Talking is one thing, but checking to make sure the listener has really heard us is important. This must be done using tact of course, but if not done properly, a person will talk on and on believing they’ve communicated effectively only to find out later they were never truly listened to. Equally, the listener should be checking in to make sure what they are hearing is in fact what the other person is communicating.

Now this sounds pretty elementary; communicating 101. However, the number of people who feel they aren’t being heard, aren’t being listened to, aren’t being understood is quite high. So if communicating is so easy and elementary, why are we collectively doing such a poor job of it?

Now look at any number of job postings these days and you’ll perhaps see that employers are looking for applicants that have great communication skills. They go on to mention that an applicant must be able to, ”communicate both orally and in writing”. Not as often will they say an applicant must be able to, “listen effectively.” The one exception is where the role involves conflict resolution and problem solving. Even then, the thrust is to listen to people just enough to understand their problem and then fix it. Time after all is money. Hence just listen long enough to resolve the problem and then move on to the next person with a problem.

With so few people really developing their listening skills, it would seem like there is an opportunity here. Have you someone in your workplace that seems to be a good listener? That one person who when they say, “How are you?” everyday really seems to be interested in your answer? That person I’m betting is someone you value and appreciate.

Listening and not just hearing sound is a skill like any other that you can choose to develop or not. Try if you will today; right now if the situation presents itself, to give someone your undivided attention. Turn and look at them and really listen. Resist the urge to speak and process what they’ve said. Check your understanding to make sure you heard them correctly.


Networking: Get The Conversations Started

Network they say; meet some people, reach out and start a conversation.

What would I talk about? How would I begin? Why would they want to talk with me? Who would I start with? How do I network? Where do I go to meet the people I should be talking to? When is the best time to get networking?

Whoa hold on a second! Good questions! In fact these are the typical questions many people ask when the subject of networking comes up. The word networking has been around for some time but even longer is the activity itself. People have done it for thousands of years – maybe you yourself – without even knowing you were. So it’s peculiar in a way that when someone says, “You should network more”, a lot of people roll their eyes, sigh the big sigh and then say they don’t really know how to network. It’s like upon hearing the word, ‘network’, they focus on the last syllable only; ‘work’.  And don’t we all just love that!

If networking is all about having conversations with people you share some common interests with, then you’d think this should be relatively easy. If for example you’re a model train enthusiast and there’s a model show coming to your community, you could plan on attending and strike up some conversations with others in attendance with your common love of trains as the subject. That doesn’t sound too difficult. They might share information you don’t know, introduce you to some new product line or better yet, introduce you to another person with whom you could start a conversation with, and voilà, your network has grown by one.

It’s important to understand that networking isn’t only about what you could get out of a conversation. True networking is also what you can add to the other person’s knowledge. In other words, while it may be obvious what you could get from the person, what have you got to offer in return? What’s in it for them to have a chat with you?

This is where many people fail to network effectively and for two reasons: 1) they don’t know what they have to offer and 2) they may not be good at what we refer to as schmoozing. Schmoozing? You know, chit-chat, hobnobbing, chatting, conversing, making small talk. Just the thought of it can give some folks anxiety and force a retreat.

Hold on though. Remember in that model train show scenario? There’s your common interest. You’ve got a ready-made topic of conversation and it’s a safe bet that striking up a talk with someone about trains will get the conversation going. You don’t need – nor should you – plan the entire conversation out ahead of time. The other person will add their own thoughts to the talk and it may go in a direction other than what you had planned ahead of time based on their interests too.

What’s good to have ahead of time is a goal for your talk. Are you wondering how you might get involved as an Exhibitor the next time the show chugs into town, are you after a hard to find caboose, looking for a job as an Event Organizer etc. Sometimes you can just come right out and be direct, get your answer and move on. Other times, you’d be better to start the dialogue, set up a relationship first, and then proceed to see if there is anything you can give to the other enthusiast. Maybe you know someone with a large collection of trains who came about theirs through an inheritance, and they want to unload them.

Once you’ve established a conversation, you will likely feel much more comfortable getting around to what you’re really after. By delaying your real motive until you’ve talked a bit, you may be surprised to find that the other person is more receptive to helping you out than they would have had you just walked up and said, “I’m looking for a job as an Event Organizer. Hiring?” Far too direct, too much all about you and your needs and there’s no real reason for the other person to feel in any way connected to you to help you out.

