Do All The Things You Know Make It Tougher For You To Communicate?

imageThere is no shortage of communicators talking about the challenges attendant to listening.

Type effective listening into your search engine, and you won’t have to wait long for the evidence. In 1.8 seconds more than 1 million resources will be one click away. Tips, tricks, guidelines, best practices, secrets, insights, barriers, ten-step-programs, five keys, principles, systems — I stopped at page 3.

Admittedly, we’ve contributed to the noise. Here and here are a couple of examples…just in case you are in the mood.

It seems safe to assume we believe this topic is important. It’s also a good bet the cynics among us might suggest we’re not serious, since progress is nonexistent…or, at best, snails-pace-slow. Which leads to this musing . . .

Is Knowledge The Enemy?

Maybe the challenge lies in the fact that the more we know, the tougher it is to listen.

Certainly, the more I am convinced I am right about any given topic or issue, the less inclined I am to yield the floor, much less actually listen to someone that is dead wrong!

What if our vast resovoir of answers-at-the-ready actually makes it more difficult for us to connect? What irony.

Is it possible — at least some of the time — that the richest communication takes place when everyone involved has more questions than answers?

The Hypothesis

If the exercise is honest — meaning the objective is more about connecting and communicating than it is born of infatuation with the sound of my own voice — the quest to identify what it takes to connect may be the one thing that drives us to quiet and persistent listening.

In other words — asking the right questions may be more critical to communicating than knowing all the answers. Or, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, being right is often the booby-prize.

Could it be that the art of communication is not about having all the answers; but about having the rare insight to practice the discipline of intentional listening?

Ready To Face The Reality of Business Development?

imageIn spite of mounds of evidence to the contrary, when it comes to marketing, business development and sales we can’t help ourselves. We cling to the hope of a viral happending that will change everything in an “unexpected” instant.

Others have pulled it off. Why not us?

The luck-of-the-draw . . . the right set of numbers. A silver bullet capable of piercing any problem. A grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth . . . the “hail-mary” for a TD as time expires.

Strategic planning, big data, competitive intelligence and all manner of market research notwithstanding, we secretly hope a single great idea — maybe a tag line or a new logo, a killer event or a viral video will resolve all marketing woes.

Or, if we could just get a chance to make our pitch.

Buying-In To The Big Bang

In our gut we know it doesn’t work this way. Or do we just say that? Wasn’t it the “Just Do It” tag line (with a little credit to the swoosh logo, of course) that turned Nike into a leader? Never mind the millions invested in market research, target market identification and product R&D that preceded a multi-year multi-billion dollar multi-celebrity advertising campaign.

Companies like Apple and Nike make the formula seem simple: offer a good product (or service), create a superior message, and BANG! You’ve created a winning marketing strategy.

Only one or two issues: the strategic and sizable investments of time and money long before the sexy advertising debuts.

So what is today’s professional service firm to do? For discussion purposes, consider this three step stragedy as one way to start.

A Three-Point Marketing Plan

1. Identify A Target.

There are three reasons every marketing plan should begin with target identification: a) it is the only way to know exactly what your message should be; b) a target focus is the key to resource leverage (read success without a ten-figure budget); and c) (if no other part of the discussion has your attention) — apart from luck, strategic targeting is the only way to accelerate the hiring decision.

2. Learn What Your Target Cares About.

This is the baseline for meaningful connection and visibility. As tempting as it is to believe the marketplace will find our work compelling, a profitable business development pipeline — the thing that consistently ushers clients to your door — is the result of delivering value around what your target cares about. This is the stuff of professional equity. Asking the right questions is the key to definitive market intelligence.

3. Pursue Connection Around What You Learn.

This is the next natural step. Wondering about what to blog about? What organizations to join? Where to invest time and energy? Can’t figure out what you should do with social media? Still puzzled about what your marketing message should be?

A focus on the issues with which your target is concerned is the fabric of connection. And when it comes to long-term business development, nothing is more valuable to productive professional relationships.

