Saturday, August 19, 2017

Too Smart to Listen?

How can something so easy be so hard? This world is filled with people longing to be heard, but there are very few willing or able to truly listen. Shut mouth, open ears. Is that really so difficult? Obviously yes.

We've all heard of the manifold benefits of listening. It is the key that unlocks the deeper dimensions of human interaction. When we really listen, it indicates we care. That is fundamental to creating trust. Listening enables understanding, empathy, intimacy. It completes the communication process that connects people to people. It builds and strengthens relationships.

In the business world, listening positions us to better serve our customers. It illuminates their needs, concerns, priorities, and aspirations. It shapes our value proposition. It informs our strategy, validates our performance, guides our work processes. Great listening skills define effective leaders. Great workplaces arise in companies that listen to their employees.

We know this. So why is it so hard to do? Why are all the benefits of better listening just beyond our reach? Most of us have all the necessary equipment (ears); we just can't seem to turn it on. Or turn up the volume. There's something blocking us. It's us.

Ego and expertise combine to erect a formidable barrier to listening. The first step to becoming a better listener is to simply care what the other person has to say. Sounds easy, but self-interest gets in the way. It's been noted that most folks engage in two primary activities when in conversation: (1) talking and (2) thinking about what they're going to say next—with just enough listening to formulate the next point they want to verbalize. Ouch! Guilty as charged.

Having something to say is also a problem. Most of us "experts" are just bursting to share what we know. Years ago I sold environmental services. Having come from the civil engineering field, I had limited knowledge of what I was selling. So I learned to ask good questions and listen carefully. Given the success I had, I surmised that I had developed into an effective listener.

Not so. If my interactions at home weren't evidence enough, I started my own consulting practice. Now I was selling my expertise, not someone else's. I had a wealth of experience and collected insights to share. Obviously, I wanted to be perceived as being smart. So I opened my mouth—too much, in my opinion. And my previously strong listening skills were suddenly missing in action.

Ego and expertise; do you have these by chance? So how's your listening?

Something I've noticed over the years: Most of the wisest people I've ever met were good listeners. Their wisdom was evident in the questions they asked, and their measured responses. They didn't need to say much to show how much they knew. Because they listened so well, their comments tended to be right on the mark. Delivered with pinpoint, rifle-shot accuracy, not the usual shotgun dispersion of facts and opinions. They connected with their target audience because they knew them so well, and seemed to genuinely care about them. They listened.

Doesn't that sound like the profile of a great consultant, engineer, architect, manager, or business developer? Shut mouth, open ears. Ask good questions, then really listen. Shouldn't be that hard, but it is for most of us.

Maybe we need some practice. Let me suggest an exercise, one that I too seldom draw upon. In your next conversation, try to center your focus on the other party. I mean, really focus on that person. Make listening, not talking, the priority. Don't let your mind wander to what you'd like to say, or what you think about what is being said. Just listen. Take your time, don't rush to fill any dead air. Formulate your questions with some forethought.

The goal is to develop your capacity for extrospection. That's defined as a "habitual interest in or examination of matters outside oneself." Sure, there is intrinsic value in putting others before self. This world would be a better place if we had more of it. There are also substantial personal and professional rewards for becoming a great listener, for being extrospective. Considering the payoffs for all parties, it's just plain smart.

Monday, August 14, 2017

What Can Your Firm Learn From Matchmaking Sites?

Turns out that dating is a rather inefficient way to find your lifelong soulmate. More than nine of ten dating relationships end in failure, often with painful heartbreak.

Enter online matchmaking services like PerfectMatch and eHarmony. Twice as many online dating relationships reputedly result in marriage as the old fashioned way. How can this be? These sites claim their success is rooted in a process of screening for compatibility, to a depth that is rarely pursued in traditional dating.

I confess I'm still a bit uncomfortable with the notion of seeking a spouse online. But I'm always looking for lessons. Is there something to be learned from matchmaking services for those of us in the A/E industry? Maybe.

