Category Archives: Communication skills

How to become visible in meetings: listen

How to become visible in meetings: shut up and listen

[Tweet “” People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” Thomas Sowell”]

Despite meetings being considered to be time-consuming and time-wasting in equal measure, we are all exhorted to excel and standout in them. This truthfully seems a bit strange to me.  J.K. Galbraith,  the world reputed economist adds “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”  I have read huge amounts of advice on how to become visible in meetings. I have even tried some tips, although not all myself. Some work OK, others are simply crass and the rest are just plain annoying.

The problem is everyone else has read those tips too.

Collective white noise

What we seem to be confronted with frequently today, are cohorts of super savyy meeting participants, all with one thing in mind. To stand out and over shadow everyone else. The result is that we are all going into a series of meetings, dominated and over powered by the collective white noise of dozens of individual “personal brands” vying for attention. This only serves to contribute further to meetings being universally regarded as ineffective time eaters, which don’t stay on topic or produce  productive, actionable outcomes.

With an estimated 11 million formal business meetings each day in the US,  it is thought that as much as  $37 Billion is lost.  Yes BILLION.  Many companies are now taking steps to reduce digression and other unproductive spin offs of interpersonal communication, shifting to computer supported meetings. Here software completes a triage of input based on significance and relevance. At the same time this fosters anonymity, allowing individuals to be more candid than they might have been if they had simply put their hands up. It can also reduces the domination of the meeting by the aforementioned pushy or stronger personalities.

Calculating the cost of a meeting

The challenge is to keep a meeting on track without stifling creativity, but reducing individual show boating. With apps such as Meeting Meter it’s possible to for any organisation now to work out the cost of all their meetings.

So where does that leave all those old suggestions on how to be come visible in meetings? Even more confusion!

  • Arrive late: true everyone will remember you but not for a good reason. You were late and wasted the collective time. If I’m late for a meeting I get hot and bothered and it’s not a good first impression.
  • Speak up: clearly this is a good tip because if you don’t no one can hear you. If you contribute via software support the value of your contribution will be ranked.
  • Speak early/first:  this is widely regarded to be necessary, but will depend on the nature of the meeting and the content of your sound bite. Once again your contribution will be ranked if presented via software support.
  • Leave to take a call : Rude
  • Be confident: Obvious
  • Prepare questions: Clearly be prepared and ask questions if relevant. Don’t ask if they are not. You should have seen an agenda.
  • Walk around:  could be strange unless part of your company culture. If others do, it will be messy.
  • Take notes: only if you need them
  • Don’t take notes: what if you do need some?
  • Interrupt: rude and annoying. Signalling to the chair that you would like to ask a question is not being deferential, it’s being polite.    
  • Re-stating data in another format: Whether it’s 1 in 4,  or 25%,  to repeat data already presented runs the risk of appearing dim.

The best stand out performances I have observed from attending hundreds of meetings myself are actually by-products of listening. It’s the person (male or female) who simply cuts through the white noise and just asks: Can you repeat that? Can you go back to ..? Can you clarify…?

The irony is that how to become visible in meetings can now actually be more about what you don’t say than what you do.

[Tweet “It’s the person who just shuts up and listens before they cut through the white noise with a pertinent question”]

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”  Ernest Hemingway.

executive presence

Can executive presence be learned?

What is executive presence? Do you have it? What are the intangibles, the “je ne sais quoi” or X Factors that make the difference between being the person who stands out and commands a room,  or who disappears and becomes invisible in the crowd?  How is a person able to inspire confidence and trust of those around him or her,  to become a respected authority and pillar of any organisation?

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation, suggests that the key elements, gravitas, communication and appearance are vital. Being perceived as leadership material is essential to being promoted into leadership positions. In the study, 268 senior executive participants said “executive presence”  contributed to 26% of what it takes for career advancement.

So what are the elusive ingredients that make up executive presence?

According to the study it is a cocktail of:

  • Gravitas: is perceived to be a combination of behaviours and characteristics that convey confidence,  as well as to ” inspire trust, poise under pressure and bolster credibility”  Synthesize these with a clear demonstration of moral integrity,  burnishing reputation and vision all important attributes for the perfect presence combination .
  • Communication: is not just about superior presentation skills, but having an authoritative style with a powerful and persuasive message that compels people to listen. It also encompasses EQ - an ability to understand people and what motivates them, to listen and read a room.
  • Appearance:  this represents only a  part of it and encompasses demeanour and physical attributes that are  both “distinctive and appropriate.”  Those surveyed indicated that major faux pas in this area are damaging, especially seeming to be unkempt. For women, wearing  clothes that are too clinging was an additional issue.