Business development success is rarely about the size of a budget or creative genius. Both are nice; but connecting with a market is about resisting distractions, rejecting the siren call of silver bullets, and doing the roll-up-your-sleeves, often difficult work of choosing your target, and maintaining focus.

The bad news — there are no quick fixes. The good news — many in the marketplace haven’t figured this out. Yet.

Words Have Too Much Power To Be Thoughtlessly Tossed Around

Can we admit that we all say things we wish we could, in the vernacular of the day, walk back. When I’m the offender, though she’s been gone for many years, I cannot escape the influence of my mother.

She believed words have power . . . that what comes out of our mouths is important . . . that what we say today has an effect on tomorrow.

The four of us kids — me, my sister and two brothers — had predictable difficulty with what we perceived to be her ridiculous standard. She would not stand for us belittling each other, even in jest.

Once the words are out there they can’t be taken back.

Slang would draw an evil eye. If we threw around language she perceived to be nothing more than shorthand for cursing, we found ourselves in real hot water.

In part, this was a reflection of a poet’s heart. She loved literature, was fascinated by the wordsmith, and the lyrics of a song could bring easy tears.

But at a deeper level, she subscribed to the idea that words have staying power. Notes of context inevitably fade with time. What we say today will hang in the air, and echo in pivotal moments of tomorrow.

Even playfully calling my brother stupid would, in her view, make it easier for me to use the monicker again. And again. And siblings weren’t the only ones off-limits. Name calling is demeaning. Never mind the fact that it brings real discourse to a screeching halt.

Mom would not stand for us making fun of anyone.

And though admittedly inhibiting for three young boys in the house (my sister was much more like mom), the lesson was not lost; we knew it was never okay to be disrespectful of another human being.


As kids we were, predictably, much less discriminate when out of her earshot. But years later her influence lingers.

Yes, Words Have Power

They can be instructive, provocative, and convicting.

They can stir laughter, and prompt tears. They can reach into otherwise quiet corners of the heart and move us in unimaginable ways.

Mom subscribed to the let your yes be yes and your no be no philosophy. I don’t recall ever having doubt about where she stood or what she meant. She was the toughest person I’ve personally known . . . fighting disappointment and disease for years. Yet, she was gentle, kind and respectful.

Sure . . . most of us are going to slip up, and beg to walk it back. But it is worth remembering that words are able to inspire vision and conjure great dreams. They are far too valuable to be used thoughtlessly or indiscriminately. Much less, irresponsibly.

Four Guiding Principles If You Believe Business Development Is About Building Relationships

Confused Businessman Looking At Arrows Pointing In Different DirectionsFor a moment let’s say we really believe the notion that relationship trumps everything when it comes to business development for professional service providers.

What do we do with that? How do you build the kind of relational equity that is at the heart of a stable practice?

Warning. If you’re hoping for a silver bullet you are not going to find it here. In fact, if you believe business development is something to be turned on when things slow down, you’re not going to like much about this post for four reasons.

  1. Professional relationships are no easier than the personal variety — (evidence the next three reasons);
  2. Building the kind of equity that results in trust (which is what business development relationships are all about) doesn’t happen over night…it takes time;
  3. Investment is required — and we’re not talking about the big-budget kind — this is roll-up-your-sleeves and get personally vested in the pursuit of something important;
  4. Success demands caring about what your target cares about (versus a preoccupation with what you bring to the table).

Come to terms with these four realities, and there are plenty of creative ideas and tools to help you leverage your efforts.

But what do we do to actually build professional relationships?

Here are four suggested guiding principles.

1. Focus On Your Target’s Story.

Let me tell you all about me! This is the temptation — to believe winning is the result of getting our message across. Fall prey to this and we’ll focus on what we need to communicate. Completely convinced of our ability to bring something to any table, we expend every bit of equity we have cataloging all that we can (or might be able to) do.

