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How to sound 10x smarter than you actually are

Communication Toolkit - India & Australia context

By Jamie Cerexhe

15 October, 2019

This article suggests a framework for how to become a much more effective team member through the use of communication. The effect of this should be that you are more highly valued by your co-workers and boss. The framework builds upon Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in which the bottom layers are more fundamental and themes are more complex the higher you go.

The article is intended to be a reference of different tools that I have seen used effectively. While these tools are applicable to any group working context, they are particularly needed and effective in remote working environments.

When operating in a remote work context, communication is the key driver behind productivity, efficiency and client/team happiness. Good communication skills make you seem much more smart and capable, while poor communication skills can turn a genius into a low output and frustrating partner to work with.

I believe I have well-tested experience on this topic after heading up a software development centre in India which reported to Germany, USA and Australia, coupled with experience using outsourced software development teams in countries like India and the Philippines.

Originally presented toCovalense Global

The tools are organised as below:

Understand first

  1. Make notes
  2. Understand their perspective/state of mind
  3. Let people speak
  4. Check your understanding

Explain better

  1. Use the best medium
  2. Answer the question
  3. Set an agenda
  4. Be concise
  5. Use props
  6. Use landmarks/schemas
  7. Work as a team
  8. Slow down
  9. Check their understanding
  10. Write with dot points

Employ nuance

  1. Don't tell them they are wrong
  2. Pivot
  3. Give feedback
  4. Answer "How are you?"
  5. Greet them
  6. Make yourself easy to remember
  7. Handle disagreements cleanly

Have a fallback

  1. Have a quality connection
  2. Write correctly for the most part
  3. Reuse success
  4. Manage expectations
  5. Escalate personal connection

Understand first

How do you answer a question you have not yet heard or understood?

1. Make notes

Some people in the world have perfect memories, the vast majority do not. Having a perfect memory is almost like a superpower, think Mike in the tv show 'Suits'.

If you make notes then you can also have a perfect memory.

2. Understand their perspective/state of mind

Everyone has a unique experience that brought them up to the point of their conversation with you. What was theirs like?

Did they just come out of 2 hours of traffic getting into the office?

Did one of their customers just blow up at them for an issue with the product?

Have they had issues in their personal life?

Are they in a different timezone and are answering your questions at 2am?

3. Let people speak

Sometimes people need time to unravel the thoughts in their head. Let the other person finish what they have to say until it is your turn. There are a few advantages to this:

  1. You will have now heard all of their points and arguments so that you can give the most informed opinion
  2. Gives everyone feeling that they have been heard and have contributed
  3. It may seem obvious what the other person is trying to say. In this situation it is tempting to interrupt them and inform them that you understand already. This can backfire if you don't.

4. Check your understanding

If you don't have complete clarity, you probably don't fully understand what is being asked of you yet. The easiest way to get this clarity is to ask. Ask good questions is a strong indicator of intelligence and listening skills.

Explain better

If people don't understand you, assume its because you haven't explained it well enough yet. Don't assume the other person is lacking.

1. Use the best medium

Short text messages

Audio-only call

Video call

Report with headings

Long-form essay

Principled approach: if you feel like the mode of conversation you are using is not being effective, escalate to a more personal medium.

Face to face > Video call > Audio call > Text messaging

2. Answer the question

Conversations like this happen all the time:

Client: "When will Task A be ready?"

Staff: "I am working on Task B actually, this is an important task that needs to be completed."

If the client needs to know when Task A will be ready, did the answer help them? This will cause huge frustration and a feeling that you don't understand simple questions. Focus on what the other person is actually asking you before giving an answer.

A better answer to the above question may be: "Task A is currently on hold but we are aiming to finish it by end of day tomorrow. This is because we identified a major risk of system shutdown if we didn't resolve an issue with Task B. We anticipate resolving Task B in 2 hours. If we continue with Task A after this issue is resolved then it should be ready tomorrow."

3. Set an agenda

Not just for meetings. Define what you want to achieve in a discussion and how you want to get there. Defining a clear path will help the audience understand as you speak.

Example:

"Hi Bill. I wanted to have a chat with you about Customer A. The reason I am bringing this up is because I believe there is a high risk of them leaving us if we don't take action. I'd like to breakdown with you the causes of how we got here and how I think we can win them back. Do you have 15 mins to discuss?"

Beginning a discussion in this way let's Bill (the audience) know several key things:

  1. Why you are having the conversation
  2. What is the impact
  3. How this situation occurred
  4. That you have already considered approaches to resolving the situation
  5. How long you expect the discussion to take

4. Be concise

5. Use props

Having a visual representation of what you are communicating will make you a much better communicator. Visuals are great at simplifying complexity, keeping your audience on track with what you are explaining and generally can trasnfer understanding much faster than speech.

Examples:

If you are having trouble creating your own visuals then try an image search. Many concepts already have diagrams created which you can adapt for your particular context.

6. Use landmarks/schemas

Have you ever spoken with someone and they blurt out a continuous string of different ideas and concepts? It can be difficult to know what are the key points to focus on and at what stage the conversation has progressed to. Landmarks and Schemas help the audience follow your train of thought.

A landmark communication is clearly defining a core point of your message. Think of it a bit like a street sign, menu heading, map marker or gaming savepoint. Using landmarks during a conversation will allow the audience to keep track of your logic.

