Communication transforms an idea into a vision, defines how it’s different, explains why it will work, and engages people in helping make it a reality. Communication is what keeps your vision alive, whether you're in the room explaining it to an intimate, captive audience, or when others talk about your enterprise in places far from where you’ve ever been or will ever go. Most important, communication is what turns a person with an idea into a leader.
By communication, I don’t mean the numbing volume of opinions and information from self-appointed experts that overwhelms us today, nor do I mean our media-and-marketing-driven habit of reducing everything to a sound bite. I refer to something very specific that lives in between those two extremes.
I have spent my entire life thinking about communication -– art, words, pictures, thoughts, beliefs and action. What is most important to me now is to use what I’ve learned to help people and organizations with the courage to create new models of change and a contribution to life beyond their own walls. And I love entrepreneurs – of any size.
What follows are a set of five principles for understanding communication along with tactics for putting them to use to make your enterprise a success. They are based on a synthesis of articles I wrote for various publications and are built on a few core assumptions:
That communication can solve 99% of the challenges we face, if we simply learn to do it well. The ability to be heard and understood, to connect with people and engage them is a (perhaps the) most important element in any relationship, and relationships are the beginning and the end of life.
That communication can be intentionally designed – regardless of how big, complex or controversial. It is not simply a talent that some have and others not so much.
That communication is a system of multiple forms, beliefs and messages that influence and to a large extent control the “events” that we see and hear. And, that to create lasting impact, we need to work at a systems level. Designed as a system, communication is power and energy and infectious potential – demonstrated more than stated, acting as a circulatory system for any organization, creating a flow of relevant information and inspiration to all the people who need and want to act in service of a shared goal.
Like everything else that is meaningful, powerful communication begins deep inside us, with truths that are more than facts, more than intellect alone. Nothing meaningful can be spoken or understood unless it is felt. This is a dynamic to which people easily nod their heads, but struggle to live out, in our society’s disconnection from our bodies and senses.
It is never too soon, or too late to get it right. Giant corporations, cities and governments have big, complex communication issues that can be aligned more easily than most believe – when they are approached as a system. And even the most inchoate entrepreneur should begin by designing the outcome at the start.
Rectify the language.
“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.” These are the words of Alfred Edward Kahn, a beloved economics professor and the man known as “the father of airline deregulation.” It’s easy to appreciate (and cheer for) an economist calling the architects of economic obfuscation on their shenanigans. Like all real wisdom, it grows more profound over time and when applied to new contexts.
I would actually go so far as to say that it applies to everything we communicate, everywhere. Even (or especially?) when we talk to ourselves.
There are only two ways in which we, as individuals, can impact the world and people around us. The first is through our behavior, the second is through communication. Most of our behavior, of course, is a product of how persuasive other communicators are.
In “The Spell of the Sensuous” David Abram recounts a theory of why the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztecs as easily as they did. The Aztec language was locked to the concrete places, things and events around them. For them, as for many indigenous people, there was no reality separate from nature. The Spaniards came with modern language like ours—self-referential and founded on our human constructs—removed from nature through abstraction. Because the Aztecs had no concept of deceit or misrepresentation of facts, when the Spaniards misrepresented the truth, they thought their gods had abandoned them, and were crushed.
Our communication has lost touch with reality in almost every realm—from the Orwellian language of politics, to the “sound-good-bites” of business to the sensationalism of the media, with their hyped-up marketing programs for every disaster.
Most business communication is dead and empty because there is no human feeling or intention behind it. Somebody is usually second-guessing somebody they need to please who thinks they kind of sort of know the company line because they heard it from the people they need to impress but don’t really feel it so are careful to use the same words that their boss does which don’t have any deep connection to them whatsoever. Nobody understands it because it is a meaningless bunch of jargon.
Big companies may have the time and resources to waste on communication that is overly complicated and manicured to death, (and sometimes conveniently use it as a place to hide) but entrepreneurs do not. So the worst thing you can do is to try to become one of the big boys by mimicking the way they talk.
