Tag Archives: communication

Hitting the right note

Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour czar, suggested not long ago that teachers needed to be  more authoritative in the classroom.

One of the things he suggested for women teachers is that they should have training programmes to help them vary the tone and  pitch of their voices, to make it lower for example, to sound more authoritative.

Currently most teachers are only taught to project their voices and speak clearly.

They could also adopt more confident postures as they can give way their nervousness by fidgeting and other non-verbal signals. When teachers are tense it can result in them speaking in a higher-pitched voice which the children pick up on and  exploit with bad behaviour.

Research in other walks of life shows that women’s voices have lowered in pitch since the 1940s and this is due to social conditioning. Women with lower pitched voices are considered more authoritative. Margaret Thatcher is a good example of someone who was coached and developed her “intensive care voice” which was a far cry from the high-pitched “Thatcher the milk snatcher” voice before she became Prime Minister.

It seems women are criticised more because of their voices including accents. According to linguistics professor Deborah Cameron, women with accents are judged on their relative femininity and sexual availability – particularly if they have strong cockney and scouse accents. Men are not judged in the same way. Which is possibly why there are so many women with Scottish accents in the media. They sound neutral and authoritative.

Back in the mid-90s researchers at Kent State University, Ohio, found that you could tell who was the dominant person in a conversation by measuring the pitch of the voice. People adapt their speech depending on who they are talking to; changing their accent, raising and lowering the pitch, and changing the speed.

Measuring these fluctuations, particularly in the low-frequency bands below middle C, shows which person is modifying their speech patters to match the other and being unconsciously deferential.

Knowing this is one thing but training people is less easy as competence and confidence are reflected in your voice unconsciously. However learning to hold a good posture, how to breathe properly and using visualisation techniques can help you inject enthusiasm and confidence into your speech.

I have a colleague, Tim Lambert, who was trained as an actor and he is great at helping people develop a more confident speaking and self-presentation style. Look him up at http://www.kay-lambertassociates.co.uk/


The Language of Leaders

A great summary of Kevin Murray’s book: “The Language of Leaders. How Top CEOs Communicate to Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results” in the Sunday Times this weekend.

Headed “Say what you mean and mean what you say” the review describes how Murray, Chairman of a PR company, questioned 60 top business leaders about what they looked for when hiring leaders. 

The responses consistently said, in order:

  1. raw intellect and ability to think clearly & strategically
  2. the ability to choose the right people & align them to a cause
  3. the ability to communicate with others and inspire them
Other sought after characteristics included:
  • future focus
  • a sense of mission
  • strong values
  • integrity
  • authenticity

Murray says authenticity is about understanding your strengths and weaknesses. “Be clear about the beliefs that underpin your strength and figure out your sense of purpose. Articulate all the above. Only then can you talk from the heart”.

He says people who talk from the heart communicate better because their body language is congruent with what they are saying and people pick up on it when it isn’t congruent and then won’t trust them.

Although he doesn’t use the terms he is talking about  leaders having emotional intelligence for which having a degree of self-awareness is a good starting point.


How important are the 3 Rs for business?

“Spelling mistakes cost millions” according to an article on the BBC News web-site.

An on-line entrepreneur said analysis of website figures showed that a single spelling mistake can cut on-line sales by 50%. Would-be customers are put off and may be suspicious of the website’s credibility given their experience with mis-spelled spam and fraudulent sites. First impressions are important on the internet when users might only browse for a few seconds before moving on.

He also complained about the poor quality of job applicants. He says too many job applications contain spelling mistakes and poor grammar with some even using textspeak. And when they tested some of the applicants whose applications seemed OK it was apparent that they relied on spell checkers.

The CBI has long complained about the quality of school-leavers’ levels of literacy and numeracy –  and not surprisingly given that one in three children are leaving primary school unable to read and write properly. The CBI says just over 40% of employers are dissatisfied with basic reading and writing skills of both school and college leavers and half are having to invest in remedial training.

Misspellings and textspeak may be acceptable on social networking sites but not for job applications.

And in America (reported in the Times 12 July 2011), some schools and colleges will no longer be focussing on the “3 Rs” but the “3 Ts”texting, tapping, and typing.

