06 May Communicating is risky: three tricks to not bomb
Communicating is always risky. I once summarized an entire year of work in a carefully crafted presentation. It was polished and smart. And when I presented it, it bombed.
Rather, I bombed.
We spend so much energy explaining what we do, what we did, or what we’re going to do – often with tiring narratives. In my case, I used clever language, metaphors and many slides. So many slides. Sometimes that’s fun, when it works.
But it backfires a lot. Our messages don’t land. We confuse people. Worse, we bore them.
And we know we’ve bombed as someone stifles a yawn.
That seemed to happen a lot with my dense decks and piles of analysis. Then I realized that most of the communicating we do, whether to one person or fifty, is as much performance art as anything.
And any performance artist knows something the rest of us ignore:
We’re going to bomb.
How many days have you finished work thinking you’ve crushed every conversation?
The truth is we bomb all the time – in formal presentations, updates to crabby bosses, and mind-numbing Zoom meetings trying to align with stakeholders. Bombing is more the norm than crushing it. And the more ambiguous or complicated the subject, the greater the risk. To us.
No sooner do we try to describe the road to “digital transformation” or “organizational alignment” before someone yawns or scratches their head. So is there a better way to deliver the message?
But plan for the risk.
Our brains only process four thoughts at time. Four. This is true for you, me and whoever we’re talking to.
Master coach, Michael Bugay Stanier explains, “In some ways, it’s as if our unconscious brain counts like this: one, two, three, four… lots.”¹
That’s what we’re up against most of the time. And if I don’t plan what I want to say – and how to say it – there’s slim chance I’ll say anything you’ll hear.
But here’s a good rule of thumb: if it’s easy to say, it’s easy to hear.
And these three tricks make communicating easier.
3 thoughts, 2 syllables, 1 truth
First, 3 Thoughts
Here’s the simple rule: Group your thoughts into threes most of the time.
We sort of know this, but we forget to use it. (We have so much to say.) But framing thoughts in threes prompts us to think about what we want to say.
It may seem too simple. But it’s not simple, it’s comforting. Threes are easy to use, and they’re easy to hear.
My friend Ravi does this masterfully. “I always say I have three points, even if I have only two,” he says laughing. “I’ll say the first two things, and then just make up a third.”
The funny thing is that no one notices. Why?
People respond to the structure – and the repetition. They hear they are going to hear three points, and then they hear three points. Ravi’s structure makes them feel like they’re in good hands.
They feel good. And you haven’t bombed. Get it?
Next, 2 Syllables
The simple rule is this: [Try to] Constrain your words to 2 syllables – max.
If groups of threes frame ideas, short and precise words make those ideas clear. But the words we use to “educate” someone, for example, are often vague – and annoying.
The more words we use and the longer they are, the sooner people tune out. Especially at work. And we use a lot of words.
We also waste precious syllables. Words like capabilities, experiences, transformation, organization, architecture, implementation might seem accurate and important.
But they’re hard to process. We lose the listener at capa-.
So the question is, do we know what we want to say? And can we say it with short, precise words?
I’ll explain further with haiku, which has seventeen syllables in three lines: 5, 7, 5. The longer the syllables, the fewer words I can play with. So I’d never use “capability.” That’s five syllables on one line!
But if I use short words, I can say a lot in a small amount of space.
We must have new tech,
tools and skills, so we compete
well in the future.
If we don’t change and
build new tech, systems, and skills,
we will not survive.
That’s the logic. And this mental game prompts us to think before we bomb.
No, you don’t need to write a haiku (ever). And don’t throw out long words. Add them back – selectively. Then you can pack them with meaning.
And that leads to the final trick:
There’s no rule, just a simple question: What one thing do you want people to remember?
Better said, what would you be thrilled to hear someone repeat, even if the rest of what you say bombs? It will have a ring of truth to it. So what do people sort of know, but can’t say better than you?
Just say that. Then repeat it.
Had I known all of this before I bombed, I might have said, “We built some cool tech with the help of all your teams. We wanted this for years, so thanks for the support. Here what’s next: one, two, three.”
See? Short, precise – and easy.