How to Talk Like a Champion

This post isn’t my usual domain, but I would like to address something common in technology entrepreneurship. The soft spoken, over-apologetic, uninspiring technical founder or developer. Too often, brilliant people and great ideas are drowned out by those that simply communicate more effectively. Remember:

The best product doesn’t always win

Or as I like to call it:

“Survival of the wittiest”

What I present in this post can help all professionals seeking to find their voice, not just the tech set. There is a way to speak and write, in order to clearly communicate. This does not mean being rude, cocky or overly blunt. My recommendations are more about self-analysis, content and research. I’ve got 5 distinct tips that will help you lead a successful conversation, interview or negotiation:

  1. Speak Concisely and Cogently
  2. Know What You Want
  3. Know What They Want
  4. Ask
  5. Follow Up
Obama Mic Drop

Speak Concisely and Cogently

First, the easy stuff. Eliminate all your weak, quantifying and negative words. Here are examples:

  • Should, maybe, could, perhaps, …
  • Very, some, a bit, much more, …
  • Apologies, sorry, unfortunately, …

I am a firm believer that people follow people with a plan. No one with a plan uses words like “should” or “maybe”. They know exactly what they want, and they tell you, passion included. People only listen to those who are worth listening to. If you lack passion, conviction and clarity, you’re going to have a hard time getting anyone to listen. Words can imply you’re not in control of your future. This implies a lack of vision, direction and leads to loss of confidence in the listener.

Vague quantifiers are a deal breaker. In fact, I just typed, “vague quantifiers are also a big…”, deleted it and rewrote the first sentence. Doesn’t it read better? More clearly? Words like “some” or “very” are useless. They tell the listener nothing. Speak directly about the value of your ideas and propositions, provide facts, don’t make grand claims and don’t over-explain. The right people, the ones you want to work with, will connect the dots and come running.

“No one likes reading, they like ideas. Why add extra words?”

The last point, apology words, is hard for most people. I’m a Canadian so it’s especially hard for me. I am NOT advocating anyone stop apologizing… when it matters. Think about the impact of an apology when it’s something trivial like being 10–15 minutes late for a meeting. It shines a light on your incompetence and shifts the flow of the conversation to what has happened, not on what is happening. It also reduces the value of your apology in times when it matters. Here’s an example where Bob is 15 minutes late for a call with Alice:

“Alice, I’m sooo sorry for being late, but my car… and the traffic… and my dog this morning…”

Alice doesn’t care. Don’t waste Alice’s time. Here’s a quick fix:

“Alice, I’m late. As you are aware, we are doubling in size this month and this is exactly why I wanted to speak to someone with your expertise in human resources…”

“Sorry”, would weaken his position.

Notice how the second version still addresses the mistake, but quickly moves on to what’s important. As an effective communicator, you want to acknowledge small mistakes directly and keep the focus on forward momentum. Apologize when it matter. Never sweat the small stuff. Think of calls and negotiations like an escape room. There’s a deadline, you want to stay focused and you need to keep moving forward with possible solutions in order to proceed. No time to cry over spilt milk. That’s business.

Know What You Want

This is the most important lesson. It’s also the hardest. I can’t teach it to you. No one can. It has to come from within. A fun place to start would be Seth Godin — Thinking Backwards.

When it comes to a phone call, interview or face to face negotiation. Determine exactly what you want to get out of these interactions first. What is your upper and lower bound for the deal? Where’s your wiggle room? Don’t show up unprepared because you will get eaten by the sharks. Sharks in this case are the people on the other side of the table who know exactly what they want and are not afraid to say it.

“We’re powerful men, but don’t know who’s hands we want to shake first.”

The Power of No. It’s often overlooked when you want something. Is it another round of funding? Is it a big sales deal? If you got that one thing, everything would be amazing right? Wrong. If you are not able to say no to bad terms, you have already lost. It doesn’t matter how much revenue the deal will bring, or how much runway the funding will give you. All of your next moves are now scoped by accepting unfavorable terms.

Know what you want. Short term. Long term. Say it. Get it.

Know What They Want

There’s someone else on the other side of the table or other end of the phone. Who are they? What do they want? Why are they talking to you? What get’s them excited and keeps them up at night with wonder?

You need to know this!

In order to be an effective communicator, you must know your audience. Without knowing what they want and what motivates them, creating alignment is extremely difficult. These could become long term partners, so it’s important to ask questions for rapport building as well. Put them in the drivers seat, sit back for a bit and enjoy the scenery.

“Why does this broad technology interest you and how did you first hear about it? Are there any specific problems you’d like to see solved? What is your specific interest in our project? Any ideas or strategies off the top of your head you would explore?”

Hader for the creepy inquiry win.

Without knowing the answers, future conversations can easily become misaligned. Synchronization is key in business. Make sure you are putting out the right carrots for the right people in your conversations. Everyone should be running toward the same finish line. Your finish line.

Ask

People often forget to ask for what they want. Without being clear about what you are offering and what you need from other parties involved, mayhem ensues. Your ask should include the following:

  1. A clear description of the deliverable you need, how much you’re willing to contribute and how much input you need from the other party
  2. All high level particulars, including amounts and terms
  3. Deadlines

This is even effective in performance reviews, which often revolve around a raise negotiation. You can also flip the ask to be predominantly about what you will be accomplishing to become a better employee or partner. This makes it easy for the other party to accept a package. All the thinking has been done for them.

Disgusting… but direct, clear and succinct.

A deadline is crucial. Goals without deadlines are rarely met. It is also useful to include a “forcing function”. Examples include a public announcement about the deadline or an external financial incentive for both parties to complete their portion of the tasks.

Follow Up

Once you have communicated clearly what you want to accomplish, interested other parties to be involved and asked them for clear participation, it’s time to follow up and keep things on track. If you’re the party interested in achieving results based on the efforts of others, always follow up first. This is typically a list of action items.

  • Always
  • Make action items
  • Simple

After sending the initial action items, don’t nag. Follow up appropriately based on the milestones or nature of the tasks. An email introduction for example: follow up 2–4 days if the intro has not been made. Longer term milestones in the 1–4 month range, check in 1 week prior to deadlines to inquire about progress and if there’s anything you can do to help. Reiterate the high level goals clearly, don’t micro-manage.

Try not to be so dramatic when you follow up.

Summary

I’ve presented 5 tactics for professionals to communicate clearly. The goal was to provoke thought about how you communicate and provide actionable strategies to improve effectiveness. Did I achieve that goal? Was this post helpful? Where will you apply these strategies?

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