Coyote Calls for Change

Warning: Not for the squeamish.

This fellow — or one of his wily brethren — stopped by our house last Saturday morning at 4 am.

His path intersected with this fellow’s — or one of his furry pals.

Citizen number two did not fare well at the crossing, and Suzanne and I heard the outcome transmitted with four quick, heart-rending squeals followed by silence.

We had just settled our heads back on our pillows when we detected the sounds of dining. Unfortunately, they were not the genteel clink of silverware on china or click of crystal toasted to crystal. No, we heard tooth dividing flesh and bone. When we got to the open window, Wily Brother stood poised in our front yard, left paw firmly holding Furry Pal in place. He glanced up at us in the window. He showed no look of triumph or shame or remorse. He looked like a coyote always looks — hungry. And you can’t fault him for that or for his success.

It is disturbing to have your front yard become a hunting ground and even more disturbing to have it become so successful. Because the next night, while I was out of town, Suzanne reported that Wily Brother returned at 1 am and crossed paths with another visitor, but it wasn’t any of Furry Pal’s friends. This feline visitor had a real name and belonged to some family in the neighborhood, but it shared the same fate as the rabbit.

A blog about words and communication may seem a strange place to raise the topic of successful predators in modern suburbia, but I broach it to make this simple point. In these two events, there were three fates. The coyote sated his hunger. The rabbit and the cat died. And the two people watching were profoundly affected by the events, and their lives were changed. Suzanne, particularly, felt the effect, and she acted on a choice she has long pondered — to commit to a vegetarian diet.

People can change. Coyotes cannot.

Our ability to communicate sophisticated ideas and achieve understanding allows us – compels us – to change. The words we use have far greater power than the coyote who can never change. The coyote can prey on small animals, but our communication can destroy civilizations. Words matter.

Who Is Your Audience?

“Know your audience.” It’s the first rule of good communication. Whether you are a novelist, a journalist, or a public speaker, you have to know the nature of the audience you are addressing. Misunderstand your audience, and they will turn on you. Sometimes viciously.

But there are unintended audiences as well, and the most sophisticated communication takes them into account, because they can turn on you too. Consider the following video. It was prepared by the USA Bid Committee, acting on behalf of the United States Soccer Federation. The Bid Committee works to secure a bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. The audience is the members of the World Cup site selection committee, members of FIFA, the world governing body of soccer.

But there is a secondary audience. You don’t bring in Morgan Freeman to narrate and include President Clinton, Mia Hamm, and Spike Lee only to reach a couple of dozen deciders. No, the audience is much larger, and there is a great lesson here for organizations of all sizes and purposes.

When I watch this video, I feel a surge of pride in my country. The secondary audience for this video is fans of the U.S. National team, fans of soccer, and fans of sports. If you read the comments on You Tube, you see the pride the video generates. As someone said, “You had me at Morgan Freeman.” The result of that pride is increased energy and excitement for the support of the bid and greater fan support.

Put this in the context of your organization. Do you share your communication and marketing materials within your company? Do you let your employees experience the pride of their efforts? They are your biggest fans, and when you prepare marketing materials, you have the benefit of reaching your secondary audience. The consequences of this are all positive:

  1. Employees and staff can take pride in their accomplishments and see how they are valued through the representation of your product or service.
  2. You reinforce the mission and vision of your organization internally. The Bid Committee’s message is simple and delivered in Morgan Freeman’s fabulous voice, “We are the world’s home away from home.” That’s America’s vision.
  3. You give your stakeholders the language to speak about your company or organization. “The world is in us.” “Bring it to my country.” “My country loves this game.” “Bring the World Cup to the United States.”

When people take pride in their organization, they share that pride with friends and families. Your audience grows. No matter what size your business is, you can spread your influence further by ensuring that your employees have pride in their efforts.

It’s Not What. It’s Why.

I have never read a business book that couldn’t have been reduced to a good magazine article. But there are people out there who make me think with greater depth, and I value them beyond reason for that ability. Right now, I’m stuck on Simon Sinek, who has identified what great leaders have that people respond to.

Most of us communicate from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. We explain “what” first, “how” next, and “why” last. “Why” is always the most difficult to explain, but it is where our passions reside.