So far 41 states have adopted a curriculum that doesn’t require children to be taught how to do handwriting, it’s just an option.

The argument is that writing is of limited use in this digital age and that keyboarding skills are more important. Which may be true but some experts think that learning to write by hand improves the way a child’s brain develops. It also encourages children to write in more complete sentences and researchers have found that children can compose essays faster using a pen rather than a computer.

So will handwriting be another of those things our grandchildren find hard to believe we actually learned to do and that some of us took great pride in our penmanship? Will pens and pencils be treasured artifacts for future archeologists? Lazlo Biro will be turning in his grave.

Is social media the key to small business marketing?

Well it seems to be the case in America according to a recent forum at National Small Business Week in Washington DC.

Apparently three-quarters of small businesses are already active social media marketers and increasing their use of social media. And 2/3 of those not using it said they planned to do so this year.

So which was the favourite? According to marketing services consultants Constant Contact:

95% used Facebook followed by 60% using Twitter. 58% used Linkedin whilst 45% used YouTube. Just under a quarter used other local services.

When asked how effective each was 82% of Facebook users thought it effective, followed by almost three-quarters of video-sharing users, 55% for local services and 47% each for Twitter and Linkedin.


Small firms seem to be using social media as a complementary tool alongside other marketing methods. 95% were also using web-site marketing and 91% using e-mail marketing. And just over three-quarters were still using print advertising, almost as many on-line advertising, and just over half event-based marketing.

Is it the same in the UK?

According to eMarketer just over half of UK companies use Social Media to engage with their customers and prospects and a quarter of respondents said they ‘aggressively’ use Social Media to engage with their customers.

For three-quarters of the UK companies brand building was the top objective whilst just over half use social media to drive more traffic to their website or blog. Generating leads and direct on-line sales were less common goals.

PR expert Rick Guttridge from Smoking Gun PR, which specialises in digital and social media, says:

Social media can be a highly relevant tool for businesses large and small and used effectively can assist in businesses punching well above their weight.

However, don’t fall into the fool’s gold trap  of thinking it’s a free channel. Yes many of the products are free to use, especially at an entry-level, but the level of ongoing resource required to be successful should not be underestimated.

Too many businesses rush into social media to keep up with the neighbours without consideration of a strategy or how to evaluate success.

Take your time to consider your aims, target audiences  and desired outcomes before you begin. And remember, many of the traditional rules of marketing still apply here”.

Tweets mightier than the sword – maybe not

In my last blog, on informational warfare, I asked the rhetorical question; “is the tweet mightier than the sword?” citing Libya (a week is a long time in politics), China and Iran, as countries which had curtailed the impact of social networking.

Catching up with my reading I found a recent article in New Scientist titled Dictatorship.com written by Evgeny Morozov. The author clearly makes the point that using tweets and Facebook makes it so easy for (all) governments to monitor traffic and for dictators to crack down on dissidents – the internet as a tool of repression.

It used to be that regimes would just block traffic and web-sites they didn’t like, or censor it as China did with Google. Now they have more tools available such as malware to spy on unsuspecting computer users, or distributed denial of service attacks. Russia allegedly used that to bring all the Estonian web-sites crashing just to remind them who their near neighbours were. Many of these attacks are believed to come from former soviet republics where no-longer stated-employed former KGB technology experts turned their hand to “private enterprise”.

The American and UK security services regularly warn about cyber-attacks on western companies. And let’s face it many of these come  from countries where we do business. Advice I saw for people doing business in China included buying a new laptop and a new phone with no personal data on it. And a friend tells me that when he visited China in 2002, whilst there were computer shops  they didn’t sell printers.

No sooner had I posted this when Google complained that China was interfering with its g-mail service. The interference is so sophisticated that it look like it is a fault at Google with people not being able to log on. The Chinese government has not commented.

And a couple of weeks after I wrote this James Dyson was accusing chinese students at UK universities of stealing technology secrets and even leaving behind software to continue the process after they have returned to China.

But it seems we in the west are just as culpable in other ways. The Egyptian government was able to monitor and intercept traffic passing though their networks thanks to “deep packet inspection technology” sold to state-owned Telecomm Egypt by US firm Narus. Narus is owned by Boeing, that well-known US defence contractor so I may have read too many spy books but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of those US 3-letter agencies hadn’t slipped in a little piece of software of their own.