Equity comes from knowing what the target cares about most, understanding where the need is most intense, and focusing attention at this precise point. (Kind of the same way things work in a personal relationship.)

2. Become a connector.

Individuals that make it rain for the entirety of a career, no matter the season, are almost always masters at connecting. This is closely related to number 1, above — a focus on your target. Relevant introductions, references and referrals are universally valued. Become viewed as the conduit to valuable connections, and your equity as an advisor is on the rise.

3. Care About What Your Target Cares About.

At the risk of going to this well too many times, the realm of personal offers the object lesson here: when you seek a relationship with someone, you invest time, resources and energy in the things that individual cares about.

Want to build or increase equity in a professional relationship? Short of creepy stalking, become involved in what your target cares about. A cause, professional or civic organization, or leisure interest afford the possibility of important visibility and association. This is one of the shortest paths to professional relationship.

4. Don’t Just Talk; Do Something!

While it is no news to anyone that talk is cheap, we continue to double-down on delivering a message all about us. Nothing does less to differentiate than endless blather about expertise. Listen up, and you’ll hear your competition saying the same things.

It will take some creative thinking, and it likely will not be easy; but find a way to actually share your experience and expertise with a target apart from an engagement, and you have a shot at setting yourself apart. This is where there is business development value in becoming involved in organizations your targets care about as noted above. Volunteer for a committee position in an association your target is involved with and seek an opportunity to collaborate.

Continuing education offerings and relevant thought leadership are a couple of the more standard ways to demonstrate versus simply talk about expertise. But if you’re committed to building a relationship, some effort in this area can unlock other possibilities.

There are other ways to build professional relationships, of course. This is offered as fodder for a conversation, and I f you have practical ideas, please contribute.

The one thing we’ll venture all good ideas will have in common is a focus on the object of our pursuit.

Five Reasons Business Development Can Feel Like A Tug-of-War — And What To Do About It

Corporate rivalryThere are plenty of questions about business development and rainmaking — what does it take to win…can only certain personality types pull it off…is there a secret language…or a handshake…and so on.

If you wrestle with the notion, and regularly move from the promises of one silver bullet to the next with minimal success, chances are good that one (or more) of the following is the reason.

1. Your Network is Anemic

This is the big one. If you’re not connected to anyone it’s going to be difficult to generate the referrals, recommendations and development insights that come when you have a productive professional network.

A robust network is your connection to the marketplace. This is how you maximize visibility and awareness efforts around your practice. And it is the tool that provides leverage for every investment you make in marketing.

What to do? The solution to network issues begins with identifying a target. If the world is your target then have fun trying to zero in on a network. But if you can name three or four targets for the work you want to offer, you can begin to map relationships connected to decision maker(s). The names on this relationship map are the cornerstones for a productive network. Start building.

2. Everything Looks Like An Opportunity

We’ve all run into the guy always ready to buy (or sell) the latest silver bullet. In our gut we know that shortcuts — if they exist — are very few and far between. But in the absence of real strategic direction it is easy to see opportunity around every corner.

The development of a decent book of business — never mind an enduring practice — demands relentless and focused pursuit.

What to do? Identify the targets that represent or can connect you to the business you want. Once identified, strategic direction begins by mapping a relationship to influencers and decision makers. The actions and investments necessary to connect provides the focus that will keep you on the right track.

3. You Aren’t Building Relationships

Every single rainmaker I know will tell you the same thing: when it comes to long-term business development success, relationship trumps everything. This is the reason flavor-of-the-month silver bullets don’t work. And it is why you won’t be able to salvage the year by deciding to focus on business development in August.

Relationships require real attention. A note a couple of times a year isn’t going to get it done. Waiting for the object of your attention to call you certainly won’t. And if your BD effort centers on setting up a lunch twice (or once) a year so you can pitch your capabilities . . . Well, suffice to say you’re not building up much professional relationship equity.

