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What All Powerful People Have In Common —
Effective Communication

By Peter Thomson

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The Best-Kept Secrets of Great Communicators

by Peter Thomson

The Best-Kept Secrets of Great Communicators

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"I keep six honest serving-men/ (They taught me all I knew.);/  Their names are What and Why and When/ And How and Where, and Who."  That is a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, the author of Jungle Book and many other literary masterpieces.  Those six key words, what, why, when, how, where, who are the words we can use at the start of a question in order to obtain more information than a single-word answer.  We're going to look at the difference between open questions and closed questions.  This is not quite the same as opening questions and closing questions.  Simply open and closed.  The difference is this, an open question will usually, though not always, solicit a large amount of information.  The closed question will solicit a small amount of information, maybe even a one-word answer.

For example, why do you think it's important that man continues his exploration of space?  That would be an open-ended question.  And, asked of the right person, could have us sitting back for half an hour while the person answered it.  "As the world becomes more crowded as each day passes, the continued exploration of space is a good idea, isn't it?" would usually receive a one-word answer, "Yes."  How many people work at your company?"  Answer: "350."  That's a closed-ended question, obtaining a short answer.  "Why do you have 350 people working at your company?"  That's an open-ended question and may well receive a reply that gives you the whole rationale of the board of directors' thinking between staffing levels.  So the closed-ended question receives minimal information.  The open-ended question receives a great amount of information.

With the closed-ended question, we may get three distinct styles of response:  agreement, contradiction, or short-burst information.  For example, "Do you like the color blue?"  Answer, "Yes"; that's agreement.  Or, "Do you like the color blue?"  Answer, "No"; that's contradiction.  Or we could have asked, "Which color do you like?"  Answer, "Blue"; that's short-burst information.

We can use this question in so many different ways.  We can use open and closed questions to control the conversation.  Let me explain.  I like to think of these two styles of questions in this way.  Imagine that you're a fisherman and you've gone off to the river, the lake, or the sea to do some fishing.  You've baited your hook.  That's the opening question.  You've cast out your line, and the fish has taken the bait.

Now, although the other person is talking, we're still totally in control.  We're holding the rod and the reel and can control the movements of the fish by letting out more line or reeling in.  The open question is, in effect, letting out more line.  The closed question is reeling it in.

For example, in a board meeting, "How interested would you be in decreasing our costs in production by 15%?"  That's the bait.  Answer, "Very."  The bait has been taken.  "Why have we used this method of production for the last six years?" or "What were the thoughts behind the introduction of the current method of production?"  The open question, lots of line let out.

Now, if the other person speaking has swum too far down the river, we need to reel in.  We can do this with a closed-ended question.  When the speaker takes a pause for breath, and even the most garrulous people, the most talkative people, pause for breath now and again, we jump in with a closed-ended question.  "When did the new system start?"  "Who made the decision last time?"  "What color is the main production unit?"  "Do we own the equipment?"  An open question to gain more information, a closed question to reel in and put you back in control in the position of the questioner or fisherman.

In an interview, here's the bait.  "Knowing more about what you did and how you did it at your last job would help me make a decision."  Then letting the line out:  "Tell me, what did you do and exactly how did you do it?"   To bring in more line, "How long were you there?"   A closed question.  As the questioners, the leaders of the conversation, we are totally in control if we decide to be so.  The closed question, that's easy to answer — Do we own the equipment?  How long did you do it? — gives us back control.  We're then in a position to ask another question, open or closed, as we decide. 


And now to move on and discuss how we say what we say and the way that we are influenced and persuaded to others' points of view.  Some many years ago I attended a course on telephone selling.  And the presenter used the word PICTURE as an acronym to discuss the ideas of the various ways in which we use our voices.  The letters of the word picture stood for pitch, inflection, courtesy, tone, understandability, rate, and enunciation.  And this seems to be a good summary of the way in which we use our voices.

Pitch — the different pitches we use with our voice would change the meaning of our words.  We know that approximately 38% of our message of communication is contained within the how of what we say.  The high-pitched voice can sound weak.  And on a telephone line, it can actually be quite grating.  However, the lower-pitched voice can sound far more authoritative.  And I would suggest that in a meeting where attempting to persuade or influence another person to our point of view, that this is the tone to use.  I'm sure you can hear the different effect of these two examples if you simply say them to yourselves.  "Shall we go ahead, then?" (emphasis on "ahead"), or "Shall we go ahead, then?" (emphasis on "then").   The pitch of our voice is important. 