To use a landmark in writing you could create a heading which is bold and starts new a paragram after it (similar to what I have done in this guide).

To use a landmark in speech you can say things like: "I will now move onto topic ____", "Did anyone have questions on ____ before I move on to ____?".

A good way to set up landmarks is to present an agenda before you speak or even just highlight the main topics you want to cover before you start talking e.g. "Thanks for joining me for this meeting on customer support. What I want to cover in this session is how we accept customer queries, how we measure customer support success and whether we need to increase our team size."

Schemas on the other hand are pre-existing knowledge that your audience has. A good way to illustrate this is explaining what a grapefruit is.

One approach is to say that a grapefruit has red flesh with a firm, orange skin. It is shaped as a sphere with a diameter of about 12cm.

Another approach is to use a schema to leverage existing knowledge. A grapefruit is just like an orange but slightly bigger and with red flesh.

By using an orange as the starting point you don't need to describe the size, taste, skin type and general appearance in as much detail.

7. Work as a team

Get help from your co-workers to practise before explaining something to your client. If you don't have co-workers then look into Rubber Duck Programming

8. Slow down

Talking too fast can make you sound smarter in the short term but over time people will get frustrated and turn to others for explanations. This applies to certain people more than others but if you know that you tend to speak more quickly, try to insert pauses more deliberately.

Good places to pause in your speech are:

9. Check their understanding

While working with your customer it may be difficult to know if they are following along and understanding.

A good way to approach this is to ask, "Did that make sense?". Try not to challenge them on if they have understood.

10. Write with dot points

Employ nuance

Put the U in nuance

1. Don't tell them they are wrong

It is more valuable to let the audience feel dignified and respected than to be right. If they are making an argument that you believe in incorrect, try to work out why they have that point of view. It may be that you just don't understand what they mean or that they have a particular assumption that undermines the rest of their perspective. Try asking questions to understand their reasoning before casting a judgement.

On the other side, the saying that 'the customer is always right' is not true or helpful in technical work. Letting your client have an opinion or perspective on your work that is incorrect will cause issues as the project continues. The way to handle a client being wrong is:

  1. Ask questions to work out why they have that view
  2. Identify the key issues
  3. Disagree with the points of issue and explain your reasoning why you think they are different
  4. Let the client counter your argument or accept your logic
  5. You can then build back up to the correct way of thinking

Having well thought out reasons that help change the customer's mind is one of the most valuable tools you have

2. Pivot

If there is a gap in understanding, try to explain in different ways. Use words like "I guess another way I think about this problem is like..."

While teaching I would often need to explain the same concept in several different ways before the whole class understood. Some would understand from a diagram I presented, others after I explained for a few minutes and others again would need something special.

In one class I was explaining how a request works over the internet. I ended up using the students to put together an impromptu threatre-style re-enactment of the concept. At the end of the class one of my students pulled my aside and said how happy they were that I explained it in that way. They had been struggling to understand that concept and only gained clarity after seeing it as a theatre-style re-enactment.

While in most cases, especially when dealing in professional settings, a wildly creative approach is inappropriate, there are still opportunities to get creative. Try out new approaches sometimes and see how people react.

3. Give feedback

Let your client or co-workers know when they have provided you with really good or clear guidance. You are not the only one that benefits from constructive feedback.

Most of the time a client will be unsure if a remote team understands what they are asking for and do not know how to improve. Giving this feedback can be really helpful. One way to do this is with, "These user stories were really helpful for x and y reasons."

4. Answer "How are you?"

Asking "How are you?" is a core part of communication in Australian culture. Answering this appropriately helps build comfort and rapport. Ignoring the question or answering the wrong way can make you seem robotic or overly personal. Don't be a robot, robots are replaceable. Also don't overshare, there still needs to be some adherance to professional communication standards.

The correct way to answer this question in an Australian context is either "Good." or "Good, + short reason why". It is better to keep your response to one sentence and only elaborate if they ask.

5. Greet them

Try not to jump into work talk before greeting the person. Some tips for greeting are to consider:

6. Make yourself easy to remember

People are generally bad at remembering names. It gets harder when you are working with someone from a different culture as the names will be very unfamiliar. If people get your name wrong or find it hard to remember, here are a few things you can do:

7. Handle disagreements cleanly/tactfully

You can't always convince someone to change their opinion that you view as incorrect. There are times when you will have tried everything you can but are unable to resolve a disagreement. There are a few things you can do here:

Have a fallback

Turn the pit of despair into an Ikea ball pit

1. Have a quality connection

If the wifi connection is bad then its rarely worth having a call. Sending text messages is better until you can restore a decent connection.

2. Write correctly for the most part

3. Reuse success

If you have had success communicating an idea in a particular way, reuse that way! These could be pictures, diagrams, images or past discussions for example.

4. Manage expectations

People will always be upset if they receive negative news that they weren't expecting. Communcating unexpected bad news is one of the toughest things you can do. To reduce the risk of this happening you can prepare by warning the client or co-worker of potential issues or risks. If they know that a certain bad event is a possibility, they will be more prepared to accept it if it occurs.

5. Escalate personal connection

In the case of severe breakdown of communications and dissatisfaction, my rule is to escalate personal connection. What I mean is to move to a medium of communication that is more personal. For example:


If you have feedback, please send to jcerexhe [at] gmail.com