When it comes to moving ahead with your job search, career advancement, employment exploration and your career journey the advice is the same. It might not seem initially very productive, but having conversations with a variety of people is an excellent way to go about this process. When introducing yourself, look for the common point of interest. Check out their online profile if you don’t know them, look for causes they care about, positions they’ve held, companies they’ve worked for. Your looking for an opening; one thing you could use to get the conversation going.

When a conversation starts it may not always move the way you anticipated. There may be times you get nowhere or you could hit the jackpot and start a long-term relationship built on your opening remarks that makes a good impression on the other person. More often than not, you won’t be best friends, but you could very well help each other out, give and take information and find your relationship becomes mutually beneficial.

Don’t start your conversation with, “Hiring?” This is only about you; you’re direct but offer no reason for them to help you out. Maybe, “I see we both have a passion for trains.”


How You Write Becomes You

Many of the people I deal with on a daily basis are decidedly against the practice of including a cover letter with their employment applications. While they may give various reasons at the outset for their reluctance or outright refusal to use them, what it really comes down to eventually is their inability to communicate in words what they wish to express.

This inability to effectively communicate in writing is often because of weak grammatical skills, a minimal vocabulary and a low education. Despite their lack of grade 12 education, many have a strong history of employment where the work they have performed has been largely devoid of communicating using the written word. Some have even been extremely successful, coping and hiding their poor literacy skills. Their specific jobs are where their expertise exists, and different skill sets are required.

So it is not a surprise then that when the time comes to apply for work, some are uncomfortable if and when it is suggested to them that their chances of gaining an interview would be enhanced with the inclusion of a cover letter. I’ve personally witnessed some of these people sitting before a keyboard. Their heads are bowed down not looking at the monitor as they make error upon error, looking up only to find their mistakes. They tap or pound the keys with one finger – sometimes one from each hand. What they communicate often has punctuation and grammar issues, spelling mistakes and doesn’t express well what they intended.

Left on their own, they might actually be better off sending out their resumes without a cover letter at all so that they are not revealed as a weak communicator. It might be useful for those who struggle with written communication skills to take courses in basic literacy and an introduction to the computers. However, while such courses would benefit them, they are often happy to have the cover letter made for them in the belief that when they get their next job, they won’t be needing those skills again for a long time if indeed at all.

On the other hand, some people can communicate most effectively in their writing. Their words engage the reader, prompt an emotional response, readers can’t get enough, look for other publications by the same author because they like the style etc. Such people are gifted to be sure, but that gift didn’t come by birth. They’ve worked extensively in their writing, practice it daily or on a regular basis, maybe write blogs or daily journals.

What is important no matter what your skill level when it comes to the written word, is that you fully understand what’s happening in the mind of the reader as they go over your work. A representative of a company for example who has received your resume, cover letter, manual or on-line application, and perhaps an email can’t help but form an impression about you as a person based on what they’d received.

The general thinking is that when you have responded to a job posting, or are sending an unsolicited request for a meeting etc.,this sample they’ve received is likely you at your very best. If the document they are looking at is mistake-free and gets to the point the overall impression is positive, and by association, they feel positively towards you. On the other hand if they notice spelling and grammar mistakes and the overall quality is poor, then by association so is their impression of you.

Communicating effectively is a transferable skill; it moves with you from job to job, can be useful in a volunteer position, your personal life, even when filling out your yearly performance evaluation at work. Because it’s a transferable skill that can help you both personally and professionally, investing in yourself by taking a writing class in the evenings might be an excellent use of both your time and your money.

One of the most often cited frustrations for many of those out of work is when they know they have the skills to perform the work they are applying for, but their hand writing and spelling is so weak they can’t even fill out an application form. These are the kind of people who long for the old days when they could just ask to demonstrate their skills on the job site and get hired on the spot. Those days are largely gone.

Being able to confidently communicate both verbally and in writing are prerequisites which will make other skills easier to master such as using technology. Whether it’s using MS Word instead of a pad of paper to write a letter, or delivering a message to a group of co-workers, communication skills can limit or accelerate your career and open or close off future promotion considerations.

This idea of communicating effectively, mastering spelling and expanding your vocabulary should also be of major interest to people who now regularly communicate in abbreviations, brief text messages and acronyms. While it may be perfectly acceptable in some communications, it has yet to become mainstream in the professional world of employment.

You are who your writing skills reveals you to be. Good advice is to take some time, make the effort to improve, proofread and communicate clearly what you intend.