All of these factors make it more challenging to manage expectations, especially when unconscious bias plays a role.  Research from Cook Ross tells us that only 15% of U.S. men are over 6 foot tall, yet 60% of male C.E.Os seemingly are above that height. I’m assuming that a height criterion is not specified in any job description. We still gravitate towards and select men who can protect and “lead” us in fight or flight and place high value on those characteristics, even though in the 21st century those attributes are no longer as important. Women report that feedback on executive presence is often mixed and confusing, which accounts for 81% suggesting they are unsure what action to take.  Ethnic minorities also feel harshly judged.

Yet history also tells us that here are many exceptions to these rules. It can also be about a serendipitous combination of characteristics that work at any given moment.  We make trade-offs on a regular basis, actually accepting some quite strong negative characteristics and poor behaviour from our leaders and executives, for other compensating factors. So the reality is that “executive presence” is not the indefinable, hard to achieve holy grail  we are led to believe, but a set of attributes and skills we can all work on acquiring.  It’s also about being unique.

Check out the Executive Presence Coaching Programme.

Learned skills

Few of our most charismatic leaders claim not to have had any support at all. It’s obvious that there are some who are consistently perceived to have that elusive, natural ingredient, charisma. For most, executive presence can be developed and honed and requires a degree of professional investment, either personal or by a company, as well as hard work.

It is possible to perfect a message both in terms of content and delivery. Understanding strengths and development needs,  as well as having clear goals are vital career management tools for any potential leader. Being able to convey that message succinctly, memorably and persuasively can be taught and even the most basic abilities enhanced.  Some people are born with both innate speaking and listening skills, but most acquire and develop them through diligent and focused training or coaching, notable cases being Margaret Thatcher and David Beckham who both had voice coaches.

Non-verbal communication such as appearance, posture and demeanour can all be improved with professional input. We have seen the make-overs of numerous public figures who have been groomed, re-packaged re-branded and totally made over. It’s nothing new.  Hillary Clinton was coached to be “real” and to soften her image. It will also depend on a target market and brand history. Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie, while distinct, is not trad corporate dress. Neither was Steve Jobs’ turtle neck.

Perhaps there are just too many exceptions for there to be a rule. For us lesser mortals asking some trusted friends for constructive feedback could be a helpful starting point. But if you hear the same comment a number of times there is a clear need to sit back and listen, but more importantly to act.

Time to see a professional  – or possibly more than one.

bored businesman

Over communication: 7 reasons to learn “Mench”

One of the key messages across the board at the JUMP forum in Paris was gender communication differences and the impact this has on workplace mis-communication. Not one, but multiple speakers raised this issue, with a particular emphasis on over communication. 

Hmmm.. I thought I need to listen this. Although for a woman I am reasonably direct and brief, I still have the capacity to deliver a monologue on something I feel passionate about. Women speak twice as many words as men. We speak in paragraphs, not sentences.

Many of us like to tell the whole story, every last word, down to the finest detail.

But is over communication strictly a gender issue? I don’t think so. I know any number of men who could talk for their countries.  Women often make comments about the monosyllabic “report” style communication patterns of the men in their lives, thinking that the rapport we create via our own delivery is much better. But Lynette Allen, Co-Founder Her Invitation suggests that over sharing (over communication) can indeed be a female characteristic which we use to our detriment seeing it as an  “unconsciously displayed behaviour which actively holds women back. They have to learn to be more succinct in the workplace and not tell the whole story and even more.”  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review  suggested what happened to a senior woman in a meeting ” was like a snowball going down a hill and picking up stuff in its path”  and was a real barrier to being taken seriously.

This message made such an impact on me that recently in recounting a tale I asked in two separate instances if the listeners wanted the “mini- series” version or the “book cover blurb.” One was in a social context with old friends, who clearly wanted the total scoop. The other, was a more professional situation where an overview was requested. I’m going to make asking my new habit.

