The Comfortable Camouflage of Bad Communication

Recently my wife sent me a text that said, “You’ve ruined me.” In the pantheon of spousal communication, this didn’t seem great at first glance. However, as I came to discover, it was intended as a compliment. In fact, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite compliments. Let me explain.

In March I made my annual trek to Austin for SXSW. This year I spoke to a packed room on “How to a Build a Standout Brand.” My session was on Friday which meant that I had the rest of the event to attend other talks. Where else can you see a session with Malcolm Gladwell on the future of autonomous vehicles and attend an acting workshop with Henry Winkler? My wife, a digital marketing instructor and city official, came as well hitting the Cities/Government track. As I sat in the darkened hall listening to my session, my phone vibrated. It was the aforementioned ruinous text from my wife.

My anxiety grew at the sight of the three dots signaling the upcoming arrival of additional text. I was relieved to read this and learn that she was sitting in another session where the speaker struggled to make coherent points, used cluttered slides, and spoke too quietly and with an abundance of filler words (“ums” and “ahs”). As a communication and presentation teacher myself, a lot of my lessons (advising the opposite of all of this) have transferred to her by a combination of proximity and osmosis.

I’ve “ruined her” because she now knows the difference between good public speaking and public speaking that makes the audience wonder if they still use hooks to get people off stage. Being ruined is a start. You know what works and how you can do more of it. While it makes watching other talks unbearable, it’s a much better jumping off point than the opposite of being ruined. This is what I call the comfortable camouflage of bad communication.

Why Bad Looks So Good

Simply put, we know what we know. And when it comes to communication, it’s patchy at best. We get some rhetoric instruction in school. We’re often required to give presentations in classes without much training on what makes a good presentation.

At work we may get a PowerPoint tutorial along with the basics of Word and Excel. From here, we’re thrown into the wilderness with everyone else. Some may know the ins and outs of persuasive presentation and they might share it with you. However, most are just as clueless as you are and are copying what’s become the norm. And the norm is bad.

If this sounds like a negative assessment, consider the following “normal” occurrences:

Speeches start with a slide outlining the speaker’s bio in bullet form
Speeches are full of “ums” and “ahs”
Speeches sputter to an ending with “So, yeah … any questions?”
Speeches go longer than they should/past the allotted time
Slides are packed with too much text and too many elements
Speakers are too quiet
Speakers pace back and forth like caged animals
Speakers fidget nervously

Shall I go on? We see presentations like this at work day after day, year after year. As a result, we adopt this style too because it’s what everyone else is doing. We use this comfortable camouflage to blend in, which is a mistake.

Don’t Get Comfortable

Blending in with the bad communication around you is a misstep because every time you stand up in front of a crowd, it’s an opportunity for you to stand out. The data backs this up. Communication skills consistently rank among the top skills both employers and recruiters are looking for. A Harris poll found that 70% say communication is critical to career success.

So how can you up your game? Like overcoming any obstacle, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. Once you realize that most of the presentations you see are lacking, start looking for better behaviors to model. Here are a few ideas:

Watch TED Talks — These inspirational 18-minute speeches showcase some of the best thinkers and ideas in the world. The talks themselves are pitch perfect in execution. This is not an accident. TED speakers spend months in formal preparation for the main event. As you watch the speakers take note of what they’re doing—of what’s effective and why. You may be thinking, “TED talks are great but these aren’t really the types of presentations I give.” Sure. But there are still helpful lessons in presentation structure, vocal delivery, and body language that you can observe and apply. Here are a few of my favorite TED talks to help you build your public speaking skills.

Keep a CommBook — I majored in theatre arts. Journaling was a regular practice in most classes. While this isn’t common in business classes, I’m doing my part by having students keep a journal. I call it a “CommBook.” As students spend the semester learning communication best practices, I ask them to look around at work and in the world around them to see where and how these rules are applied and broken. These mindful observations can reinforce good habits and help internalize what bad habits look like. You can do the same thing. Start a notebook or go digital using Google Docs or Evernote.

Create a Best Practices Group — You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, if you want to up your organization’s communication game, you shouldn’t go it alone. Start a conversation about better presentations internally. Watch talks together and discuss how you could adapt ideas you like. You could also work through a slide deck makeover as a group. Start with an existing presentation—perhaps one that’s already been given—and redo it together.

Communication skills are too important to simply follow the crowd. If you want to stand out and succeed you need to look for the best examples, take note of what’s working and why, and look for ways to model this in your own speaking.

Remember, most of the communication you see is bad. Use this knowledge to do something different. Here’s hoping I’ve ruined you as well.