Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, November 2019.
Have you ever gone into a presentation or a sales meeting convinced that you were about to deliver a slam dunk, only to come out feeling like you threw brick after brick? Have you ever introduced a new initiative to your team with great confidence that it will be greeted with enthusiasm, only to find that you are pelted with questions and clear pessimism?
What went wrong?
More likely than not, what’s happening is that you haven’t identified the best way to boost your communication value. Maybe you were confident because you mastered all the details and nuance of the product or the initiative you were pitching, but your audience was more worried about the big picture and felt overwhelmed by minutiae. Or maybe you were convinced that you had a clearly advantageous proposal, but your audience didn’t see the same advantages. Or maybe your audience had a major objection to the plan that you didn’t anticipate.
In all these cases, what’s happened is that when you prepared to communicate, you thought about what was valuable to you or to your company. But you didn’t think enough about what was most valuable to your audience: their needs, their fears, their context and their preferences. Furthermore, perhaps you weren’t prepared for the audience to react the way they did — with criticism or negativity or even indifference — and it threw you off track.
There are two major elements to overcoming these challenges and boosting your communication value so that you can both increase your odds of successful persuasion and recover from unexpected reactions:
First, cultivate emotional intelligence, so that you approach communication with empathy and respect.
Persuasive communication transcends the simple transmission of information from one person to another; rather, it forges interpersonal bonds, which — yes — help us achieve our objective and build relationships.
Successful communication requires that we approach our fellow humans with curiosity (a desire to learn about them, their context and their culture); with exchange (building dialogue across differences while conveying our own confidence and conviction); and with empathy (demonstrating respect and seeking common ground). Each of these elements lays the foundation for a strong, genuine connection.
With a little time and research, we can gather some basic facts about our audience. These allow us to make some intelligent inferences and come up with more insightful questions than we might otherwise devise, as well as to tailor the information we present to them to best suit their needs.
Of course, we can’t know everything about everyone we set out to communicate with. And when we do find out something about that person, we have to be careful to recognize that it is only a small piece of who they are. We need to avoid stereotypes or pre-judgment. But being prepared gives us direction, a generalized understanding of our audience, a place to begin to learn more about the individuals with whom we want to connect.
Gathering a minimum of information can help guide us in creating a message that resonates with our audience, devise a listening plan that will help us gather even more information, and set out solid starting points in creating a connection between speaker and audience.
Second, project an executive presence that is confident and clear, even when your audience clearly reacts negatively to your communication.
Even if you suspect that you are bearing an unpopular message or that your audience is unwilling to listen to you because of prejudice or pre-judgment, don’t adopt the defeatist attitude that says, “They just don’t want to hear from me, so I might as well save my energy.”
Instead, be even more determined to be powerful and persuasive: Stay ambitious, prepare, identify your communication goal and hone your message to be clear and concise.
Consider softening the ground. Make some pre-meeting calls to introduce yourself and get to know your audience a bit better. Ask a colleague to share his or her credibility by putting in a good word for you. You might even acknowledge the elephant in the room: “I know that I’m bringing up an unpopular topic, but I have some new ideas that might solve some of these problems. Do you mind if we talk about it?”
Finally, consider the building blocks of a powerful presence that emphasizes your own strengths while respecting the input of others:
• Project confidence by projecting your voice, standing square to your audience and using a declarative tone. (Watch out for a rising tone, which sounds like you are asking a question rather than making a statement).
• Avoid weak language that belittles your own accomplishments. Try to eliminate words from your vocabulary, such as “just,” “basically” or “a little” when describing your own work.
• Listen carefully and respond thoughtfully to avoid interrupting or looking at your notes while someone else is talking. Show with your body language that you are attentive to what is being said, and think about follow-up questions that demonstrate you’ve heard their response and take it seriously.
Increasing your communication value requires taking a 360-degree view of not only what you find interesting or important, but also how it looks on the other side of the room. Of course, you don’t have to be a mind-reader or omniscient, and no one will ever predict perfectly what will happen when you engage with other people. But a few extra minutes of thought and preparation can make a vast difference in how you preempt objections or react to unexpected ones — and whether you leave the room having met your objective.