I have a friend who seems to refuse to use anything but vague nouns when she speaks. Out of the blue she will say things like, “I talked to that guy about that thing.”
I usually look at her with a blank stare and say something prophetic like, “Huh?”
She will then get frustrated with me for not understanding and give another description laced with imprecision. It usually takes a few back-and-forth exchanges to understand who and what she’s talking about.
I see similar communication styles at work. If you remember Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla from Schoolhouse Rock, you will know that pronouns were created so that we don’t need to repeat the same proper noun over and over again, once it is mentioned. The key words there are “once it is mentioned.”
I once had car trouble on a trip. The timing chain broke while I was driving. A tow truck came and got me. While we were heading to the shop with my car trailing his truck, I asked him what the timing chain is.
He began to explain it to me, “Well, you’ve got your overhead cam, right?”
Right there he lost me. If I didn’t know what the timing chain was, I certainly didn’t know what the overhead cam was.
Sometimes we get lazy and don’t want to provide critical details for what we are talking about. Sometimes, when working with professionals at the same level, we tend to assume that they know everything we know and we forego critical details.
Getting rid of “stuff”
I’m a big “stuff” guy at times. I don’t always want get into details that aren’t necessary. I say things like, “We completed a lot of stuff last week,” or “We finished the software deployments and got some of the technical stuff out of the way.” I do this assuming the people I’m talking to already know the stuff I’m talking about. Either that or I know they just aren’t interested in the gory details. They just want to know that, in general, accomplishments got done.
I often get away with it. Some people don’t want to get into the details. Some people aren’t confrontational enough to ask for clarification. But every once in a while, someone will ask for clarification. And every once in a while, I can’t provide the details. I’ve glazed over the details because I don’t really know them.
Have the details ready
Some people aren’t specific because they don’t know the details. They say “that guy” because they don’t remember his name. When we give status, we know the big things that were accomplished but don’t know a lot of detail around it.
When you give a status update to a client, they often just want a summary of the major accomplishments. Sometimes they want to know the details behind it. I’ll often try to write details down that they might want to know. Writing it down helps me to remember the detail better if they ask. And if I don’t remember every detail, I’ve got it in written form.
Using pronouns or generic terms
Like the Schoolhouse Rock example, using the same proper nouns and full names can get monotonous. When you mention someone’s name, repeating it over and over just sounds stranger than saying him or her for the rest of the conversation.
That’s also why we use nicknames and acronyms. Imaging saying International Business Machines every time you talk about IBM. But if the audience you’re talking to doesn’t know who IBM is, you might as well be talking about an overhead cam.
Everyone seems to be in a hurry. And our everyday language can be cumbersome if we force ourselves to be specific about every detail. To make it easier, we use pronouns and shortened versions of bulky terms. That makes communicating more convenient. But when we try to make it easier to communicate, we can make it murkier.
It is important to make sure that the audience you are talking and writing to understand all of the terms and terminology that you are referring to.
Have you ever made false assumptions about what your audience understood?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
For any consultant, reporting to the client executive can be difficult. Clients don’t always specify what they want and how it should be reported. Even when things are agreed upon early on, it sometimes takes time to refine status and other reporting to a point where it satisfies the client.
Although it takes some time and effort, the more you learn about the client, the clearer your reporting becomes. You also eventually develop a better relationship with the client.
Understand what she wants when she makes a request
Clients, especially busy executives, often give what I like to call iceberg instructions. They expose just a little bit of what they want. They can envision the entire thing – at least to some degree. But the consultant listening to these directions only can see what is provided. Continue reading Effectively Reporting to the Client Executive→
It happened almost by accident. Jim was presenting his change request to the change review board. He had to expedite it to make the deadline. He needed approval from Paul, his client manager, in order to expedite it. He tried calling Paul a few minutes before the meeting but he didn’t answer.
He decided to attend the meeting anyway.
“Why don’t you have Paul’s approval for this?” one of the board members asked.
I’m very fortunate to work for a consulting firm in which my engagement manager and client communicate on a regular basis. That hasn’t always been the case. Engagement managers get busy. They assume that you as the client-facing consultant are there to provide communication. The client also gets busy and doesn’t have time to meet with the engagement manager. The EM is usually just trying to sell more services anyway so they often just avoid them.
Maybe so. Engagement managers are often motivated to increase sales at their existing clients. And when that gets in the way of providing the best client service possible, communication breaks down. That is when the consultant that has daily access to the client is most needed.
