Every leader knows that communication provides the most opportunity to really mess things up.
That’s why Chairman and CEO Peter Handal and his team at the New York-based Dale Carnegie & Associates Inc. spend so much time working with executives around the country about how to be better in business and better communicators. In fact, they work with 400 of the Fortune 500 companies.
Smart Business spoke with Handal about how to be a better communicator.
Mr. Peter Handal - Chairman of the Board, President & CEO Dale Carnegie
What are the keys to effective communication?
First is to know your audience. It’s really important to know who you are talking to because you could be conveying a message differently depending on the audience itself.
Second would be once you know the audience, you should talk in terms of their interests. You don’t want to lecture at people. You want them to see what’s in it for them. And so you want to talk in terms of their interests.
The third principle is you should be talking on topics you’ve earned the right to discuss. That may sound silly, but have you ever seen someone get up in front of an audience and talk about a topic they really don’t know a lot about, but they did some Google research and they feel like they’re an expert on? You can see through that right away. When someone is talking about a topic they really own and they’ve earned the right to talk about because it’s their business or they’re a marketing person and just live marketing or because they’re a techie — when somebody knows that topic that well and they’ve earned that right, they communicate more far effectively and you can feel that energy.
Another principle that Dale Carnegie uses a lot is simply smile. They make the connection between you and the people that you’re communicating with and that’s making the assumption that you’re on the video or Skype or in person, but that’s something that really helps communication. Facial expressions are very important. Those would be some broad things.
Another principle I add is be yourself. This is different than the earning the right to discuss something. That’s the topic itself, but to be yourself, meaning you’d try to get up in front of an audience and be someone you’re not. I for one am not a spell-binding orator so if I were to get up in front of an audience and try to give some sort of oration like Cicero in Ancient Rome, it would be a total flop because that’s not who I am. I tend to be more conversational so when I give a talk, my style is more conversational. It’s far more effective to be yourself.
Some psychological things are important. You want to make the people you’re talking to feel important. You don’t want to talk down to them. You want to treat them as equals. You want to make them sincerely feel that they’re important to you as you’re talking to them, and if you have that in mind when you’re doing a communication, it comes naturally. Also, using someone’s name makes them feel important and it gets their attention. The Dale Carnegie saying is that a person’s name to that person is the sweetest sound in any language. Dale Carnegie wrote that back in the 1930s and it’s true. It gets their attention and it draws them into the conversation, and if you combine making people feel important with smiling and using people’s names as you’re talking to them, that sets an atmosphere that makes the communication much more effective than if you were just getting up there and lecturing.
You mentioned that leaders need to know their audience. How do you do that?
For example, asking whoever is arranging the event or the venue, ‘Who are the people that are going to be there or what do they do? What levels are they in their organization?’
Another technique that I use a lot is to simply get to wherever I’m going to be and walk around and talk to people. That accomplishes two things — you get to know the audience and you know who they are, you’ve had some connection with them even if it’s a brief, ‘Hi, how are you, where do you live?’ kind of thing, but it also makes you much more comfortable up there in front of a group because now, instead of talking to a bunch of strangers, there are people in the audience that you’ve met. It’s more like sitting around a dining room table or a restaurant and chatting with people you know. That makes the communications much more effective.
Once you know who you’re talking to, then how do you tailor your message so that they understand it?
If you listen, and I’m not taking sides politically on the health care issue one way or another, but listen to the president when he talks about health care — I’ll give you two examples. One would be when he’s talking to a Democratic audience, when he’s trying to fire up the base and the other audience base is the general American public. It’s pretty interesting because he does know the audience and he does tailor his approach to that audience.
When he’s talking to a more liberal base, the Democratic activists, he’s much more enthusiastic, much more, ‘If not us, who; if not now, when.’ And he’s’ calling from their perspective what they want to do as Democrats and make history and they want to pass landmark legislations that will have an effect for decades to come. He appeals to that desire they have and he’s talking in their interests.
