Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it lacks substance

Every book or training program devoted to business, and indeed personal, presenting and communications, includes an early section on the topic of understanding your audience. In fact it’s so cliched now, and such a given, that it’s easy to gloss over just how critical it is as a tool, perhaps to the point of, ‘if everyone did this and only this, as their communication practice for the rest of their lives, their personal relationships, business outcomes and dare we suggest, the world situation, would be vastly improved’. Yet how many of us take this to heart and give it conscious and deliberate practice over an extended period of time?

So let’s explore this idea a little more in-depth than perhaps meets the eye. We’ll start with the obvious and work down into the implications.

People are clearly complex. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures, genes, environments, education, experience, world understanding and views. Every day we’re exposed to new ideas and information and we absorb, build, grow and change accordingly.

Let’s take another basic premise. Even someone who knows you intimately, does not live in your body and mind all day every day as you do. In my case, the person who knows me best is my husband yet he rarely hears all the details of my day, let alone the intricacies of my internal reactions and processing. My girlfriends get a different version of me and my therapist different again, but it would be fair to say that nobody has the whole picture but ourselves and even then, many of our motives, fears, dreams, aspirations and drivers remain sub-conscious, unclear and unarticulated and are shifting yearly, monthly and sometimes daily.

Such being the case, I think it would be fair to say that no matter how well we think we know a person, there’s more to know.

Let’s now go to management science to get a grip on why that would be important in a business relationship, and here I will unapologetically start by summarising some statistics from the Manager Tools team who, for my money, run the best Management Training and associated podcast that I’ve come across. You can find their stuff here in the Weekly Link section.

In short, there are 15 behaviours that correspond to 97% of a manager’s ability to move the needle on what are generally considered to be the two benchmark measures of a manager’s success: results and retention of their team ie sustainable results.

Of those 15, only four make a greater than single digit contribution to results and retention, between them accounting for 75% of any improvement in a manager’s sustainable outcomes (if you’re interested in the four or would like to explore some management communications for your team based on these four skills, please get in touch).

Taking it a step further, of those four skills, 40% of the value of that 75% comes from the single biggest contributing behaviour to management improvement being ‘getting to know your people’. In other words, this one single behaviour is 30% responsible for shifting a manager’s ability to improve employee engagement, retain high performing employees and decrease workload and stress.

Over our next couple of blogs in this month’s series we’ll consider what information is useful to find out and how we go about ‘getting to know’ our team among others, but suffice to say here, there’s a tangible, bottom line outcome that, if nothing else, should motivate us to make a deliberate effort to understand our internal and external stakeholders better.

Let’s extrapolate that out beyond team management, starting with the benefits of ‘knowing your audience’ inside the company. Getting to know people both individually, but also in terms of the team KPIs, has implications for your relationships up, down and sideways.

  • Greater knowledge of the senior leadership team, their goals, values and priorities, allows you to pitch your ideas in a way that’s meaningful to them, using benefits, language and examples that are contextually relevant and make you look good!
  • Approaching a cross functional business unit for information or cooperation that is outside of their normal scope, requires us to negotiate in such a way that they feel heard, understood, their input appreciated and their time restrictions accounted for
  • Friday night drinks provides an opportunity to learn more deeply about other people and functions in the business which can lead to synergies and collaboration
  • While being forced into a training room with a group of people in the organisation you wouldn’t normally mix with and being required to do small group team activities with them, creates a knowledge of each other that has forged many an effective ongoing working relationship.

Outside of the company:

  • Firstly and most obviously, knowing our customer significantly helps us develop and market products and services and indeed get them to market faster. “Both Akio Morita of Sony and Steve Jobs were famous for never commissioning market research,” writes James Allworth, Head of Innovation at Cloudflare, co-author of the New York Times best-selling book, ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’. “Instead, they’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They’d put themselves in the shoes of their customers.”
  • Similarly, a business development manager’s effectiveness in listening to and understanding of the objections, difficulties and needs of the clients, helps them win business from competitors while continually improving quality standards and customer service
  • In an entirely different scenario, many times I’ve been commissioned to help prepare and rehearse someone for an upcoming conference presentation as a branding exercise for their business, only to find that after I’ve asked them to come back to me with some answers about who the audience is, what they need, expect and have questions about, my services were no longer required. Once they had the audience information, it narrowed the scope and made the task achievable solo

My hope with this series is to try to take a thoughtful approach to communications and I fear this list of benefits states the obvious, but if it’s so damn obvious, how come there still appears to be so much ‘telling’ in the business world at the expense of ‘asking’? As the old adage goes, we have two ears and one mouth and they should be used proportionately.

I’m as guilty as the next person in forgetting the importance of really deeply understanding, particularly in moments of conflict or tension, so while I worry that the benefits are self-evident and I’m telling you something you already know, I think it bears reminding.

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