When a consultant begins a client project, there is a desire to keep a laser-beam focus on that project. It seems logical. Whether you are managing the project or simply a cog in the great wheel, that project should be the one and only thing to focus on.
However, it is likely that that client project is one of many efforts in progress for your client. And those efforts almost certainly are interrelated with your project.
I once knew a woman who worked as a client relationship manager (CRM) for an IT consulting firm. The CRM’s role was to be a liaison between her clients and the candidates that we placed with those clients.
Her job was to work with the client and understand their resource needs. She would then communicate those needs to recruiters who would identify IT workers to be candidates for those positions.
After the recruiters submitted the candidates to her, she would talk to those candidates to verify their abilities. She would negotiate rates with both clients and candidates. If the candidate was rejected, she would communicate it to the candidate. If selected, she worked to help get the new employee on-boarded. Continue reading The woman who could communicate→
Michelle bristled as she looked across the conference room table at Chris. The client presentation was going well. That wasn’t the issue. Chris sat across from Michelle staring into his phone, typing messages and smiling on occasion.
Chris was in his first year of consulting. Michelle had spoken to him several times about using his phone in meetings. This time was different. There were clients present.
She was tempted to ask Chris a question about the presentation to humiliate him, but that would just make the firm look bad. Instead, she waited until later that morning when they were back in their own building and she called Chris into her office.
“What did you think of our presentation today, Chris?” She asked.
“Uh…I thought it went well,” Chris replied without much enthusiasm.
“Were you listening? Because I couldn’t help but notice that you were using your phone throughout most of the meeting.”
“Oh,” Chris replied sheepishly. “That was just a quick text conversation I was having. But I was listening to the presentation.”
“It wasn’t all that quick from my observation. And regardless of how long it was, or whether you were listening, it wasn’t the best impression we could have given the client. You can’t do that stuff in front of clients.”
“I’m sorry.” Chris said quietly.
“Chris,” Michelle said as she leaned in to him, “we’ve talked about this before. If you can’t control yourself with your phone, you may have to turn it off for meetings or leave it in your car.”
“Okay,” said Chris. “I won’t do it anymore.”
Michelle looked him straight in the eye, “I hope so Chris, because this is the last time I’m going to warn you.”
Success in just about any business requires good communication skills. It’s even more important in the consulting industry. Consultants have to have stellar communications skills to communicate with each other and with their clients.
There are many aspects of communication that a consultant must consider.
Pay attention. Unlike Chris, in the example above, it is professional and common courtesy to put electronics, and anything else that may distract you from the conversation, out of the way. Meetings take the collective time of everyone in attendance. Don’t be rude and waste everyone’s time by distracting yourself from the discussion.
Have an agenda. If you are in charge of running the meeting, you should prepare an agenda and share it in advance with all invited participants. This gives them advanced notice of the meeting’s purpose, and the topics you plan to discuss. It will let them know if they need to prepare anything for the meeting. If someone else is in charge of the meeting, ask them if they have an agenda. It might prompt them to prepare one.
Stay to the agenda. Whether you run the meeting or not, it is professional courtesy to stay on topic with the agenda. If you – or anyone else – want to discuss something off topic, suggest that it be put on a parking lot to discuss in case there is time at the end of the meeting, or to schedule another meeting for it.
Email is probably the most common form of communication used in the business world. It is also one of the biggest time wasters. People spend a lot of time during each day sorting through emails, reading them, responding to them, and taking action based on the messages received.
One of the great advantages of email is that you can type it up, review it, and reword or correct what is incorrect before you send it to the intended recipient.
Few people go to that rigor. Most people type from a stream of consciousness and click the send key without much thought. The result is vague subject lines that don’t provide any information about the content of the email. Content can be so brief that the recipient has to spend time trying to figure out the request, or they have to reply back asking for more information.
On the other side of the spectrum, people will send a long, wordy email that causes the recipient to read through it and formulate a response.
Emails should be short, but provide enough information to get a point across. Subject lines should provide the reader with the topic, the main subject of why you are sending the email.
Always address the recipient by name. There may be others copied who don’t realize that the email may be intended for someone else and you are just keeping them informed. If possible, put your content into easy to read short paragraphs or bullets so the reader can scan it easily.
Get to the point and say what you need to without extensive and irrelevant information. If it requires a lot of content, it may be better to have a personal conversation.
Finally, proofread your email. Consider what familiarity the recipient has of the topic. Are you being too vague? Are you being too verbose, providing details that the person already knows? Make sure there are no misspellings and grammatical errors. It will distract the reader and reflect badly on you.