Our businesses depend on relationships, and most of them don't last. Indeed, most of them don't even get started. There's the awkward courtship phase where we throw ourselves at practically every prospect who will talk to us. There's the expensive proposal phase that ends in disappointment 60-70% of the time. Then for those clients who will "go out" with us (i.e., sign a contract), most of those relationships don't last either.

Isn't there a better way? I think so. And, no, I haven't found an online client matchmaking site. But we can still apply some of the same concepts on our own:

Commit to prioritizing long-term relationships. There's a reason most people eventually end up getting married. Sure, some aspects of the dating scene have their appeal—meeting people, starting new relationships, walking away from those that don't work. But most people ultimately want the stability, commitment, and mutuality of matrimony. That's why many turn to online matchmaking sites.

In our business, the equivalent of the dating scene is project pursuit. Many firms focus their business development efforts more on gaining contracts than relationships. The recession probably accelerated this trend. Many firms were desperate for work, and writing proposals (albeit mostly losing ones) provided more immediate gratification than the process of cultivating client relationships. That trend still persists despite a better economy.

But there's a cost in taking that approach. Project-focused business development is akin to feeding the furnace. You need to keep throwing logs into the firebox to prevent it from going out. Every day you're burning backlog. So you have to keep bringing in new projects to keep from going under.

By contrast, your best client relationships continue to generate new revenue for years. These are the foundation of a sustainable, successful business. Long-term clients also typically yield your highest profits, not to mention your most satisfying work.

So why do so few firms have a relationship development strategy? Most of us would agree that bar hopping isn't the best way to look for a long-term relationship. But isn't that essentially what many A/E firms resort to in their efforts to secure new work? A better way is to focus at least a substantial portion of your limited BD resources on creating and nurturing great client relationships.

Define what constitutes a great client relationship. I have a friend who recently married a young lady he met through an online matchmaking site. They were initially matched through information they had provided the site on specifically what they were looking for in a spouse. Even from their first date, they openly explored the potential and criteria for a long-term relationship.

Have you ever outlined what your firm is looking for in the ideal client? If not, how then do you go about looking for such relationships? Are you guided by your gut, or does it happen mostly by chance?

I've conducted a few workshops where an A/E firm and one of its best clients were seeking ways to further strengthen their relationship. One of the exercises involved sending each party to opposite corners and having them define the most important attributes of a great client or a great consultant.

That has consistently resulted in a fascinating revelation. They had never thought of the question before. Yet in considering it, they were better able to identify specific ways to improve the relationship. It's not unlike attending a marriage seminar where you and your spouse clarify what you've long wanted but weren't quite getting from the relationship. You leave wondering why you hadn't had that conversation before.

Let me encourage you to do the exercise, if you haven't already: Schedule a brainstorming session to identity what your firm values most in a great client relationship. Be as specific and objective as possible so you can use these criteria to assess existing and potential relationships.

Screen prospects for long-term relationship potential. eHarmony touts its 29 Dimensions of Compatibility as a tool for enhancing your chances of finding a lasting and fulfilling relationship. The effectiveness of that system has been debated, but clearly some kind of screening process is helpful.

Most firms have a go/no go decision process at the RFP stage. But that's too late to determine whether you should invest valuable time cultivating a relationship with that client. On the contrary, the client's "compatibility" should be considered at the qualifying stage—in other words, before you begin the process of relationship building.

Now I'm not suggesting that you pursue only clients with long-term relationship potential. But this kind of client should warrant your best BD efforts. In my experience, when you invest in relationship development before the RFP, your win rate dramatically improves. But not every client is interested in building a relationship, and you probably don't want to work for every client who is either. So choose your best opportunities based on the potential of the relationship and the mutual business benefit.

Develop a plan for strengthening existing client relationships. Matchmaking sites may help you get started in a great relationship, but the true test comes afterward. You have to work at relationships to make them lasting and satisfying. And while most of us are relational by nature (i.e., we desire relationships), many of us aren't natural in maintaining relationships. It requires focused, disciplined effort.