Next is the "I", which stands for inflection.  If we talk in a monotone, then we will make it difficult for our listeners to concentrate on what we say because their minds get bored and wander off into all that self-talk, that self-dialogue.  However, if we vary the inflections in our voice, we will make what we say interesting and keep the listeners' attention.  Some have suggested that we end sentences by rising at the end, and yes, this can have an effect, although, I think that falling at the end with inflection and pitch can have a dramatic effect.

The "C" of the acronym PICTURE stood for courtesy.  And when we're so involved with what we're saying, when we're having conversations with the same people on a regular basis, we can sometimes forget to use everyday courtesy, such as "thank you" and "please."  It's an easy habit to fall into, isn't it?  Perhaps a time we forget is when we're speaking to family members.  And yet, when our young children ask for things, we are forever reminding them to say "please" and "thank you."

The "T" stands for tone.  And the tone we use can accurately reflect the word used.  For example, sincerity, pleasantness, happiness, sadness, confidence, believability, and so many others.  Let's make sure that the tones complement the words we use. 

The "U" stands for understandability, and this has a number of facets.  First, we should avoid talking with anything other than our tongues and our teeth in our mouths.  No pens, no fingers, no cigarettes, or the arm of glasses, or anything else for that matter, food or drink; it makes us very difficult to understand.  When having telephone conversations, smokers should avoid smoking, as the sound of smoke being expelled can be extremely annoying to nonsmokers. 

Understandability also relates to the language we use, the jargon of our industry or company.  Having been involved in the equipment-leasing industry for many years, I can remember the time when office conversations would have been to an outsider as though everyone had gone quite mad, where we're speaking in a language more fitting to a Star Trek episode.  For example, how did it ref?  Far and C.  No CCJ's.  Clear in both two and fair.  What's the profile?  Six and 30 with a 25% resid at 18 nominal.  What a load of gobbledygook for an outsider!  In fact, it meant that it was the good banker's report, no adverse financial information.  The company's good, and the home addresses of the directors and business address had no information recorded against them.  And the lease was to be written over a 3-year period with 6 months' payment to be made on signing with a further 30 months to pay, and then 25% of the cost of the goods was to be paid after 30 months, and the interest rate to be used was 18% nominal.  Somewhat easier said in the jargon of the industry.

However, using jargon is a double-edged sword.  For those in the know, it's extremely handy verbal shorthand and can build rapport by everyone speaking the same language.  One of the techniques used by cult organizations is to have a language all of their own that binds the cult members together.  When you're speaking in public, using the language of the audience, its jargon and expressions, is a great way to build rapport and says I am the same as you.  I am one of you.

However, there are times when jargon can have the opposite effect.  If we use jargon and the listener doesn't understand what we're saying, then often the listener will not wish to ask just in case he or she looks stupid.  This can create a bad feeling.  This breaks rapport, and we should therefore be extremely careful in our use of jargon.

"R" stands for rate, the speed or rate at which we speak.  If we speak very quickly, then, unfortunately, people are often listening to how quickly we're speaking rather than listening to the content of what we're saying.  President John F. Kennedy often spoke at about 500 words per minute, some 80% faster than most people speak.  Of course, if we speak too slowly, then we will have many people trying to finish our sentences or drift off into a conversation with themselves.  So it's the variety of rate that gives power to our conversation, slowing down to make a particular point, speeding up to add emphasis and excitement.  The changes in rate give feeling and excitement to what we say.

"E" stands for enunciation.  And we do need to be careful how we enunciate what we say.  We must speak clearly so that misunderstandings are avoided.  In many commercial conversations there are reference numbers, and those numbers are sometimes so similar that they become confused and the wrong parts are ordered, the wrong items delivered, all because somebody didn't take the time to ensure that the reference numbers were sufficiently different from each other, or perhaps someone was careless in writing down the letters and numbers.  In the United Kingdom, post codes get confused.  In the United States, zip codes get confused.  We must take care with our enunciation.

The other area of how we say what we say, that we must discuss at this point is timing.  You and I know that a joke becomes funnier the more we tell it.  Why?  It's simply because our timing improves.  We discuss with active listening. We need to pause before we reply to questions to indicate that we're giving a considered response.  This is the same thing; it's timing.

We improve our timing by practice.  If you have an important meeting coming up or know you're going to be involved in a conversation the outcome of which is important to you, then I suggest you write down some of the things you believe you'll be saying and practice them to get the timing absolutely the way you want it and not by default on the day.

Apply the PICTURE acronym to any communication issue you may have, and you'll develop the skills to be a powerful presenter whether you are in front of an audience of one thousand or one.

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