My (Communication) Wish for You

Sometimes at the close of a church service or conference, you’ll see an item on the agenda called a “sending message.” Usually, it’s an opportunity to leave the audience with some final thoughts before sending them back out into the world. As someone who’s constantly synthesizing information for writing, speaking, and teaching, I’m always happy to have this ready-made summary. Recently, I started doing something similar for my students.

At the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, I teach communication skills to tomorrow’s quants and analysts in the masters of finance and business analytics programs. Rather than teaching them once in a typical class, I teach them in smaller doses over the course of their semesters in these programs. This provides them with more of a consistent and integrated communication workshop.

Each December, we send these students out into the world. During our time together, I try to fill their heads with as many tips, tools, and tricks for making them more effective communicators. When our first cohort of students graduated in December 2019, I wanted to leave them with a summary of these communication best practices. I wanted to create a sending message for them.

The following list is the first part of what I share with them via an online post. Each year, I tinker with it a bit. As another group prepares to depart, I thought I’d share these final tips with you as well:

  • Be clear and concise. Don’t use 10 words when three will do. It doesn’t make you sound smarter. It makes you harder to understand.
  • Tell stories. Stats are great but stories engage the hearts and minds of your audience and are easier for you to tell in a conversational tone. They’re also easier for your audience to both remember and share.
  • Get visual. A picture is worth a thousand words. Turns out that old saying is actually true. Don’t pack your slides with text that your audience will struggle to read when they should be listening to you. White space is your friend. (And white space isn’t a color—it’s the absence of information.)
  • Speak up, slow down, and … pause. Many speakers struggle with filler words —“Ums” and “Ahs”—that “fill in” our speech. Get rid of them by practicing and pausing. More on practice in a bit but most of us are under-rehearsed, meaning we don’t know our material as well as we should. Plus, we get nervous. And when we’re nervous we speed up. We lean on filler words because the mouth literally gets ahead of the mind. Pausing helps. Pausing also provides aural white space that helps your audience process what you’re saying.
  • Get out from behind the podium. Please. Over 50% of how we’re perceived is based on our body language. And when you hide behind the podium no one can see you. Take center stage, stand tall, and use your hands to tell your story.
  • Adapt for virtual. The pandemic has taught us many things. One of the biggest is that virtual communication in some capacity is going to be a part of our work for the long haul. Get a microphone and some extra lighting (or at least sit in front of a window). Stack up some books or get a laptop riser so your camera is at eye level and you’re framed up like a TV news anchor. Virtual is here to stay and the bar has been raised.
  • Practice makes perfect. As it turns out, great speakers are made not born. That casual speaker you saw and envied actually rehearsed over and over again until it sounded like a conversation. Do the same thing and you’ll be on your way to captivating your audience.

As I close my last lecture, I share my one wish for my students: I hope that I’ve ruined them. As this odd wish usually gets their attention, I quickly explain.

A few years back, I was speaking at SXSW in Austin and my wife came along with me. As she’s in city government, she attended sessions in the cities track, while I stuck to the event’s branding and marketing track. While listening to Malcolm Gladwell talk about autonomous vehicles, my phone lit up with a new text message from my wife. It simply said, “You’ve ruined me.” (I’ve recreated this moment in the image above.)

Needless to say, this was something of an alarming spousal text. When the bouncing gray dots finally resolved into a follow-up text, she explained that being around me has left her “ruined” for speakers who are too quiet, don’t make eye contact, stay behind the podium, have crowded slides, and who commit any number of other public speaking offenses I’ve pointed out while in close proximity to her.

After thinking about it, I decided that this is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

That’s why I wish the same thing for my students. I hope they’re ruined for sub-par communication. In today’s crowded, distracted, digital world, people are overwhelmed with information. Creating communication that cuts through the clutter is no small task. Perhaps most challenging of all is the fact that good communication takes time. And none of us have enough of that.

As we close this year and plan our work for the year ahead, that would be my sending message for you. Time spent on improving your communication is time well spent. Follow these tools and tips and you’ll stand out to your audience.

Here’s hoping that I’ve ruined you too.