Here are two examples:
From the BP Code of Conduct: As one of the world’s leading companies, we have a responsibility to set high standards: to be, and be seen to be, a business which is committed to integrity. In a complex global business environment like ours, that’s not always easy. Our code of conduct is designed to help us achieve this.
Our code of conduct is the cornerstone of our commitment to integrity. As Tony Hayward, our former group chief executive, affirmed: “Our reputation, and therefore our future as a business, depends on each of us, everywhere, every day, taking personal responsibility for the conduct of BP’s business”. The BP code of conduct is an essential tool to help our people meet this aspiration. The code summarizes our standards for the way we behave. All our employees must follow the code of conduct. It clearly defines what we expect of our business and our people, regardless of location and background. Ultimately it is about helping BP people to do the right thing.
The code includes many examples of how our group values should be applied in specific situations. The level of detail and practical approach signal our determination to embed our values and a culture of integrity more firmly in our group.
What did they say? This is the code of conduct referencing itself - having no connection to how the company actually behaves. And it looks like somebody got paid by the word.
Here’s an example of a statement that works; the goal of the World Wildlife Fund:
2050 Biodiversity Goal: By 2050, the integrity of the most outstanding natural places on Earth is conserved, contributing to a more secure and sustainable future for all
See the difference? There is a connection to reality in the WWF goal, there are real things there, not just words that reference other words. We know to what we can hold them accountable.
Here’s what to do.
There is a simple, foolproof technique for writing words that people care about and understand: Take the time—before you begin—to really figure out how you feel about your subject or issue. Be clear about your truth and what you want people to know. The difference, by the way, between what you want to say and what you want people to know can be huge.
This will sound preposterous, but, remember you’re a human being talking to other human beings. What do you need them to know? What do you need them to do? Answer these questions for yourself - nobody else - and clarify your thinking, because you can’t write clearly unless you do.
If somehow, some acronyms sneak by you and land in what you write, try getting rid of them. If any of the words you’re using are not absolutely necessary—study them one at a time—take them out. If there are words that everyone in your industry uses, words that are hot at the moment, words that lots of people use to mean something slightly different, be relentless and find another way to say it. It doesn’t mean that everything you write will be ten words or less, it only means that you will have considered and meant every word you say. And that is a powerful, powerful thing.
When I teach entrepreneurs, I always tell them to use unworn language, and if they don’t know what that is, to read the poems of Emily Dickinson. Unworn language helps people hear things and consider what they’re hearing or reading without pre-judgment and in an open way. It sneaks up on them before they can assume they already know it when you know they don’t.
One thing is for certain. If you use the same words as everyone else to tell people how you’re different, the odds are not in your favor.
If language in business has lost it’s connection to reality, isn’t this the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs to bring it back? Words have the power not only to convey truth, but also to create it. “I have an idea.” “Let’s start a business.” “We can do this.”
In the beginning was the word. Make sure the word makes sense.
Mission, Vision, Values? Forget it.
Someone will tell you, if they haven’t already, that you need to capture your business idea – however radical – in the structured and declarative statements called mission, vision and values, and that there is a proper way to write them. But by following the formula, you become formulaic, and that simply doesn’t work for an entrepreneur.
Almost nine years ago, I went to Cairo to lead a three-day workshop for Egyptian entrepreneurs, and included the glossary below as a way to shed light on the confusion around the many forms these elements can take. I share these definitions in the same spirit with which people admit to a time in their lives when they didn’t recycle.
Mission: Why you exist, your organization’s purpose in life.
Vision: Where you want to take the company, what you want to accomplish, how you want to impact the marketplace.
Goals/Objectives: The specific, detailed accomplishments that are necessary in order to make your vision a reality.
Value proposition: The core benefit that you offer clients, partners, etc. Can change with each customer segment.
Positioning: The underlying platform for marketing and communications. It distinguishes a company from the competition by articulating unique strengths and values.
Strategy: The creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.
Character: The personality of your company. Defines the experience that a customer or employee will have with it.
