Did you know that what you’re NOT doing can imperil what you are doing?
As a writer, I spend hours obsessing over what to communicate. What shall we say? Which words say it best? In what order?
But communication is more than words. People evaluate you—your commitment, competence, credibility, character—based on not just what, but how you communicate.
“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
They also size you up based on the things you DON’T do. The steps you neglect can leave a deep, lasting impression on people you care to please.
Here are four things you’re probably not doing—or not doing enough—that put your reputation at risk.
1. You’re not using your vocal cords.
Email, text messaging, and online chat are so convenient. The instant you think of something to say, these tools are at hand, ready to catch and carry your words. But text-based communication is not always the best choice.
Is your topic sensitive? Know this: email and chat are not private media. If your organization provides these tools for your use, then every message you send may be captured in a permanent record. How would you fare if your message wound up as a top item in Google search, laid out on a conference room table, or produced as evidence in a trial? If these possibilities make you uneasy, don’t put your thoughts in writing.
What’s more, reading words on a screen, your recipient may miss or misconstrue your meaning. “That’s why we have emoji!” you say. But are those cute little icons consistent with your professional image? If you wouldn’t include them on your résumé, don’t depend on them for serious business communications.
If you want to protect your good name—and the confidentiality of your message—use your speaking voice. Pick up the phone, get face to face, or schedule a meeting when you can be heard.
2. You’re not breathing.
As I’ve said before, effective communication needs white space. On the printed page, that may mean generous margins, reasonable line lengths, and frequent paragraph breaks. In spoken communication, it means moments of silence, when you and your listeners can collect your thoughts. The natural way to make that happen? Take a breath.
In stressful situations, breathing may not come easily. In crowded conversations, you might rush to speak before someone else interjects. When presenting, nervous energy can turn you into a speed talker. With meetings stacked and double-booked all day, you may find yourself without a moment to gather your thoughts.
In all these circumstances, you have to choose to breathe.
If you want to be known as a thoughtful contributor, put conscious effort into well-timed pauses. By choosing when and where and how to breathe, you can change the pace, tone, and quality of a conversation—and your entire day.
3. You’re not rehearsing.
Rehearsing is like flossing. You might say you’re going to do it, but then it just doesn’t happen. When you don’t floss, you disappoint your dental hygienist and put your teeth at risk. When you don’t rehearse a presentation, you disappoint your audience and put your reputation at risk.
Even skilled presenters benefit from practice. Here’s the rehearsal process I recommend to clients—and even follow myself. Ideally, you’ll start these steps a week or two before your performance; but even a day or two will help.
Step 1: Right after assembling your pitch, speech, or presentation, run through the whole message aloud, alone, working from your notes. Tweak if you must, but focus on getting all the way through the material in one shot.
Step 2: An hour or a day later, do another private run-through. This time, don’t look at your notes or even your visuals. Practice the entire message from memory. Marvel at how much you remember, and make note of what you don’t. Go back to your notes and adjust as needed.
Step 3: Invite one or two human beings to witness your final rehearsal. Present your message to them as if they are your audience. Notice how they respond. Ask for positive and negative feedback, and adjust your plan accordingly.
If you follow this rehearsal plan, you will feel confident and ready to present—even if your dog eats your notes or the projector dies. You will know your material. You will be ready to interact with your audience.
If you care how your message lands, don’t assume a solid performance will naturally occur when it’s your turn to speak. Plan and practice your message ahead of time.
4. You’re not asking questions.
Last year, one of my coaching clients—a mid-level manager looking to improve her chances for advancement—asked, “How can I be more strategic?” In truth, this creative, intelligent woman already has a strategic mind. The real question was how she could show her strategic perspective to the executives she needs to influence and impress. We reframed the question: “How can I be perceived as more strategic?”
We landed on a simple adjustment in her communication style: more questions. Now, whenever she meets with leaders, she asks at least three questions before putting forth an idea. Rather than diving into tactics based on guesses, she challenges herself to gather insights. She must ask—and listen—to be sure her suggestions will match up to real expectations.
If you’re reluctant to ask questions for fear of looking foolish, consider this wisdom my first boss taught me: One of the greatest assets you can bring to a conversation is ignorance. If you honestly don’t have all the answers, then liberate yourself to ask honest questions.
If you want to be viewed as strategic—to assert your ideas with purpose and value—ask more questions. Then draw wisdom and inspiration from the conversation.
Start doing these four things now: speak up, breathe, rehearse, and ask more questions. People will think you’re smart, because you’re smart about the way you communicate.
Photo credit: Rachel via flickr