How hard does your firm work at maintaining your strategic relationships? Do you have a plan, have you committed resources, or do you play it by ear? That can be a dangerous way to go. Check out my previous post on displacing incumbents and remember that's precisely what your competitors are trying to do to you. Don't take your most important relationships for granted.

Finding the right match is one thing, but building those relationships is where your real strength as a firm will be tested.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Adding Contours to Your Presentation

I've sat in on hundreds of technically-themed presentations over the years and the vast majority of them taxed my attention span. I suspect I'm not alone. That's a shame since, with few exceptions, these presentations were intended to achieve something important: to persuade, to inform, to impress—or not.

There are myriad reasons why presentations fail. A common one is what might be called a "flat" structure and delivery. In flat presentations, all content is essentially treated as equivalent in importance and interest. It's a bit like watching a movie about two men conversing around the dinner table. There may be a few who find it intellectually stimulating (witness the positive reviews for the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre), but most of us need some dramatic peaks to hold our attention.

Thus my advice to add "contours" to your presentations. This involves saying or doing something to draw people's attention back to what you have to say. Perhaps you've never considered the natural tendency of an audience to lose attentiveness over the course of your presentation (as illustrated in the chart below). But it's a real problem, especially with flat presentations. Adding contours helps ensure that people are actually listening when you deliver your key messages.

A few suggestions for holding your audience's attention:

Give your presentation an definable structure. Consider this outline: (1) Call to Attention—opening comments designed to grab audience attention at its peak and answer the question everyone is subconsciously asking: What's in this for me?; (2) Key Messages—3-5 important points you want to make, with each serving as a transition (contour) point in your presentation; (3) Call to Action—a summary of the high points of your talk, with a requested response (approval, decision, selection, next steps, etc.). A presentation without a definable structure is akin to a book without chapters.

Ask questions. Engaging your audience in some conversation is one of the best ways to keep them attentive. I usually mix questions where I actually expect a response with rhetorical questions designed primarily to get the audience thinking. The latter often provoke spontaneous comments and questions from audience members.

Refer to audience members by name. This takes asking questions to the next level: "Bill, what is the greatest challenge your firm faces in preparing for shortlist presentations?" No one wants to be embarrassed by being asked a question when they weren't paying attention. But if you're reluctant to put people on the spot this way, you can still use audience member names to increase attentiveness: "Now imagine I'm making my initial sales call to Jenny here..."

Demonstrate something. Doing something is always more compelling than talking about doing something. It also can make things much easier to understand. It's even better if you engage the audience in doing something. So for example, you could ask for a couple audience members to help you act out a role play (which you prepared in advance) to demonstrate the techniques you're trying to teach on how to deal with difficult employees. On occasion I'll walk into the audience to engage a few people in a brief hands-on demonstration or playful dialogue to make a point.

Tell a story. Stories can bring otherwise dry topics to life. That's why case histories are popular. But don't miss this critical point: Stories work because they connect with our experiences, interests, and aspirations—in other words, our humanness. Technical professionals often misuse case histories by focusing on technical features rather than the human dimensions of the story. The best stories engage people at the emotional level.

Insert a few compelling pictures or graphics. Visual images generally have more impact than words. Some images stay with us long after the presentation is over. Always consider how you might capture your most important messages visually. A good image or graphic immediately gets people's attention, even before it is explained.

Use a prop. A prop can be a very effective way to capture audience attention, especially if you can use it to drive home a point. I once brought my string trimmer to the podium with me at the start of my talk. I didn't use it to illustrate a point until towards the end, but people told me later that I had their attention throughout because they were wondering how I would use it in my talk.

Share something that's surprising or provocative. Technical professionals are prone to be conservative in their presentations, avoiding anything that might invite skepticism or disagreement. But that's also the recipe for boring. I always try to challenge conventional wisdom at strategic points (contours) in my presentations, such as presenting facts that some will find surprising, or at least suggesting something that most in the audience have probably never thought about before. Having something to say that's different is an effective way to keep people interested.