Elevator pitch: Fast answer to the question “Who are you?”
Tagline: Evocative, creative, emotional shorthand for your mission or elevator pitch...depends on communications need and context. Frequently change every few years.
Make sense? I hope not.
First of all, there are too many pieces – crowded footprints from thousands of marketing consultants making themselves important by inventing new paths to follow.
Second, these are the prescriptions that served the industrial age model and made it the mechanical monster it is today. Strict rules about what and how to speak shave off all the rough edges that make ideas interesting and audible to us. It’s as if all the worn structures and tired jargon can’t get traction in our brains, and move through them without penetrating. The words for genuinely new ideas don’t exist anymore in corporate speak, if they ever did. It’s like trying to express yourself deeply in a language stripped of meaning.
What you need and should not leave home without is a Promise – a clear, simple statement that explains what you will do, how it’s different, why it matters and to whom.
My definition of a promise is: The commitment that a business makes to each of the people who interact with it – a promise that defines what is unique about the company, and what people will get for their money and their time, whether they are a customer, partner, investor or employee.
A promise is active. It’s what you commit to do and be. Once you make the promise, the behavior needed to make it true becomes obvious and actionable. It may be hard to trust this notion before you do it, but when you have it, all the decisions you need to make will flow from it, in the most organic way.
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One of the most famous examples is from the Ritz Carlton hotels: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
This is a lesson in brevity. In seven words, it sets a standard that is known and can be measured. It says what they do, for whom, and how it’s different. It tells employees how they need to treat guests and it tells guests what they can expect in quality and service. And it doesn’t bother to say they’re in the hospitality business because that’s not what makes them unique.
Doing this well is neither easy nor simple. Most of the time it requires the help of someone who can see you and what you want to do objectively. It’s easy for people to know what they’re good at, and what they are burning to accomplish, but extremely difficult for them to tell how they’re different from everybody else. And even harder to self-edit all the details that feel so important to include but in reality are just the stakes of whatever game you’re in.
However you get to it, if you find your own voice, and language that is meaningful to you, you will have a set of words that, like a poem, makes your heart beat faster, and gives your idea life for all to see. C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” In my experience, entrepreneurs intuitively know this. They’re excited by the challenge of finding the words that will not only capture their passion, but also set it free.
Bridging the Gap.
Until you have sat in a darkened room for days on end, watching through a two-way mirror as groups of total strangers discuss their interpretations of messages you spent months crafting to make a different point than the one they are getting – unable to intervene and explain what you meant – you cannot truly appreciate the gulf that can exist between the messages you intend to communicate and what it is that people receive.
How could they be so dumb (you think), how could they not appreciate your cleverness or laugh at your joke? Have they never heard of irony? How can they not see that you are telling the truth, unlike all the other companies making the same argument? Did they not get the reference to Hemingway? Why didn’t they work a little harder to see that you were using that word to mean something more specific (or broad) than most people do?
A focus group with consumers, like the one described above, is only one place you can experience this gap between intended message and received meaning. If you pay attention, you can feel it live in a room full of potential investors. It’s there every time you send an email, conduct a job interview or create a presentation. It’s hanging in the atmosphere between your web site and the people who visit it. The more aware you are of this gap, the more skilled you will become at bridging it. Until you do, you’re not communicating effectively.
The invaluable lessons I learned sitting in the dark listening to people as they tried to comprehend my work, while hard won, are relevant to everybody everywhere who wants to be understood, and are the basis for just about everything I have learned about communication since.
There are three parts to any communication: What you want to say, what’s received and what gets lost in translation. The loss in the middle can be viewed as what splashes out of the water bucket on the way back from the well. You need to make sure you’re carrying enough to begin with so that it doesn’t render the whole trip futile.
Communication is about making a connection – getting meaning from point A to point B. In the riveting documentary, Man on Wire, Phillippe Petit spent months in 1974 trying to figure out how to rig his wire from one Twin Tower to the other so that he could walk (illegally) between them. In the end, his team used a bow to shoot an arrow strung with a thin line across the chasm between the buildings, in a thrilling feat of ingenuity and precision. It’s not a bad metaphor for our current subject, although if it was always that dramatic we’d be too exhausted to talk.