[Tweet “What is your style? “mini- series” or “book cover blurb.””]

So why does over communication cause mis-communication, isn’t it important that everyone has all the details?

  1. Your thinking appears cloudy and muddled if you are unable to be succinct and your message becomes blurred in verbiage. If you forget the point of why you’re telling something, you have gone seriously adrift. People stop listening and you fail to get your message across.  You have become a snowball and snowballs melt. Ding!
  2. It seems that you don’t respect other people’s time if you over communicate in any situation, you run the risk of your listener shutting down and retreating, either physically or psychologically. At the far end of the spectrum they will avoid you totally. In all cases your message is not going through. Ding!
  3. It seems that you don’t respect your own time if every time a simple social question of “How are you?” produces a twenty-minute discourse on your health or what is going on for you,  you give the impression of being a poor time manager.  Ding!
  4. It suggests that you are not in touch with your audience as you don’t recognise social cues.  So just as if you were going to France you would try to speak a bit of French, If you are delivering to a male audience then try to speak in a language they will understand. Mench? Ding
  5. It indicates a lack of empathy especially when you fail to pick up disconnected body language signs (loss of eye contact, fidgeting) If you are talking, you are not listening. Ding! Ding!
  6.  If you need to talk to wear someone down with your voice, then they are agreeing under duress. That was not successful communication. It could even be considered a form of passive aggression if you don’t allow your listener the opportunity  to participate. Ding!
  7. It suggests that you think what you have to say is more important than what others have to say and conveys arrogance Ding! Ding!
  8. It confirms that you like the sound of your own voice, email etc. See point 7. Ditto Ding!

[Tweet “So does this mean that women and chatterboxes in general have to learn “Mench,” the abridged speak of a certain type of male? “]

Lynette felt that while organisational culture is male dominated this is a necessary work- around to get our voices heard. Isn’t this another one of those fix women things? No apparently not, it can be completely gender neutral. Factor in a general reduction in people’s attention span, then anything prolonged is going to be ineffective for both men and women alike. We have already seen the one minute elevator pitch cut back into the 30 second commercial.

So perhaps the converse  can also apply  Maybe we should start saying  “OK that was the book cover blurb  – now give me the mini-series”

What do you think?

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Accused of being a bully: “I meant'” vs “They heard”

I have been involved in many bullying cases from the point of view of the target. Interestingly I have been approached twice in the past week by individuals who have been on the other end of the accusation spectrum.   They told me in horrified tones  “I have just been accused of being a bully.” Both were delivering feedback related to poor performance  to a member of their team.

Charlotte is a confident, vibrant, authoritative and dynamic young woman in her early 30s. Already a Regional Communications Director in an international organisation she has recently taken over responsibility for a small communications unit.  One of the team, only slightly younger than her, has made a series of errors and has been in Charlotte’s view underperforming.  Charlotte believes she dealt with the performance situation in a professional way, drawing the errors to the attention of the direct report by email. This  young woman has now filed a formal complaint with H.R.,  located in the company headquarters. Seemingly the employee took exception to Charlotte’ approach, which she perceived as being micro-managing and bullying. Charlotte told me “I believe it was a straight disciplinary issue and don’t think it would have been dealt the same way, if I was a man, nor would I get accused of being a bully or harassment.”

Simon a somewhat introverted and measured Finance Manager,  has recently given a poor appraisal to a report following a series of errors that impacted performance and compromised the accuracy of the monthly reporting information presented to senior management for business planning. There were also time keeping issues. He was accused last week of racist bullying, being  notified that he treated other team members, all of Caucasian ethnicity, more leniently. Simon was mortified but adamant “The individual’s timekeeping was consistently erratic and record keeping sloppy which accounted for the errors. I’m appalled that a race card has been presented” .


It is easy to underestimate the impact accusations of bullying can have on an individual. Many feel this is a direct attack on the very core of their integrity, character and interpersonal skills. Charlotte was very upset by this news and now finds herself dreading going into work. Simon is having difficulty sleeping.  Bullying in the workplace is clearly a critical issue, but organisations also need to be able to ensure that managers and supervisors are able to communicate poor performance  without bullying accusations. What to Charlotte and Simon was routine performance feedback, has now escalated into a major H.R. issue.