The shock for me was learning that Nokia Siemens had sold censorship and surveillance technology to Iran for which they were condemned by the European Parliament. I used to hold up Nokia as a values-led company but not any more. And then it appears that Ericsson sold technology to suppress political dissent to the oppressive regime in Belarus. Not a good track record for the Nordic countries.

And then of course there is facial recognition software, tagging all your online friends. Political refugees from the Soviet Union would often change their names once abroad so their families might be spared punishment. Once tagged there is no point in doing that.

And thus to Facebook and Twitter. Despite bragging about their contribution to democracy, neither have signed up to the Global Network Initiative, a group of companies,civil organisations, and academics committed to upholding human rights and freedom of expression. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all joined. Facebook even systematically deletes accounts because the users use pseudonyms (no good for marketing I guess).

Perhaps we should go back to the cold war approach when Radio Free Europe sponsored by the CIA broadcast  news and “decadent” music to the Soviet Union to show them what they were missing. Modern music wouldn’t do the job but we could swamp the dictatorships’ systems with tweets. My choice would be the top most self-obsessed ones; Stephen Fry (narcissistic would-be lovey), Sarah Brown (loyal but deluded wife of our last Prime Minister), and Richard Bacon (irritating BBC Radio 5 presenter). And you could include Sarah Palin as she’s sure to confuse them with her grasp of global politics.

Informational Warfare – protect your reputation

Anyone in doubt about the impact of social media will have had to rethink their ideas after the Tunisian and Egyptian popular uprisings.

But is the tweet really mightier than the sword? Iran soon learned to curtail its impact and China and Libya, by shutting down mobile and internet services and using their internal security forces, prevented any sizeable demonstrations,

In the business world the BP Deepwater catastrophe was an undoubted PR disaster. To add to the company’s woes a tweeter began publishing from a bogus PR division within BP. As the world watched the marine disaster unfold the fake PR person published tweets about the canteen menu and other mundane issues. The satirical account of life within BP was followed by more people than followed the official BP twitter account.

The power of one man (in this case an aspiring comedian) and a laptop against a giant global corporation shows how the rules have changed. Critics and activists no longer need to have an institution behind them, This is what the military call asymmetric warfare – an uneven matching of resources which can nevertheless result in stalemate or worse – think the USA in Vietnam, think the soviets in Afghanistan.

And to make matters worse for businesses the critics don’t necessarily have to tell the truth, are probably emotionally driven because they are angry or desperate, and may also be irrational.

An article in the December 2010 issue of HBR suggests that businesses need to look at what the military are doing. After the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war the US Army War College Centre for Strategic Leadership and Canada’s SecDev Group carried out a review into what they called “informational warfare”. They found that although Hezbollah was mismatched in conventional military terms it had used social media to win “hearts and minds” (ironically a key part of psyops warfare) around the world and discredited the Israeli position.

SecDev scholars wrote a report called “Bullets and Blogs” in which they set out several principles which could be used to counter attack and which also apply to protecting corporate reputations. These were:

Avoid a disproportionate show of force: don’t come across as a bully. Companies are generally seen as Goliaths compared to individuals. It’s not a good idea to respond in an aggressive manner. A more considered, less emotional, response which shows you re listening and doing something about the problem pays dividends.

Train people to respond quickly: Companies can be slow to respond especially of they need to reach a consensus or call a board meeting to agree the content of a tweet. Having a media monitoring system and social media channels in place enables companies to respond quickly through key personnel.

Avoid bureaucracy and empower teams to respond: following on from the last point, the public would rather hear it from front-line staff than the board members. So letting staff blog about their experiences is a more trusted method. I’ve seen NHS web-sites with interviews with nurses and other clinical staff talking about their work. These testimonials can work. Even the US Army allows soldiers to post blogs (as long as they are not risking security) on ArmyStrongStories.com. General Freakly, in a podcast, basically said that if you trust soldiers to make daily life or death decisions you can trust them with social media.