Communication is not just self expression, no matter how scintillating your self is. Create every message with a destination in mind – like a package needs a specific address to get anywhere, or an arrow needs a target. Depending on your subject and the interest level of your audience, you may only need to send up a flare, but double check your instincts on that. Other times, you may need to hit them with the communication equivalent of a blunt instrument. Sometimes you will aim for the head, sometimes the heart. When it works, it’s rarely an accident.
Recipients of communication are stunningly literal. It’s an excellent idea to never underestimate an audience’s ability and inclination to take things literally. Assume that people will take what you say at face value – when they bother to take it at all.
Now, if the audience is your mother, this will not be true. She will likely fill in the blanks for you, connect dots, remember what you said the last time and why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. She understands and probably shares your twisted sense of humor, and what’s more she will likely love you no matter what you say.
As an entrepreneur, you will, hopefully, have many audiences in addition to your mother. The more successful you are, the more likely it is you’ll be communicating with strangers, that you’ll need their support more than they need you, and that your business will depend on the skills you develop to engage them.
Don’t count on any help from them. Your thought process, your style, your wit, your skill with a double entendre, your previous successes are all meaningless if they don’t get it. Your intention does not count. They will not cut you any slack. But love them. Be patient with them. Make it your responsibility to reach them and create understanding, not theirs. In other words, if they don’t understand you, you have only yourself to blame.
Context is everything.
The context is the reality in which your audience lives. It’s their cultural bias, language skills, thoughts and feelings and desires and agendas and financial realities, preconceived notions and baggage. It’s the mood they’re in when they encounter you. It’s whether they’re hungry or preoccupied. Context is more complicated today because we communicate with each other in so many places – in cultures different from our own, time zones, physical spaces and mediums. You can’t plan for it all, but you can anticipate the big differences between your context and theirs.
Begin by thinking hard about who your audiences are. They aren’t one single lump of people, they are different and specific. They probably include funders, employees and potential employees, partners, potential partners, and customers. Depending on what you do you may need to add the media and even policy makers. They all have different needs and interests. It’s a good idea to map them – literally draw them, by size and relationship to each other. It will help you see them, and help you begin the work of understanding them more deeply. What are their needs, their challenges? Do they know you, what do they currently think, and what do you want them to think? What you are trying to say is relevant only if it’s relevant in the context in which they live.
Master the out-of-body experience.
Cultivate an ability to move back and forth from your intention to your audience and their context. Try to see what you’re saying from their perspective. If you have been buried in the details of what you’re doing, step back and look at the broad strokes you’ve created. What would YOU think was the big picture if you were viewing it for the first time? Notice the obvious. Is it long and complicated or simple and quick to take in? Is it clear what’s important and what’s secondary? Is it true? Logical? Is what comes across what you meant to convey?
This skill will help you with more than the messages you create, it will also help you with the best mediums. What’s appropriate for an email and what would be most powerful in an old-fashioned letter? When should you get in front of somebody because what you are presenting won’t stand on its own? When is a tweet the last thing you want to do, and when is it the first? If you can come to know your audience and see things from their vantage point, the answers to these questions will become common sense.
Of all the TED talks I have sat through, one of the most memorable was also the simplest. A man, with credentials that far exceeded the subject of his five minute talk, gave us advice on how not to lose things. He said, “Always look behind you.” Whenever you stand up to go, turn around to see if you left something.”
On the subject of communication, I would add; always consider what precedes you.
We represent who we are by sending messages out into the world – written, spoken, visual or all of the above. We mean them to reflect who we hope to be, and what we want to happen. We should always consider what we send from the perspective of those who receive it, and look not only at the wake we leave behind but the waves we create right in front of us.
Always use your body to get ahead in business.
I don’t mean what you think, and I’m sorry if that’s what you were hoping. But trust me, this is more important, and more useful to you in the long run.