Most people, in an effort to be more productive, try to go through emails quickly. By following these steps for emails, you can help them be more productive, be more productive yourself, and communicate more clearly and succinctly.
Former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson used to cite a very simple approach to public speaking. “Tell them what you’re going to do. Do it. Tell them when you’re done.” It is a simple approach that can be applied to many other things including consulting communication. It is a simple way of keeping people informed along the way.
One of the best ways to communicate clearly is to communicate to people what they can expect and then live up to those expectations. People often have the best laid plans. They know exactly what they want to do and are certain that it will work perfectly.
But when it comes to executing those plans and nobody on their team has any idea what is going on, it can fall flat on its face. Plans are almost certain to fail when the rest of the team doesn’t know what to expect.
Communicate the plan. Consulting is often project based. As a result, there is usually a project plan that maps out what needs to be accomplished on the project. This can be as detailed as a thousand-line Microsoft Project plan, or a list of milestones that will be met. Letting all project participants know what the plan includes allows them to set reasonable expectations for the project.
Team member assignments. When team members are working on a project, they need to know what is expected of them. They should be informed of the tasks they will work on, when they are supposed to be completed and the level of quality expected. When the task is done, the team member should know how that completion is to be communicated.
Business stakeholders. At the beginning of a project, a project charter explains at a high level, what the project hopes to accomplish. This is the first step in letting the business know what to expect.
On a periodic basis, project status should be communicated to the business. This allows the business stakeholders to know how far the project has come, and what has yet to be completed. Daily communications such as emails and face-to-face communications should be clear and concise helping the business stakeholder to know what to expect from the remainder of the project.
There is the old adage that human beings have two ears and one mouth, so they should spend twice as much time listening as speaking. I’ve met few consultants that actually practice that. Many in consulting feel they need to justify their existence by spouting out on all that they know.
In reality, consulting should be a conversation. A doctor wouldn’t treat a patient based strictly on what his specialty or interest is. A good doctor listens to the patient’s symptoms, asks questions and listens to the patient’s answers.
A consultant should work in the same way. Many consultants have expertise in certain areas and try to cram a predefined solution down the throat of the client. This approach can create the wrong solution to the wrong problem.
Listening to the client’s issues allows the consultant to understand the problem before they begin to solve it. It also makes the client a partner in the solution.
The consultant is not expected to know everything. But when consultants act like they do, it can stifle listening and lead to a solution that doesn’t match the problem.
It’s the famous kindergarten grading system: Doesn’t work well with others. Few consultants can be successful if they can’t work with other people. Communication is essentially about one’s ability to collaborate.
Advisor, not a salesperson. Consultants often go into clients with the expectation that they are the expert. They go into sales mode and try to convince the client to implement a certain solution. Instead, they should assume the role of an advisor. Learn the client’s business, find out more about their problem, and work with them to solve it.
Leaders as team players. Many associate leadership with barking out orders and punishing anyone who disobeys or disagrees. Managers shout out orders, leaders get things done. A leader isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and pitch in to get a job done. A leader facilitates a solution, getting ideas from the entire team and coming up with a plan that everyone can get behind.
The ability to work with others to solve problems together is collaboration. It is how people solve problems better. It involves communicating clearly, listening, and utilizing every team member’s skills to get to an optimum solution.
Consultants are challenged to succeed if they have poor communications skills. At its very essence, consulting is about communication. Consulting is about problem solving. Few business problems are so simple that one person can solve them in a vacuum. If a consultant does not communicate clearly to her team and to her clients, she can’t solve complex problems and won’t bring value to a client.
How well do you communicate as a consultant?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
There has been a lot of talk about bossy women lately. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is leading a formidable group of successful women, including Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Marie Chávez, on the banning of that word to describe women.
Their purpose is admirable. We sometimes use the term “bossy woman” when a female takes on a leadership role traditionally held by men. I’ve heard of other women leaders, such as Hillary Clinton described by another B-word that probably means about the same thing.
I recently had a conversation with someone who didn’t want the conversation to end. It started innocently enough as a hallway conversation. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. I made some small talk asking the person how things had been. After about five minutes, I realized that the conversation had evolved to meaningless chatter. Every time I started to close off the argument, the other person came up with another discussion point.
I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in meetings. I once had a weekly status meeting that was scheduled for an hour. Even when all of the agenda topics had been covered, the owner of the meeting would think up new discussion topics to fill out the balance of the hour. Just because a meeting is scheduled for an hour, doesn’t mean it needs to last that long. Continue reading Communicate More By Talking Less→