There are a few other techniques I could mention, but you get the point. Don't assume that you'll have your audience's attention throughout. Instead determine at what points in your presentation it will be most important for them to be fully tuned in. Then add contours to increase attentiveness at those points. Doing this can help you avoid falling flat in your next important presentation.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why Your Presentations Fall Flat

In business, you can hardly afford to waste opportunities. Yet technical professionals are often ill-prepared to give it their best when asked to make an important presentation. These presentations can be critical to your firm's success. For example:
  • Winning new work through shortlist interviews and sales presentations
  • Gaining community approval in public meetings
  • Convincing regulators to accept your proposed solution
  • Securing management support for a promising strategic initiative
  • Enhancing your reputation as a leading expert in your field
Having coached numerous presentation teams over the years, I must say that most struggle to put together and deliver a powerful, compelling message. Perhaps it's productive to consider some of the common reasons that presentations fall flat:

Failure to understand the audience's needs and interests. It's important to establish common ground with your audience. That's your platform for building trust, without which you'll never be persuasive. The quickest way to establish trust is to demonstrate that you care. And failing to know your audience makes it awfully hard to show your concern. So do your homework up front. Learn all you can about your audience, in particular, what their needs and interests are relevant to your topic.

Nothing really compelling to say. Technical professionals, especially engineers, are generally conservative by nature and loathe to say anything that might be questioned or considered provocative. Yet that's often just what needs to be said. If you have to distinguish your firm, you need to bring a perspective or a solution that's different than your competitors. If you're seeking support for an innovative approach, you've got to shake up the status quo. Don't be afraid to share your ideas, even if you don't yet have all the evidence to back them up. Research indicates that speakers who challenge their audience's thinking make the biggest impact and are most remembered.

Poorly structured presentation. Many of the presentations I've heard in our industry are structurally flat, or what I call lacking "contours." This means that the content is presented as if it were all of equal importance. The presentation lacks the high points that help provide context and renew audience attention. Having a 3-5 point presentation helps, but usually this problem is due as much to delivery as organization. The presentation may have a few key points, but if the speaker fails to appropriately emphasize them with voice inflection, pauses, gestures, visual aids, etc., they may not register with the audience. In writing, we insert section tabs or bold headings. Consider how you can create the same effect verbally.

Lack of enthusiasm and confidence. Many technical professionals are a bit uncomfortable with public speaking, which is reflected in how they deliver their presentation, giving them even more reason to be uncomfortable. It's a vicious cycle. The first step to breaking out of this cycle is to convince yourself to "just do it." Be enthusiastic; that will help overcome any lack of polish. Your confidence should be grounded not in your speaking ability, but in who you are and what you know. Obviously, the better prepared you are, the more confident you should be. But a critical step towards greater comfort as a speaker is not doing the following...

Failure to connect interpersonally with the audience. Many speakers focus more on acting out their scripts than interacting with their audience. This is where I depart from the norm as a presentation coach. I encourage dialogue in your presentation, even if it wasn't requested (such as in a shortlist interview). I want the presenter(s) to engage the audience instead of just talking at them. Then a wonderful thing happens: The speaker grows more comfortable, so does the audience, and there's more productive communication. Even if you're speaking to a large crowd, you can engage them. Ask questions, ask for a show of hands, get them to do something, etc.

Ineffective (or even distracting) visual aids. Many technical professionals use slides more as speaker notes than visual aids. In fact, most slides I've seen over the years aren't visual aids at all; they're visual distractions. Keep this in mind: No one can read and listen at the same time. When you display a wordy bullet slide (with all bullet points appearing at once), you force the audience to choose. My guess is that most do a little reading and a little listening, so that the net effect is they missed much of what you presented. Keep bullet points short and bring them up one at a time. Better still, use pictures and simple graphics. Make sure your visual aids are working for you instead of against you.