“Great. So it sounds like we are all set for your talk at 9 o’clock on the 17th. I’ll see you then.” This was the end of a phone conversation I had with a client a few weeks ago. The call went well, and the client and I discussed all of the various details that I needed to prepare a Roll Models talk. I had a signed service agreement, and everything was good to go so I could speak to their club, or so I thought. A few days later, I emailed the person at CareStaf who put me in touch with this client to thank them for the referral and let them know when I would be speaking. I ended my email by saying, “Thank you again for your help in getting me this gig, and I hope to see you there the evening of the 17th.” About an hour later, I get a short reply that reads, “Scott, I am very happy that you were able to set up this talk, but this group meets at 9 in the morning, not 9 in the evening.” At reading this response, my heart skipped a beat as I thought about the catastrophe that I had just averted.
This anecdote is a perfect example of the importance of good communication. The client and I were both talking about the same event, but we were doing so through our own unique point of view. As a speaker, almost all of my speaking engagements are in the afternoon or evening, so I assumed that we were talking about 9 o’clock pm. My client has been going to these morning club meetings for years, so from her perspective it seemed obvious that we were talking about 9 o’clock am. If not for my email to thank CareStaf, this miscommunication would have had major consequences. They would not have had a speaker for their club meeting, and I would have felt like an idiot when I showed up to an empty building that night. Plus, all of the time I spent preparing their talk would have been for nothing. In order to avoid issues like this from happening, it is important to develop the skills to improve your ability to communicate.
There is one skill that trumps all others when it comes to being a good communicator. Since I have always had to ask for assistance and explain what I want to do anything, almost as soon as I could talk I started developing this critical skill for effective communication. This cornerstone of communication is empathy. You have to realize that in order for you to get what you want, you first need to get inside their world, their point of view, and effectively communicate what it is you want them to do. You have to see things through their “lens” and speak their language, because in case you didn’t know, people are not mind readers (well, maybe Miss Cleo). An example of this I always remember is when my mom would ask my brother or sister to do the dishes after dinner as we were growing up. My siblings would comply and wash, dry, and put away the dishes, fully believing that they had completed their task, but when my mother would walk through the kitchen later she would be less than impressed. I would hear, “Ryan/Stephanie! I thought you had done the dishes.” My siblings would look at the empty sink containing no dishes and respond, “I did…?” My mother would then point out the crumbs on the counter, the grime on the stove, and that the trash was full, to which they would respond, “I thought you wanted me to do the dishes.” This back and forth would typically escalate into a fight that ended with my siblings scrubbing the kitchen, and everyone in a bad mood.
This entire fiasco, that is common in numerous other forms to almost every American household, could have been completely avoided with better communication by using empathy. If my mom had been more explicit in her request to my siblings, and said, “Will you clean up the kitchen?” instead of “Will you do the dishes?” her expectations probably would have been met. Likewise, if my brother and sister had taken the time to do some “Mental Optometry” and ask themselves, “What does Mom do when she ‘does the dishes’?” they probably would have realized that “do the dishes” meant “clean up the kitchen.” Neither of these solutions are difficult or time consuming, but they do require you to have the self-awareness to step out of your own “reality” and into their world. You have to practice empathy.
I have developed this ability to get inside someone else’s head and see the world through their eyes, because like I said, I had to in order to accomplish anything with my disability. Describing the exact position you want your legs in may sound easy, but I assure you it is not. When you say “up,” do you mean your up or their up? Your left or their left? What if you want to rotate one leg? It is a mess, and if you don’t believe me, get a buddy and try it. Every night though, I have to coach my nurse through this exact event. There are still those days, even after 25 years of doing it, where my nurse and I just can’t get into the same groove, and it takes us almost 5 minutes to situate my legs. I realized early on, that I would save a lot of time, frustration, and twisted knees, if I learned how to use their language to communicate. I do this by exercising empathy and getting inside their head, seeing the world from their perspective, and anticipating how they would react to my instructions.
This ability to empathize and communicate effectively is what makes me a good storyteller as well. When I speak, my goal is to connect with you emotionally in order to take you with me through a story from my life, so that you can learn something about your life. To make this connection with my audience though, I have to get inside their heads and ask myself, “What would they think about this part of my talk? How would they feel?” because it doesn’t matter whether I think it is a great, moving story, but whether they do. By empathizing this way, I will know what “language” to speak to connect with them. At this point, I use my ability as a skilled communicator to accurately and efficiently pass along my message. This combination of first connecting with their hearts and feelings by empathizing, and then skillfully communicating with their minds, is the professional speaker secret formula for a good talk. It turns out that it is not just the formula for an entertaining story though, but it is also the key to effective communication.
“Communication skills” was hands down the number one response in a study where top CEOs were asked, “What is the most important skill that you want to see more of in your employees?” I would guess that a similar result would occur if couples were asked a similar question about their spouse. It is not how smart, strong, funny, or good looking you are that is most important, although I wouldn’t mind being a tall, strapping genius with a rapier wit, but how well you can connect and communicate with others that matters most. The good news is that you can develop this skill, and all you have to do is make a conscious effort during your conversations to stop your thinking for a moment and try to figure out what they are seeing, thinking, and feeling. You can practice and cultivate this skill in your normal, everyday conversations, and then once you have honed your skills you can apply them in more high stakes situations. By improving your communication skills you will be a more productive employee (at least you will seem that way), have better relationships, and bring more happiness into your life. Who knows, maybe one day after you have been on the job market for 6 months you will decide to turn your new skills into a career as a professional speaker. Stranger things have happened…..