All posts by Mary Lou Gazeley

Tick. Tick. Tick. Numbers that count and what you can do about them

120 minutes. All the time you have (or less) to respond to a sudden crisis.

The clock starts ticking the moment you’re confronted with a sudden crisis and you’ve got about 120 minutes or less to figure out how to respond and what to do next. Who speaks for your company or organization? What do they say – or not say? How do you answer questions when you don’t have all the facts? Who is on your need-to-know list? There’s no time to waste but you need to get it right. And fast.

When your heart is pounding and your reputation is at stake it’s a bad time to try to wing it. You’ll breathe a lot easier if you have a Crisis Communication Plan in place. A “Crisis Comm Plan” answers those questions about who speaks and when and with what message. It details what to do and how to do it not only in the crucial first 120 minutes but also for the life of the crisis. When it ends – and it will end – the plan will also include instructions for a post-crisis debrief to determine what went right and what needs to be improved in the event of another crisis situation.

Peace of mind comes from having identified the members of your Crisis Command Team. This small but important group will have been selected for their role in the organization, their ability to work together under pressure, and the special skills or abilities they bring to the table. Your ability to cope includes knowing you have a spokesperson person in place and that he or she will be able to speak confidently in “hot seat” interviews because they have been media trained for that specific situation. And if the crisis event is major enough to warrant a media conference, you also know who should participate and how to work seamlessly with the authorities because you will have rehearsed that situation in a mock-scenario.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen to this organization?” Then put a Crisis Communication Plan in place as your insurance policy – one that not only helps you to breathe easier but that also demonstrates to your staff and key stakeholders that you are a responsible organization and that you intend to follow the guiding principles of being transparent in your actions, forthright and truthful with the media, accountable, empathetic, and prepared to do the right thing.

The 80 percent eyes over the ears effect

You’ve undoubtedly heard that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Now think about this: you are “communicating” and being judged before you even open your mouth. Here’s why: A startling 80 percent of your communication is your body language. Some experts say the percentage is higher, others say it may be a little less, but the fact is your body is speaking loud and clear. I always keep the importance of this non-verbal communication in mind when I’m conducting a media interview training session or doing presentation or speech coaching and you should too because in every case, the eyes will win over the ears.

At its most basic, if your body language makes you appear smaller it also makes you appear closed. For example, if you cross your arms, cross your legs and hunch your shoulders forward, you risk appearing to be blocking communication; that you’re non-receptive. And while we may be unaware of our own body language, most of us are experts at “reading” the body language of others. I consider non-verbal communication so important that I video every media training session with a view to encouraging body language that projects an image of openness, confidence and engagement.

Here’s an interesting twist. It turns out that striking a confident pose even when you’re nervous, in other words “faking it”, will actually cause you to feel more confident. That finding is the result of research conducted by Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk on body language is informative and entertaining. It’s worth checking out. Body language is already contributing to 80 percent of your communication why not take full advantage of it by making it work for you.

15 minutes. Not 15 minutes of fame but the moment your audience turns off

The date for your speaking engagement has arrived and you are prepared. You’re clear about what you want to say and you’ve rehearsed. You start speaking, maybe feeling a little nervous but a few minutes into your speech – right about the time you start to relax – you get the uneasy feeling the audience’s attention is drifting. A quick glance at your watch tells you you’ve been speaking for about 15 minutes. That’s the time, give or take a few minutes, when members of the audience typically start thinking about things other than your well-crafted words.

Is it possible to re-capture their attention? And if so, how? The answer is yes you can bring your audience back and the way you do that is by planning for it in advance. When I’m writing or coaching a speech, I build in a “wake-up” element at the 12 to 15 minute mark.

Here are some of my go-to wake-up techniques:

  • Change the pace of your delivery. Slow it down or speed it up. Sometimes enthusiasm and nervousness results in a rapid-fire delivery that is hard for an audience to absorb. Or there’s the opposite effect, when an over-rehearsed speech has such a “drone effect people tune out. Pace changes keep the presentation lively and helps you stay engaged with your audience.
  • Introduce a visual designed to amplify your delivery. It can help re-direct an audience’s attention. The key word here is “amplify”. Never turn and read the text of a power point slide to your audience. Never. Ever. It’s a guaranteed attention killer and a common mistake that has given power point presentations a bad rap.
  • Pause. Skilled speakers know that when they stop speaking for a moment it catches people’s attention. A variation of this technique is to lower your voice instead of raising it – a great tip from a teacher friend who said she drops her voice as an effective way to get the attention of her students.
  • Repeat. One of my favorites. Say a phrase, pause, and say it again. This is a technique frequently used to great effect in the speeches of U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden.