What to do? A quality relationship is the product of time. Of listening, investing, delivering value, and doing it all over again. The real business developers I know recount story after story of two, three, five and even ten years invested in the development of targeted relationships. This is what you do if your plan is based on strategic direction.

4. You Still Believe Business Should Somehow Find You

Barely a month into my first foray into legal business development I asked a partner to describe his ideal target client. He stared at me in a way that said “that is the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.”

And then he answered. “My ideal client is the next person that calls me on the phone or walks into my office in need of legal counsel.”

For a decade the market had come to him. And in large measure the same had been true for outstanding legal professionals for three decades prior to that. But unnoticed by my partner friend, things were changing.

Three years later he was having difficulty staying half busy.

If you’re not focused on strategic direction for your business development efforts, it may be because, deep down, you hold out hope that the market is going to find you.

If this is you, I hope you are a lucky soul.

5. A Deficiency In Your Product or Service

There is one other reason a few professionals wrestle with business development — a deficiency in product or service offering. And if the market has judged you based on the quality of your product and/or the experience you deliver, the only “fix” is to listen to the market and adjust appropriately.

But a final word. When the depth of the team or breadth of offering is tossed around as the reason for difficulties in attracting new business, it is often little more than a convenient excuse.

Any effective approach to meeting the challenge of securing new business isn’t flashy, and won’t come easily or overnight. It begins by charting a strategic direction…and requires relentless focus.

Creating Clients For Life

My friend George — a veteran of the hospitality industry, and no push-over when it comes to what service looks like — was just back from a cruise during which he and his wife became customers for life. But it did not start that way.

The cruise coincided with an anniversary, and George’s wife had taken steps to surprise her husband by pre-ordering the “anniversary package.” She was anticipating elaborate cabin decorations, a decadent anniversary dessert, and an iced bottle of premium champagne as she and George returned to the cabin after a day in port.

But reality fell short of the package as presented in the marketing materials.

Decorations were nonexistent; the cake was puny and looked like it came from a convenience store; and the champagne was missing the ice bucket.

But George is a grateful sort; and absent any expectations, he was a happy voyager. There was something for his sweet tooth, and a bottle of champagne they could ice for later.

His wife on the other hand, was fuming. She announced that she was headed to client services.

Where The Real Marketing Began

The customer service rep made no excuses while apologizing profusely…and pledging to find a way to make it right. He would be in touch.

Later that evening he knocked on the couple’s cabin door. He reiterated his apology, and asked for permission to arrange for the couple to enjoy dinner the following evening at a special table in one of the ship’s premium restaurants. George and his wife said that would be a nice gesture.

The following evening the two were greeted and treated like VIPs. Arriving at the restaurant, they were escorted to one of the best tables in the room where an extraordinary bottle of wine was already decanting.

The couple inudged. And the evening was topped off with a spectacular off-menu dessert, compliments of the Captain.

When George signaled that he was ready for the check he was informed that it had been the Captain’s pleasure to take care of the entire evening, with his apologies for the earlier misstep, and best wishes for a memorable anniversary.

The likelihood that George will ever consider sailing with another cruise line is less than zero. The experience delivered was more targeted and profound than any message a competitor might throw together.

The dissatisfaction from which the experience was born only adds rich fabric to the story that George and his wife will, no doubt, retell for years.

The experience you deliver IS your marketing message.

And while it is always preferable to get it right the first time, the savvy service provider recognizes questions, concerns — even issues and missteps — as opportunities to demonstrate the real value inherent in a professional relationship.

No marketing message is more eloquent than an experience that differentiates.

3 Characteristics Rainmakers Have In Common

Business NetworkingWhat does it take to make it rain?

Real rainmakers — the individuals able to connect with the marketplace in a way that consistently results in business — share three characteristics.

They may engage in business development in a variety of ways and employ differing techniques. There are, after all, no cookie-cutter formulas that work for everyone. But every rainmaker builds on these three things.