Few of us can be great leaders, but all of us can inspire employees or prospects and establish ourselves as people of worth and substance. We only need to invert our communication tendency, and first explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Watch this presentation Sinek gave at the TED conference in Puget Sound.

Want to know more about Sinek? Check out his website.

The Perfect Gift

Word people can be pretty nerdy. My wife, Suzannne, and I are both word people. We met at a party after a fiction reading when I was in graduate school, and we bonded over our ability to know the names of the states in alphabetic order. You don’t get much nerdier than that.

As nerdy word people, we tend to hang out with others in our tribe. When our geographic bonding crested into an emotional bonding, we decided to get married. Two valued members of the tribe pooled their resources to purchase the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. You can see it there in the photo. It’s a beauty, isn’t it? (That stunner still retails for about $200 new. Of course, you can pick up a well-thumbed copy for about $15.)

American Heritage Dictionary
Putting the dictionary on its pedestal

Aside from the very generous nature of the gift and the very appropriate relationship it had with our lives, there was the perfectly worded inscription on the card. “Because everybody needs a kick-ass dictionary for a wedding gift.” From that day to this, our family has called this tome the “Kick-Ass Dictionary.”

It sits on a swiveling pedestal under its own dedicated lamp. Right now it is open to the definitions ranging from “dept.” to “descendant.” Someone was looking up the spelling of “derailleur,” which is natural since recently we have been doing a lot of bike riding, a lot of working on bikes, and a lot of derailleur adjusting.

This dictionary – this kick-ass dictionary – occupies the same physical and spiritual space in our family that the Family Bible does in many other families. Our son’s friends once asked him how he had developed such a large vocabulary, and Sam responded by saying, “What’s the first thing you see when you come into our house? A dictionary.” (I wish he had said, “A kick-ass dictionary,” but not all anecdotes resonate precisely. Besides, he was 13 years old at the time and not yet comfortable using swear words in front of his parents.)

Twenty-two years after we married, the whimsical cereal bowls and the utilitarian carving set we also received as presents have long since expired. But the dictionary continues to give back. Everybody needs a kick-ass dictionary. Whether you’re getting married or not, it’s the perfect gift.

Define the Message

We live in a world of muddled messages. Politicians step on themselves to clarify missteps. Sports stars crank up the non-apology apology machine. Employers alienate their staff by reciting lawyerly pabulum to avoid litigation. And parents demonstrate the opposite of what they tell their children.

We send messages we don’t intend, and we hear things that weren’t meant. This disease of miscommunication and misunderstanding is not new, and we all succumb at some point.

I once delivered a conference presentation on some of the greatest research the home improvement industry has ever seen. I’m not a bad public speaker, but on this day, the slides didn’t work, my mouth malfunctioned, and my knowledge of the research was less than golden. At the end, the entire audience was in the fog of confusion, but none of them were as confused as I.

It gets worse.

I was the host for the conference, and I had to follow myself to the podium to introduce the next speaker, who was a top-notch pro. Before I brought him up, I reminded the audience to fill out their evaluation sheets so that we could ensure the previous speaker (me) never cast shadow on that stage again.

We all have our horror stories, but we can all define our messages with greater care and avoid the unintended meaning. We can implement strategies to make our communication – whether marketing, advertising, or employee manuals – clear and concise and without ambiguity.

6 Building Blocks of Effective Communication

And if we can define our messages, we can establish ourselves as leaders. I once worked for a very smart, very direct person who became quite powerful in the corporation. His simple gift was that he could cut through all the crap and put his finger on the one or two most salient points in any strategy. That clarity, that ability to jettison the distractions, gave him a focus that made other people want to follow.  When he talked, heads in the room nodded up and down.

That skill is such a common experience among successful people that it underlies 3 of the 7 habits Stephen Covey identified in his groundbreaking “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  #2: Begin with the end in mind. #3: Put first things first. #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Define your message and you can become the leader. Your message may be a personal message that establishes goals and articulates strategies to position you as a team leader. Your message may be a corporate brand that states your values and vision as a business, making you an industry or market leader. The underlying keys to success for both internal and external communication are the same.

  1. Listen to your audience
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Say it clearly
  4. Use it consistently
  5. Make it logical
  6. Appeal to common sense