There are three possible scenarios in cases like these: the behaviour is bullying, the behaviour is received as bullying or the accusations are entirely spurious.  Instinctively anyone finding themselves in this situation is likely to be defensive,  but hard though it may be and no matter how hurtful and outrageous the accusations are,  the “accused” have to dispassionately examine all possibilities to consider the experience of the complainant neutrally.

The behaviour is bullying

Most organisations have guidelines for what constitutes bullying behaviour and ACAS certainly does. A critical self-analysis and audit is vital to check if firm management could have crossed the line into bullying. It is possibly best done with the support of a coach or other professional.  This can happen in organisations with a top-down, embedded bullying corporate culture. If the answer is no – go to the next step of analysis.

The behaviour is received as bullying

In my lengthy experience most people accused of bullying have no idea that this is how their communication style is perceived and received. Very often we all forget to factor in how our behaviour is experienced, especially if we are nervous,  busy or stressed. It is therefore always subject to misinterpretation.  One person’s assertiveness can be another’s intimidation. Factor in gender issues when authoritative women managers are perceived more harshly by women reports than male managers.  With a new manager such as Charlotte, this situation of resentment is possibly exacerbated.

But where do we draw the line when there is a “I meant” / “They heard” situation?  The first responsibility of the person accused of bullying is  always to carry out an honest  self-assessment  in two areas:

  • Content  – is the nature of the appraisal 100% accurate? Make sure you have all the facts documented and covered.  Accusations of “you are always late” might factually be twice because of a train strike. Do your reports have clear objectives, departmental standards and goals or even job descriptions?
  • Communication style review – this  can take place via mediation channels, with a coach or even independently.  Be honest, has anything similar happened before? Do a litmus test with colleagues or reports. Do you have a tendency to be overbearing/aggressive/heavy or high-handed? Research from the CIPD suggests that those who experience bullying or harassment (or feel they do) are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers and senior managers, and want to leave their current job.  There is an increased likelihood to react badly to poor performance appraisals. Are you completely sure that your communication style is neutral and constructive?

Managers  are also doomed if they ignore a problem within the team.  ACAS report that a manger’s failure to tackle poor performance impacts team harmony,  causing friction if one team member is seen to ” get away” with errors and sloppiness. Setting clearly defined boundaries and communication expectations from the outset is critical to avoid this.  What is perceived as constructive communication and firmness  by the manager maybe received as aggression by the report. It is also key to remember that the messages contained in 80% of email communication are not received as they were intended.

If you are accused of being a bully what can you do?

In addition to the content and style check above the following guidelines are helpful.

  • Check  the internal organisation policy.  Most have an established grievance policy . Make sure all response are within the official guidelines.
  • Always ask to be allowed to formally present your own experience of events to the hierarchy and confirm in writing.
  • Establish the exact nature of the complaint requesting precise details relating to the time, location  and content to gain full insight into the “victim’s” experience of the events. This can even be done informally over lunch in a business neutral manner possibly with a third- party present. In more sensitive and extreme situations, a formal in-house meeting with a third-party present recording the conversation might be advisable and more appropriate. Most spurious cases simply disappear at this point because of a lack of factual information.
  • Separate the managerial behaviour from the personal. This can help distil the problem into specific issues. Personality clash can be a core factor and it’s a card H.R play: sometimes correctly, sometimes to make a problem go away .
  • What are the complainants communication and performance expectations? Where are the gaps? What if anything can be changed?  Create a blue print going forward.
  • Request coaching or mentoring support during what can be a challenging time.
  • Ask judiciously for feedback.  This is when trusted colleagues can be helpful. Being alert and empathetic to the reactions of others is vital because it is the only way to understand how you are perceived

Spurious accusations

If after thorough examination there is no room for compromise,  then following a formal disciplinary/grievance procedure will be the only option. If poor performance continues then the appropriate official warning systems should be invoked which could lead to termination of the report.

All organisations should have clear guidelines for disciplining employees and notifying them of under performance.  The last things that any manager wants is a need to mount a personal and professional defence as a result of what should be routine performance feedback. As the manager you should be allowed to expect your team to meet  clearly communicated, reasonable, measurable and achievable departmental goals and standards.