All the problems we face as a species can be boiled down to two huge, upstream issues that are the root cause all the others. First, there are way too many of us humans on the planet. Second, we ignore the planet we live on because we live in our heads. Our reality is manufactured there, and too much of it stays there.
There are a multitude of reasons why we don’t get out of our heads much: Cartesian theory that has been so difficult to displace, the Age of Enlightenment, during which a group of white men declared that reason was the primary source of legitimacy and authority, and therefore anyone but a traditionally educated white man was inferior, and the computer, which creates interesting faux realities for us inside our own and others’ heads and requires nothing but small movements of our wrists and fingers. If you’ve been wondering why we’re disconnected from our own true nature, sedentary and fat, this goes a long way toward explaining it. We are actually less smart and less able because of it.
Thankfully – along came scientists – who questioned what and where our brain actually is, and as it turns out, it’s not so simple. To begin, we have about 100 million neurons in our guts, so the notion of making gut decisions, frowned on forever in business, is not only not just a figure of speech, it’s a pretty good idea. Likewise, there’s another cluster of neurons in our cardial sac, so we actually do involve our hearts in the thinking process.
In addition, the vast majority of our brainpower goes to unconscious thought – making our organs function, our bodies move, perceiving things far faster than we can with our conscious minds, registering our senses and emotions, accumulating and integrating it all through our instincts. But you don’t need me to tell you all of this, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, The Neurobiology of We by Dan Siegel, How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer and many other books tell the story wonderfully.
The biggest reason by far for us to stop living in our heads is that it severs our connection to our senses – our ability to touch, smell, taste, see and hear that makes us the amazing sensing machines we are. These same senses connect us to each other, to other species and to all of nature in ways that go far far deeper than words ever can. These are our tools for non-verbal communication.
But back to business, where non-verbal communication is rarely discussed. And even though we’re making progress, it will be a long time before someone can walk into the board room of a major corporation and say, “My gut tells me we should invest in this...” without being viewed as weak-brained. But as an entrepreneur, you are free to involve all your senses and your instincts as well as your brain in growing your business, and in fact, the most successful entrepreneurs always have.
Move. Start with our bodies, both the inner and outer dimension. First, there’s the fascinating topic of body language, taught by Joe Navarro, as well as David Givins at the Center for Non-Verbal Studies
From these two sources, you can have fun learning to read people at a level far more truthful than what may be coming out of their mouths.
And that works both ways. You can change the dynamics of an audience if you make people use their bodies when you are presenting or working with a group. Do something that causes them to get up. Sometimes you can ask them to stand, but often that’s not appropriate, and subtle things are often more effective. Put something on a wall that they have to stand up and move to see. They will be more engaged without even knowing it. Give them something to hold and touch. It will bring them closer to it in every sense. Joe Navarro will tell you that the most important clue to how someone feels is their feet, so think about how you can get them moving toward you.
Feel. Then there’s the internal, what nobody knows but you – your feelings. These squishy things that we’re trained to put aside in business are an amazing resource if you wake up to them. Pay attention to how something makes you feel, and to where you feel it. A person, an idea, the dynamics of a conversation, a decision you have to make or a decision somebody wants you to make all register in our bodies, but most of the time we don’t realize it because we don’t pay attention. These are your instincts, they are real. And they are invaluable if you listen. You can learn to distinguish them from the effects of the pastrami sandwich you had at lunch, to integrate them with your logical brain, and to trust them.
When you become accustomed to engaging with your own feelings, you can intentionally and reliably engage the feelings of others, by using signals as well as words to communicate. When you know how to connect to your audience’s unconscious mind and instincts as well as their logic, that’s when truly deep connections are formed.
Show. Never miss an opportunity for visual communication, since our eyes are indeed the windows to everything we perceive both inside and out.
It’s much easier to read and react to visuals than it is to create them, and it can be even more intimidating than learning to write. But whereas most entrepreneurs know they need to master words in order to communicate effectively (and lead), if you can communicate through visual language as well as verbal, you will be a true master. We know from quantum mechanics, from business and from life that relationships are the only things that matter. To try to create them without the richness of our senses is a lost opportunity indeed.