1. Rainmakers Are Proactive

The individuals who always appear to connect to opportunities in the making are not sitting around waiting on someone else to make things happen. You’ll not hear this breed infer that success hinges on so-and-so doing such-and-such.

Rainmakers are the ones making the calls versus waiting on the phone to ring. These are the folks instigating the conversations and setting the meetings.

Rainmakers do not sit idly by. These are individuals of action.

2. Rainmakers Invest In Relationships

Don’t misunderstand. This proactive approach referenced above is not about stirring up activity without direction or purpose. Those who are consistently connected to new opportunities are con stanly making strategic investments in relationships.

Talk to someone with a long track record of business development success. Their network of relevant relationships will number in the hundreds. If a log of activities exists, it will revolve around activity specifically designed to creste  connections and build equity.

Rainmakers believe relationship trumps everything. And they act on this belief every day.

3. Rainmakers Understand Timing

Rainmaking is not a seasonal act. The individual or group hoping an eloquent speech today will make it rain tomorrow does not understand the role of time in a strategic business development equation. Equity is not built overnight.

If you’re launching a blog one week and counting on it to produce dividends the next, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Use your blog to connect and deliver value, and it is a great tool for building equity.

Sure…it is possible to get lucky, and generate business with a single contact. But few practices are built on luck; and long term business development success — the work that will sustain you over the life of a practice — requires relationships. A robust network of relationships — one large enough to consistently push work your way — is the result of a proactive mindset,  and strategic attention, over time.

It is tempting to see the rainmaker as one who simply has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. But as is almost always the case when we see consistent and repeated success, career-long rainmakers tend to create their own brand of luck.

When We Don’t Know What To Think

My friend, Petri Darby said it this way:

When I don’t know how I feel, or what to think, I turn to how I want to feel, and what I want to think.”

imageGreat counsel, friend. Here goes.

I want to think that violence, hate and fear do not define who we are — who I am. We are better than our worst moments.

I want to think that good outweighs evil. I believe this; but some days it is difficult to remember.

In the midst of sadness and pain, I want to believe in a peace that passes understanding. I want to believe that peace will envelop all who deal with unspeakable pain.

I want to believe in the enormity of the human heart. I want to think that our capacity to understand and empathize is far greater than the temptation to turn inward and lash out.

I refuse to feel helpless. I choose to spend my time and invest my energies seeking to be a positive voice, and seeding hope. I want to build bridges and make peace.

Tomorrow I want to believe my home, relationships and community benefited from what I brought to the table. I want to feel as though I made it through this day treating all I encountered the way I’d like to be treated…the way we wish we’d treat each other.

This is not to suggest a blind or naive eye to undeniable ills. Nor is it to infer that the solution begins by ignoring the pain — or the inevitable pains of tomorrow.

This is simply a personal reflection on one way to respond in the wake of what feels like a constant stream of events that stir anger and tap into fear. I don’t know about you…but these responses do not bring out the best in me. They do not give rise to the way I want to think.

Nor do they seem to have solved much. I want to think in a different way.

The Key To Successful Teams? Clarity of Shared Vision

We have a propensity for doing whatever it takes when the chips are down.

A cause or challenge seemingly bigger than our ability to manage is often the mission to which we are drawn in droves.

This plays out in the way we respond in the face of disaster — like the loss inflicted by wildfires or floods. Or the terror of a crazed gunman. Or any one of a far-too-long-list of incidents that bring us to our feet en masse…desperate to be part of a community that provides help.

What we miss with amazing regularity is that the desire to be part of a grand pursuit is not limited to an hour of trial or tragedy. It is a characteristic of great enterprise.

In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins refers to one of the differentiators in companies that rise to greatness as the existence of big hairy audacious goals — BHAGs.