The declining art of conversation and Gen Y recruitment

Gen Y recruitment challenges

Much has been written about the need for changes that employers should make in order to attract and retain Millennials. We have seen a veritable outbreak of company Facebook pages, inter-active web sites, Twitter accounts, mentoring  programmes and the like. But as one client mentioned recently after a less than effective graduate recruitment job fair, an additional challenge is even more basic: to identify the best entry-level talent.

I’m not even talking about text-speak or spelling errors on CVs,  but basic social inter- action during the interview process which is generally the backbone of most hiring systems.

[Tweet “Modern technology has impacted us in many ways. Many are positive. Some are not.”]

Good on paper only
The platforms that are typically used and relied upon for  Gen Y recruitment and entry-level screening are telephone interviews, video calls, job fair meetings and regular face to face interviews. Candidates are then frequently advanced to testing processes and more rigorous interviews. Today, undeveloped interpersonal skills means that many capable candidates don’t present well, causing increased difficulties for those in the hiring process  to make an accurate preliminary triage. Clients are reporting the growing cost ineffectiveness of job fairs, as a result of this down turn in social skills. Many candidates with pre-submitted CVs,  look great on paper but are under-performing in the face to face interview. So although we know that Millennials communicate and socialise differently to other generations, at some point they do have to engage with people outside their age group.

[Tweet “What happens when skills core to the talent identification process are deficient?”]

I am often asked in the University and Business School programmes I run, why I start basic interview preparation in the first session. The reason is the communication skills of many Millennials are so under developed, that they need extra time to get anywhere near an acceptable performance level for interviews.

Diminished interpersonal skills
Sherry Turkle in her excellent article the  Flight from Conversation eloquently portrays the downsides of the trend to block out communication and conversation on a whole generation who are “alone together”.  University Career Directors both at undergraduate, Masters and MBA  level report a global pandemic of students mentally checking out of their classes and using Smart Phones and lap tops to log onto Facebook and email accounts during lectures. Attention spans are reduced and the incidence of talking amongst themselves in class is high. The result is they are sabotaging their own learning processes, which impacts their career prospects.

When I asked an MBA workshop group to turn off their phones for my session, one participant reacted as if I was contravening his civil liberties. An awareness of professional and even basic social etiquette seems to be at a minimum.  A device driven generation, for increasing numbers their body language and even voice projection is weak. They may have great credentials but they can’t showcase them properly. At a recent Italian job fair a client cut a candidate because he responded to an incoming text in the middle of the interview.

[Tweet “It is not for nothing that Blackberries have been dubbed “Crackberries”.”]

But is the interview texter an unempathetic communicator or merely demonstrating multi- tasking skills?  The poor presenter might have excellent potential and skills that are simply not evident.  The problem is we just don’t know.

First impressions unreliable
First impressions are made in less than 15 seconds. In a situation where social skills are under developed and candidates are unable to make that key engagement with an interviewer as they should (poor eye contact, the ability to listen and tune into cues from the whole range of body language and voice tone), which is critical in an interview, how do recruiters sort out the wheat from the chaff?

Here are some solutions currently being considered:

  • Online testing: One response from a number of companies seems to be a growing shift to mass online testing prior to personal screening, using outsourced organisations such as SHL , or in-house assessment centres.  Follow-up procedures include further assessment tools before finally personal interviews to evaluate cultural fit and social skills.
  • Network recommendations:  seem to be becoming increasingly important and will favour candidates with strong personal networks possibly via well-connected family members or previous experience. In today’s economic climate this is not easy to come by and as we have seen with the flourishing unpaid intern sector both possibilities put less well placed candidates at a disadvantage. This is also a demographic which networks widely via Facebook,  but generally hasn’t started to develop a professional network.
  • Modifications to onboarding programmes : to incorporate communication skills training into in-house programmes sooner rather than later have been suggested. Whether this will provide the catch-up programme required remains to be seen.

Gen Y workers are some of the most independent-minded and tech-savvy workers employers have encountered. Changing recruitment models seems to be necessary not just to attract the best candidates, but to identify them too.

But the significant overall message to Millennial job seekers is to switch off  the lap top, iPad or Smart Phone  and practise the old-fashioned art of conversation. Many competent candidates are not making the cut  at interviews, simply because they don’t know how to communicate in a professional environment or even have a basic knowledge of acceptable social etiquette.

[Tweet “Gen Y candidates with social skills will be ahead of the game.”]