There's a tricky thing that comes up a lot when having conversations and talking about something you do - finding the right level of context for the listener. A simple example that happened to me just last week: talking with a new coworker about where we live. I started simply by stating the city I live in... to which he responded, "Oh, me too... Where?" Next I mentioned the rough neighborhood, to which I got an increasingly amused "Me too... where?" By the time we got down to street level, we were comparing notes on neighborhood amenities and generally having a great conversation.
There's something magic about acronyms. I've written before about a number of reasons we like them, but the short of it is: They help us remember things. For that reason, I've been working on some acronyms to help remember key concepts about communication, and I'd like to introduce one today.
I owe you an apology - This last week I failed in my commitment to you to send you a tip every weekday. And worse, I didn't let you know anything about why. Yes, I was sick and recovering from an illness, but that is no excuse. And it's not really the reason.
I was reading The Manager's Path by Camille Fournier and found this gem on page 111: 'Saying no to your boss rarely looks like a simple "no" when you're a manager. Instead, it looks like the "yes, and" technique of improvisational comedy. "Yes, we can do that project, and all we will need to do is delay the start of this other project that is currently on the roadmap". Responding with positivity while still articulating the boundaries of reality will get you into the major leagues of senior leadership.'
I've written a few updates recently that have talked about exploring different types of communication. I've talked about mixing up modes, between speaking, writing, add sketching. I've talked about acronyms, and how they can help specialists communicate faster and in more depth. I've talked about creating shared language between specializations. What all of these have in common is they involve communicating about how we communicate.
Different people perceive things in different ways. Some people understand things best by hearing them. To explain something to them or persuade them of something, the most important thing is to have a verbal conversation. Others perceive best by reading. I'm in this boat. If you want me to really grok what you're saying, write it down for me. Others have to see something in pictures. My last boss was extremely visual - if you wanted him to understand anything you had to sketch it out. If you don't know what it is for your audience, you can get stuck. So if you feel like you're not getting through, mix it up!
I just published a post drawing out communication lessons specifically for software developers, derived from a podcast episode. There's a lot of great stuff in there, so go check it out, but today I want to draw out one particular lesson in more detail. When you give feedback, include information about the priorities and weights of your feedback.
Jerod, Feross, Divya and I recently had a conversation about communication skills for software developers on JSParty #93. This is a topic that has come up a lot on JSParty, so it was great to do a whole episode focused on tips and best practices, and the results were too good to leave buried in a show transcript so I thought I'd pull them out into an article.
Why do people love acronyms so much? Why have things like 'WTF' and 'TL;DR' made their way out of "text" culture into things we actually say out loud? And why does it seem like every specialized profession comes with a stack of acronyms so large that conversations between specialists are completely opaque? I think the answer comes back to 2 key aspects for how people perceive information: memory and perspective.
It's almost cliche that entrepreneurs, designers, and engineers should speak with their customers. And there's truth to this - if you don't speak to your customers, you're far more likely to create something they don't want. But you can't just ask them what they want. There's a quote attributed to Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
In yesterday's post I talked about using a 'to-address list' to maintain focus in meetings. This is a list you use to capture anything that might take you off topic and out of scope, in order to keep the meeting moving along. I want to try another name for this list - Reader Lee F. wrote back with a response that included the term 'parking lot' for this type of list, which I like a lot. It's a place we can put ideas where they won't be lost, but where they'll stay parked until we're ready to take them on. Today I want to talk about another important use case for this type of 'parking lot' - capturing ideas from stakeholders.
There's a super common problem in meetings - meandering scope creep. This is the situation where a 30 minute meeting to review progress turns into a 2 hour marathon going through everything that's wrong on a project. This is also the situation that leads to people tearing out their hair and trying to avoid meetings at all costs. And while there are many different tactics you can take to keep meetings on track, today I want to focus on one in particular: Keeping a 'to-address' list, and using it religiously.
How do you get better at speaking in front of people? There are many things you can do. You can focus on getting in your reps, doing lots of talks. You can work on amping up your energy, connecting to topics that pump you up. But there's one technique I've used that has improved my talks more than anything else.
One of the challenging things about communication skills at work, particularly in creative jobs like design or software engineering, is that we're frequently bridging between different areas of specialization. Which means that we often use the same words to mean very different things.
Public speaking is the number 1 most common fear, more common than fear of death. I was just speaking with Matt Broberg from OpenSource.com, and he told me that the first time he had to get up in front of coworkers and speak, he almost fainted. He couldn't get a word out. I've seen other people freeze when asked simply to introduce themselves, barely able to speak. But here's the amazing thing - all of those people overcame their fears. And it didn't take magic. It took the simple act of repetition.
Yesterday's article brought up the subject of relationship building in communication. On this topic, there's a very simple practice I've been working on for the last few years that I'd like to recommend. Express appreciation. Directly.
What's the point of small talk? Why spend time at the beginning of a meeting talking about the weather, or the weekend, or something else? And why do some conversations dance around the point so much as to almost seem like the participants aren't focused on the outcome? The reason is simple: Direct outcomes are only one layer of conversation, building or maintaining a relationship is another.
Have you ever had to do some research, an analysis, or a post-mortem and present your conclusions? It's super tempting to structure your presentation to take your audience through the same journey you traveled. Show them the pieces of evidence, one by one. Build up from the evidence to bigger picture ideas. And bring them to a resounding close with the your conclusion. There's just one problem with this: It doesn't work.
Let's talk a little more about the origin of the 'hard skills / soft skills' classification system.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the description of skills like leadership, communication, and collaboration as "soft skills".
Like any other skill, your communication skills will only get better if you practice them. You can read all of my articles, watch videos, learn new mental models... *but* if you don't actually try these things out, you won't get better at them. But there's something different about communication than a lot of skills we might try to learn...
It's really easy when you start to geek out about speaking to try to do everything right. Try to structure your talk perfectly, with the perfect intro, perfect outro, and everything in between. Try to come up with exactly the right stories and jokes to tell. Try to find the perfect cartoons to include that will not only show your point but also make everyone laugh.
Have you ever tried to convince someone of something and they looked at you like you were crazy? Or had someone try to explain something to _you_ that was so full of buzz words that you couldn't understand a word they were saying? The problem is one of perspective.
The halo effect is a universal human bias that is important to understand to master communication. The effect is simple: If I feel positively about you in one dimension, I will feel positively about you in others. If I think you're attractive, I'm more likely to think you are smart, skilled, and honest.
One of the keys to becoming an effective communicator is to understand the limitations of the person you are speaking or writing to. And one of the limitations that impacts ALL of us is the limit to our short term memory.
I used to think that "how" I said something shouldn't matter. What should matter was the meaning behind what I was saying. This is blatantly false. If you want to instantly improve your communication skills, banish the word 'why' from your vocabulary. At least at the beginning of a question.
Continuing on the theme from the last few days about asking questions, let's talk for a minute about how to ask better questions.
I was just reading a post on asking questions from Farnam Street, and was struck by the statement "there are no dumb questions". I know a lot of people I talk to certainly are worried about asking dumb questions. And it makes sense! We don't want to look dumb, especially in front of people whose opinions we value.