Make reality perception.
In politics, celebrity, the greenwashing business and the beauty industry, there is a religion based on the notion that perception is reality – that if an individual or an organization appears as something – and is perceived that way – then that perception becomes the truth. In essence, it’s a belief that how we look, and what we say is more important than who we are and what we do. Perception is reality is the story people tell themselves about themselves often enough that they believe it.
This is the religion of celebrity, consumption and denial. On the surface, it’s a prettier reality than the one we live in day to day. It allows us to believe the man in the nice suit who tells us that Exxon is a caring guardian of our future because natural gas is the answer to all our energy problems (ignoring the hideous death and destruction fracking causes), that tuna is the wonder food and we should eat more of it (ignoring the fact that we are destroying one of the most magnificent creatures in the ocean), that U.S. congressmen make laws that benefit the people of the country (ignoring reality entirely), that soft drink manufacturers actually care about the health of humans (ignoring the role they play in ...you get the point). Deception on the part of the deceiver, denial on the part of the perceiver, a relationship of mutuality.
But not so simple, and not so clear. First of all, an element of what is projected is almost always based in truth, no matter how small or illusive. And second, it isn’t always bad, when you consider these examples in nature: Crows and ravens “lie” about where they hide their cache – pretending to store food if another crow is watching, then moving it or hiding it for real when they’re alone. Some frogs disguise themselves as poisonous to avoid predators, and other creatures have mastered the art of masquerading as feces so they won’t be eaten. The difference is that in nature, the deceivers don’t believe their own deceptions.
So what’s this got to do with being an entrepreneur?
I have switched “perception is reality” to “make reality perception” for a very practical reason. Entrepreneurs are critical to our future – not only because they create new businesses, jobs and new ideas, but also because they get a fresh start on truth – a conscious choice to NOT create a life of deception and denial. They have the opportunity to reinstate and revere the truth so that we can act on it together to make it beautiful again, to make all decisions based on their real consequences – not only for themselves but for all the people and creatures they touch and for the planet.
Most established companies can’t come clean without self-destructing, and undermining their foundational businesses and relationships. But entrepreneurs don’t. Entrepreneurs have all their decisions in front of them, and the truth is theirs to tell.
Some truths to be learned from the big deceivers.
First, find your truth and own it, because everything about the rest of life will try to
confuse you. Meditate. Sit with yourself and make sure you’re in touch with your true purpose, not simply aware of all the things you think you’re supposed to think and do and care about. Consider your ego, and the role it plays on your world view and ability to make decisions. According to the Talmud, “We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are”.
Think too about your goals and their unintended consequences. Make sure you are ready to take responsibility for them, and to be transparent about them.
Lying is more expensive than telling the truth. Making up a story is costly. You have to remember it over time, train others to tell it, keep reminding them about it, work harder to convince them and continue to keep the curtain closed. That all adds up to a lot of energy, time and money that can be invested in more productive ways.
Only the truth is sustainable. I mean this in both definitions of that word. Deception never lasts. Besides, when people lie, they tend to lie to appear like somebody or something else – either a standard of what they consider normal or an accepted definition of super-normal. For that reason, they are never really unique. The truth is always more distinguishing, more interesting, and far less destructive to the really important things in life, like relationships.
Have nothing to hide. Ensure that everyone in your company and everyone who represents you is armed with the truth and emboldened to tell it. It’s the only way to tell a consistent story.
Spend 95% of your time making your reality as impressive as it can be, and 5% of your time talking about it. Instead of thinking about what to say first, think about what to do – saying it will be a hundred times easier. Your marketing costs will be cut in half if you have something truly exciting to say, and in half again if people experience it the same way you promise they will. Think of it as truth-telling instead of marketing.
As an entrepreneur, you are creating a story that just might be one of the most important stories the world has ever heard. Fiction has a place in art, but not in business.