The late 1960’s version of a BHAG was President John F. Kennedy’s vision to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. What is sometimes left out of the discussion is the reason Kennedy gave for aiming at the moon. It wasn’t driven by a metric.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

We should note that 50 years later the NASA team is still at it. Today, after a 5-year 1.7 billion mile journey, Juno reached the orbit of Jupiter one second off scheduled arrival time! Amazing.

Your Best Day At Work

Teams in pursuit of audacious goals often accomplish things beyond the imagination. Yet, average companies wrestle with this. There are a number of reasons for the tension; but at least one is that too often our vision is not worthy of pursuit.

The eventual consequence of anemic organizational vision is atrophy.

In Simon Sinek’s most recent work, Leaders Eat Last, the author suggests that the desire to share a “common burden” brings us together in a way nothing else can.

Sinek makes the point by asking us to consider our best days at work. His suggestion is that few will talk much about major projects and big “wins” when everything ran smoothly.

“For most of us, we have warmer feelings for the projects we worked on when everything went wrong. We remember how the group stayed at work until 3 AM, ate cold pizza, and barely made the deadline . . . It was not because of the hardship per se, but because the hardship was shared. It’s not the work we remember with fondness, but camaraderie . . . Our best days at work were the ones where we helped each other endure and overcome hardship.”

My guess is that we’ve all experienced this — at home, in orealizations and efforts we care about, and yes…even at work. The chips were down. The deck stacked against us. But an inspired tribe joined forces around a shared vision.

Clear Vision And High Functioning Teams

Sticking with Sinek’s book for a moment — he suggests that the challenge for today’s leaders is articulating an inspiring vision in an environment of abundance.

In short, when times are good an organization with no burden to overcome has an interesting challenge — communicating a vision that rallies the troops.

On the other hand, for the start-up joined in a clear pursuit, each day is a corporate challenge to stay alive.

We instinctively know that a team can accomplish more — maybe even get us to Jupiter. But building and motivating highly functioning teams in an environment of success is a challenge, if not a messy proposition.

But this is what leaders do.

We find ways to articulate the vision of what might be, and build teams that, unprepared to wait for disaster to strike, proactively march into the face of tomorrow’s opportunities.

This Is Where Communication Begins

Listening is the last thing on anyone’s mind when the subject is communication.

And it’s understandable. From the instant an infant realizes what it takes to get attention, our practical view of communication is shaped by a repeated focus on doing whatever it takes to deliver a message.

Experiences reenforce the idea that charisma, wordsmithing and creative presentation are at the heart of connecting  And so we go about our business . . . mistaking message delivery for communication.

Listening is about keeping quiet — SIlence. Golden, maybe. But certainly not getting any point across. Quick…say something!

Sure…in our gut we know there’s value in listening. We likely even believe we should do more of it. But when it comes right down to it we don’t know how.

And just in case we need to say it, the fact that we’re not talking is no guarantee there’s any listening going on.

A Rethink

Here’s the proposition: communication begins only when-and-if we learn to listen.

It is a counter-intuitive discipline that works exactly opposite of our practice. As opposed to beginning worried about what we should say, listening actually informs and gives shape to messaging that connects.

But All Listening Is Not Created Equal

This is part of the problem, isn’t it? Query a search engine for “types of listening” and you’ll find plenty of content on Discriminating, Passive and a handful of other ways to say we listen differently, depending on the situation.

It is almost impossible to find a market segment that is not flooded with messages, each making as big a splash as possible in pursuit of mind share. There is no way any given audience can hear every message directed its way.

The listening that changes the equation is proactive. It is listening by design, with purpose, with ears wide open.

And though the irony of talking about it this much is not lost, this is a challenge for all of us who have spent years focused on messaging, loving great copy, and spellbound by production possibilities.

Intentional Listening — a proactive, agenda-less process and art designed to learn — is the key to the identification of common ground, shared experiences, and the creation of relationships that endure.

If this isn’t where our communication efforts and campaigns begin — if listening isn’t the first thing we think of when we want to connect with an audience — we should not be surprised when efforts fall far short of the results we seek.