Go rogue – apply the same tactics: New media are often seen as a threat rather than an asset. Used ethically however they can help neutralise criticism. Domino’s Pizza was badly affected by the YouTube video of a staff member doing unsavoury things with the food. Profits were hit and that particular store was closed. The company President apologised using YouTube reasoning that that’s where the audience was. That in itself created news which by chance also diverted attention away from the problem.

Use multipliers to echo your message: In the military force multipliers are things which amplify your strength. In media having 3rd party endorsements can add to your own efforts. Critics of cruise ships visiting Haiti after the earthquake were soon neutralised when independent organisations supported the cruise line which had invested heavily in the country already, were delivering relief supplies, and who had been asked by the government to continue visiting to help the local economy to recover.

Establish your credentials in advance: Of course all these things are made easier if you already have established yourself as an ethical, diverse, fair, organisation so that when you are attacked you can point to past successes or decisions.

With new media you now have less control over your corporate message so reputation management is even more important.

Is performance management the answer – again?

I can hear you yawning from here! Performance Management seems so 90s, or was it 80s, and 70s as well? In fact performance management under different labels has been around forever yet very rarely is it done well.

And it’s been confused with performance-related pay and what with the bankers and all that doesn’t sit well with most managers in the real world.

But Octavius Black, CEO of Mind Gym, is adamant that what he calls “dynamic performance management” can increase productivity by 15%, achieve sales targets 29% better and increase customer loyalty by 18%. But he concedes, in an opinion piece in the Times Business section (3/1/11) that few organisations would adopt such a solution even though it’s straightforward enough.

He says managers need to have a performance conversation which has 5 ingredients: setting suitably stretching goals, giving frequent feedback, differentiating consistently, providing commercially acute coaching, re-shaping jobs to play to people’s strengths, and passing responsibility for success to the person being managed.

When 100 business leaders were asked to score their organisations against these criteria only four gave their companies more than half marks. Black claims that CEOs are frightened of looking stupid so the last thing they want to embrace is the latest fad from HR, an area which they least understand. Well Octavius I’m not sure about it being the latest fad, as I said at the start, and shame on CEOs who aren’t interested in their “greatest resource” even though it’s hard to find one who came up through HR.

Sadly all too often HR departments are involved in transactional activities and more interested in driving processes than changing behaviour. Black quotes one HR director who was delighted because he had almost 80% of performance goals submitted on time. I’m pleased to report however that Black believes that HR people with psychology backgrounds are more likely to apply real scientific insight to the challenge of maximising human performance!

He says that in the USA there is a growth in HR analysts who research and evaluate what actually makes the difference. On the whole however it appears that managers are still left to work it out for themselves. Some are naturally good at people management but others, and often those who have come up through technical routes, less so. And even the good ones will shy away from those “difficult conversations” about poor performance or missed promotions.

Giving constructive feedback is not something that comes naturally to most managers, and not just here in the UK – we have come across the same problem in the Baltics. Even having to explain that someone is “below average” is tough – especially as three-quarters of us believe we are above average (think about it or ask a statistician). Hence his reference to differentiation. If everyone is rated the same then high performers feel aggrieved. Managers (most of them)  are only human and everyone likes to be liked but giving what they see as bad news is stressful and many would rather be seen as a “nice guy” (See “It doesn’t pay to be too nice“)

Not long ago I helped a pharma company  to communicate to their staff why the performance ratings had to be re-calibrated. Everyone had been getting ratings in the higher bands for years and the distribution curve was so skewed that staff just expected the highest ratings as a right. Breaking the news wasn’t easy and caused a lot of anger among staff. Black cites Unilever as a company which has done something similar. Their CEO says; “there is now a higher degree of differentiation with a higher upside and a lower downside”. Unilever has just been voted “Britain’s most admired company”.

Black believes the answer lies with middle managers (of course there may not be too many left after all the years of de-layering) who will change their role from allocation of resources and quality control to one where they have “courageous conversations, establish boundaries, unearth motivations, give hope, manage mood, listen beyond words, and give praise and counsel wherever it’s due.” He believes a psychology qualification might be more useful than an MBA.

Black believes his idea of “dynamic performance management” is the magic bullet most appropriate for an era when managing talent is the key to survival and success. So you can put away your books on business renewal and BPR and start studying psychology!