Economy of Expression

Economy of Expression ③

Economy of Expression is a four-part series about the role of communication in business. In Part III, we discuss with Eleanor Scott, artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant, verbal and nonverbal communication, and what's wrong with the way we communicate in business today.


CHRIS: Welcome back Eleanor. What is on the Economy of Expression menu today?

ELEANOR: Thanks, it’s great to be back. Last time we discussed how to be an ‘authentic listener’ and what business can learn from the Arts about listening. Today I think we should talk about verbal as well as non-verbal communication, with a particular focus on the effective communication of ideas in business.

CHRIS: That sounds great. Why don't we start by looking at what makes up verbal and non-verbal communication?

ELEANOR: I think about three things; your body, your breath and your voice. All three components contribute to the communication of ideas by giving off signals.

The non-verbal elements, your body and your breath actually make up 90% of communication with your voice contributing the last 10%. Just think about the simple motion of raising your hand. That non-verbal movement can mean so many different things. It could mean that you have a question, it could mean that you want to give someone a high five, or it could mean that you want to communicate disinterest or distain i.e. ‘talk to the hand’. Your body can communicate a very specific idea, all without the use of a single word.

CHRIS: I guess I hadn't really thought about how powerful our bodies are as communication tools.

ELEANOR: They really are. The way you stand, the way you sit, the way you walk into a room, you look or don’t look at someone – you’re saying volumes without uttering a word. One of the examples I show people is an image of Steph Curry and LeBron James. What I love about this image is that you can’t see LeBron’s face, but it doesn’t matter, you know exactly what he is thinking and feeling. And there is Steph, chewing on his mouthguard, smiling a happy smile. It’s brilliant. I can also see friendship and respect, two greats going head to head, the old and the new. There is so much that is being communicated between the two of them, all with their bodies.

Pro Tip
When I’m coaching in business I get people to partner up and give them a short dialogue. I then task them to have that dialogue with no words. It’s fascinating to see how people engage with their bodies and how effective the communication can be. Less is more in the Economy of Expression and our bodies can play an important role in reducing the noise.

CHRIS: You also mentioned breathing as a major component of non-verbal communication, let's talk about that.

ELEANOR: If you think about what fuels our body to speak, what fuels our voice to speak – well it’s our breath, and it turns out, it does a lot.

If you need to change the dynamic of the room, change the flow of communication, you can do that by simply taking a couple of deep breaths. People reading this may roll their eyes and be like ‘breathing – are you kidding me?’. Well, no I’m not. Breathing is a total game changer when it comes to improving how you communicate. Even thinking about your breathing, being self-aware to your breathing will make a huge difference to the effectiveness of your communication. It gives you time to slow things down, it creates space to think, for others to share an idea and perhaps for you to reconsider saying something you might regret later.

CHRIS: So what about the other 10% of communication - the words?

ELEANOR: Of course, the words are absolutely critical which is why, when I’m coaching in business I tell people that the verbal part of communication is ‘high stakes’.

What I’ve found, however, is that people in business tend to lean on the quality of their ideas rather than their ability to communicate those ideas. And because they don’t take enough time to think about how they are going to communicate, many of those ideas die on the vine.

How you communicate is the vehicle for the spreading of an idea. It’s the plasma to the blood cells. If you aren’t able to effectively communicate an idea, it limits how far it can go. Again, that’s why in business, the verbal part of communication is high stakes. The success of a business, the value to shareholders and the experience delivered to customers depends on how effectively ideas are communicated within the walls of the organization.

And when we don’t think about the 10%, the verbal communication of an idea, we also tend to neglect the 90% part of the equation. We don’t think about how we are going to enter the room, whether we are going to stand or sit, what we want our body language to convey, who we are going to focus on with our eyes, and of course our breathing.

Pro Tip
Think about the next idea you want or need to convey in business. Then consider how you would deliver that if you were stuck in an elevator with the CEO for 60 seconds. How would you deliver that message to a skeptical manager in a 1:1 or a group of your colleagues on a video conference.

CHRIS: Why do think people in business tend to focus more on the idea than the communication of that idea?

ELEANOR: In my experience, I see two main reasons the communication of ideas in business is not as effective as it could or should be.

1. Arrogance – now I acknowledge that this may be slightly controversial, but I think poor communication in business is, in part, a result of arrogance. Arrogance that it’s all about the idea and that the skills associated with the communication of that idea are unnecessary ‘soft skills’.

2. Crunch Factors – factors that result in people not developing effective communication skills. People are time poor and don’t prioritize communication skills, people acknowledge the importance but are fearful of putting themselves out there to be better communicators, people are lazy and find it easier to hide behind digital communication channels rather than develop human communication skills.

Whatever the reason, the end result is ineffective communication. How many times have you seen someone try and bulldoze their way through a presentation or speak loudly over someone else in a meeting. People don’t respect that, those ideas don’t stick, but it happens because people value an idea more than the communication of that idea.

CHRIS: I can feel some tips and tricks coming on!

ELEANOR: How did you know! Of course, I think there is a lot of value that business can derive from the Arts when it comes to communication. Let’s consider at a typical meeting scenario where you are the presenter or host.

Look – What is happening to the people in the room, where is their head? That person is having their second cup of coffee, perhaps they are tired. That person is scowling at their screen, perhaps they are stressed. That person is not making eye contact, perhaps they are nervous. That person is leaning forward – they are ready to go. Empathy will help you be a better communicator.

Listen – Do introductions. They give everyone an opportunity to feel part of the discussion and communicate what they would like to get out the meeting.

Breath – Think about your breathing. Ground yourself, calm the nerves, change the flow of the room.

Observe and act – Notice if people are what we call in theater ‘pulling focus’, which means to draw attention to themselves. Counter that by stepping in and ‘throwing focus’, which means to deliberately focus the attention on those who have valuable contributions to make.

Prepare – Your preparation needs to be commensurate with the scale and scope of the message you are trying to deliver.

CHRIS: Is there a one size fits all guide to great communication?

ELEANOR: No there isn’t, we all communicate in different ways, so it’s important to think about what type of communicator you are. Doing this will help you determine what kind of preparation you need to do to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Can you do a quick elevator pitch, do you need to focus on saying less? Can you think on your feet or do you need to run through your presentation 5 times in front of the mirror?

What is true of all great communicators is that they spend a lot of time preparing. This preparation will be different depending on what type of communicator they are, but I guarantee you they all prepare. In theater, the best improvisers, are the ones who prepare the most.

Preparation enables you to find your authentic voice. If you want to inspire your audience, you need to be authentic. I often use Dr. Martin Luther King as an example. His preparation included listening to the opinion of others, debating ideas and then distilling them into the core themes of his message. He was able to deliver the ‘I have a dream’ portion of his March on Washington speech extemporaneously because his preparation enabled him to find his authentic voice.

Pro Tip
Find communicators who inspire you and learn about how they prepare.

CHRIS: This feels like a great place to wrap up, what are we going to discuss for our final post?

ELEANOR: The final element in the Economy of Expression is written communication. I think it’s such an interesting topic, in business, in life, in this digital age. I’m really looking forward to it.


Interview with Eleanor Scott, Artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant by Chris Watt, SVP of Corporate Strategy for Tigerspike