These are only a few of the many wake-up-your-audience tricks you can incorporate into your presentation but of course they need to be woven into the bigger picture. What is the purpose of your presentation? Why should your audience care? What is the story you want to tell? What do you want your audience to take away? Then write your speech using the three-times rule: tell them what you’re going to tell them…tell them…and tell them what you told them.

Are there other “ticking numbers” we be should be paying attention to when communicating?

The Power of Story

One of the challenges I’ve seen companies and not for profit organizations face in their strategic planning process is future think with the primary focus on numbers, stats and charts. It tends to be a default position. Are the numbers important? Absolutely. They are, after all, a report card on a company’s performance and they are a critical measurement of its ability to meet specific goals and milestones. So it’s not surprising that as part of the process of strategic planning the number side of the equation often looms large. I’ve seen many a strat planning session dominated by mapping exercises that attempt to create a picture of the future. And I’ve been keenly aware of the missing piece – the company story.

Every organization has one. But for many, this story is merely a bit of mostly forgotten history. If that’s the case it’s not only a shame; it’s a missed opportunity. Why? Because a company’s story is at the heart of the organization. Or it should be. How a company started, the impetus behind its founding, the people who made it happen, the hurdles overcome – all are powerful drivers in the growth and development of an organization. Ultimately, the company story is a thread that connects directly to the brand and the brand is reflected in every touch point an organization has with its stakeholders.

The organization’s story helps to deliver its marketing message because it makes that message memorable to both internal and external audiences: staff, customers, shareholders, board members, volunteers, donors and supporters – all stakeholders in both the corporate and not-for-profit worlds.

Every good speechwriter knows that anecdotal stories attached to the facts and statistics in a speech breathe life into what would otherwise be a haze of easily forgotten bullet points. When a real life story is used to illustrate numbers or complex facts, most of us remember the story, which triggers a recollection, and frequently, a greater appreciation, of the factual information.

Why not put a brief overview of the company story at the top of the agenda for your next planning session? Consider it from the viewpoint of the new members of your team who will benefit from being able to place the numbers in context of the organization’s history. And look at it as a valuable opportunity for the veterans in the organization to share their connections to its story. Somebody once had the drive, energy and passion to take the risk of starting your organization.

Do you think it’s worth keeping the power of an organization’s story alive as you plan for the future?

Unconventional Thinking Finds More Than One Right Answer

If you think rational thinking plays the key role in our strategic planning process – guess what, it’s underpinned by emotion and it is emotion that assigns the values on which decisions are made. Not only that, when a solution to a problem has many possibilities, it’s the unconscious mind that is better at finding an answer.

social-animalThese are just some of the insights in The Social Animal – The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by New York Times columnist, David Brooks. In our decision-a-minute world, it’s helpful to know how success happens, which is why this book is so timely. Built on reams of scientific data but told through the lives of a composite couple over time, The Social Animal was a fascinating summer read.

It confirmed some of my thinking and my approach in our strategic planning Roundtable discussions: that more minds around the table are better at problem solving than a single mind struggling to find an answer; that intuition is like a beam of light fanning out in front of us illuminating hidden answers; and that clarity and better planning comes with a wider and higher “balcony view” of a situation.

art-of-possibilityThis last observation was also reinforced in another thought-provoking book: The Art of Possibility – Transforming Professional and Personal Life written by husband and wife team, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. She is an executive coach and family systems therapist and he is a conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. They bring an unusual perspective to a book that was first published by the Harvard Business School Press to appeal to both business and non-business audiences.

In one of the many stories about his work as a conductor, Ben cautions against focusing on the notes at the expense of the composition, stressing that it’s only by getting above the work; connecting to the long line of the music and the overarching structure, that it’s possible to see new meaning.

Business leaders have exactly the same challenge. It’s easy to become fixated on a problem, to operate at ground level, and to miss the big picture and the possibilities it holds; especially possibilities outside conventional thinking.

If we were to widen that view even further by paying attention to our intuition (which in my experience, is always right), and gave emotion more credit in decision making, who knows, we might also widen the scope of our problem solving capabilities as well. I have a mantra: there’s always more than one right answer. These two books point to different ways to get there.