Still in the same topic but if his audience is the general American public, he doesn’t talk about how it’s going to be a legacy for the Democratic party — the we have to do this now because that’s what we were elected for — but when he’s talking to the general populous, he’ll talk about the insurance companies and how they’ve done all these bad things. He appeals to people in terms of, ‘You don’t want to have pre-existing conditions eliminated and you want to be able to get coverage when you need it.’ Same thing — ‘I’m for this health care legislation,’ but he tailors it very effectively to the different audiences he’s speaking with.
I’m not taking positions though — Dale Carnegie doesn’t have a position on health care, but it’s a good example.
How can someone craft those various messages when he or she doesn’t necessarily have speechwriters working for himself or herself?
First of all, it’s knowing your audience. So you start with that because once you know who the audience is, you put yourself in their place. If I were in their place, what would I be interested in? If I’m a small business owner and I’m talking to a group of my managers, maybe what my managers would be interested in is are they going to lose their job, what’s the future, so I would be thinking about what they are interested in and try to address that in my conversation. If I’m talking to my customers and they’re interested in the quality of what we do and are we going to do it on time and are we going to keep the price we gave them and what do other companies that have used my company’s services think, and so in that kind of communication, which could be a sales call, then you would be addressing those kinds of issues. If you know the audience and then you say, ‘If I’m in their seat, what is it that I want to be interested in?’ then you address that.
After you’ve communicated, how do you check to make sure your message was understood?
So often people think they have said what they thought they said, and in fact, people have heard something totally different. That does happen.
One way that I think is very effective is to have questions and answers. I personally feel very strongly that when I give presentations, I like to have them interactive, and I like to have the audience asking questions about different things at the end, so if I’m allotted 45 minutes for a talk, I’ll allot 20 minutes for question and answers and only talk for 25 minutes. In that kind of environment, you then get the idea of what they heard. I think that’s a very important technique to use.
Another way — and if it’s a smaller group, you can do it much better — is just making the conversation interactive. If you’re on a sales call and you’re a small business owner and trying to represent your company, trying to convince this XYZ company to buy your services, instead of getting up and going through your notes, you might say, ‘Does that make sense? Is that the kind of issues you face?’ Try to draw them out as opposed to lecturing at people and just talking at them and it makes it much safer and you’ll be communicating what you think you are because people will be interacting with you.
And how do you make sure your message stays consistent across different constituencies?
That’s a real challenge for any company. Dale Carnegie is in 86 countries, and we have 233 offices all around the world, and we train in 30 languages, and it really is hard to get the message out, and here it is, we’re experts in communication, and it’s hard to get a consistent message out that everyone hears.
Part of it is using different methods. It’s not enough to send out an e-mail to everybody and say, ‘This is what we’re thinking or this is the issue of the day.’ There’s nothing wrong with e-mails — it’s an essential way of communicating, but if that’s the only way you communicate, that’s not going to reach all the audience. Some people absorb information in writing. Some people are the kind of people that absorb information face to face. We all have our own ways of learning. Some people like audio books instead of actually reading hard copies. My wife much prefers the Kindle. Everybody has different ways of learning, so I think it’s important that, in order to get a consistent message out and have everyone hearing it, to use a whole variety of media. It’s a little more work because you have to repeat the message in different ways, whether it’s a DVD or Skype or conference calls or whatever, but I think that kind of approach is one way of doing things.
The second is to repeat the message over and over and over again. There was a friend of mine that was the CEO of Wal-Mart Stores. I think Wal-Mart has like a million U.S. employees, and I asked how he communicates to a million employees. He says to me, ‘Peter, the first 10 times, nobody hears me, and the second 10 times, they begin to hear some noise in the corner, and the third 10 times, they begin to hear something about what the message is, and the fourth 10 times, they’re beginning to really hear what the message is.’
His point is to repeat the message over and over and over again so that people will hear it. That’s just the way we are as human beings. There’s a lot of noise out there. Whether it’s on our smart phones or e-mails or voice mails, there’s so many things going on, even though we all think we’re great at multitasking, you don’t absorb information and concentrate just on that one thing that’s going on at that one point of time. You have to concentrate. Use a variety of media and keep on repeating and repeating and repeating.