Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's not what you say...

We've all heard this since we were children: "It's not WHAT you say, it's HOW you say it." However, many of us tend to forget this important advice. After all, if it weren't a wise statement, then parents and grandparents wouldn't have been pounding it into our heads for centuries.

But why is it important? Is it because we might offend someone? Sure, that has something to do with it. But the real reason that it's important is because, ultimately, your goal when communicating with others is to have your message heard, understood and - hopefully - followed.

The Coffee Experiment

Here's a good example of what I'm talking about (and I must admit that I'm shamelessly stealing it from an articulate priest who gave a sermon that I still remember over a decade later). 

A priest had the awful task of raising funds for a trip that he and a few others were taking to a faraway village in Middle-of-Nowhere, South America. Clearly, the "where" was not important. What was important, however, was getting us, a fairly well-to-do congregation consisting of younger professionals and families, to donate a significant amount of money for this mission. He accomplished his goal; in fact, I'm certain that he surpassed it. But how? 

Did he preach for an hour about these poor children in this remote village? No. He mentioned them, of course, but that didn't captivate the audience. Did he tell us that it was our duty to give money to this cause? Not exactly. Did he yell? Heck no. So, how did he get our attention, and our money? He talked to us about coffee.

Gourmet coffee shops were just starting to take over Atlanta back then, and most of us were addicted to this new delicacy. We were so addicted, in fact, that many of us purchased coffee daily; some of us even imbibed more than once a day. This priest noticed that. He understood his audience. He also ran some numbers and realized how much we were spending per day on coffee. Quite a bit, as it turns out. 

He casually pointed this out. "How many of you drink coffee?" Almost all the hands went up. "How many of you drink gourmet coffee?" Again, most hands were raised. "How much do you spend on coffee every day...four dollars, five dollars, ten dollars?" Heads nodded in agreement. 

"So, could you give up having one cup of joe per week?" Everyone seemed to think that this was a reasonable request. "Okay, then. You know, for what you'd spend on one cup of coffee, you could feed a child for a month." Gasp! Really?!? Oh my goodness. Yes, we can give up one measly cup of coffee and use that money to feed a child for a month, we thought. Heck, we can give up at least two cups, if doing so can make such a big difference. Wow!

This priest was able to raise funds without asking for money at all. In fact, he just asked us a series of questions and put things into perspective. We didn't feel bombarded by a fund raising speech, bored by a long-winded sermon, or guilty from hearing about how ungrateful we are for all we have. We gained self-awareness, we donated freely, and we were happy with the outcome - and with the priest. A win-win for all.

And that is the goal of all communication. You want to win the debate, win the client's business, win your boss's approval, win your employees' trust...the list goes on. But in order to win, one must spin. Spin the message so that it attracts the audience. A good public relations expert (or in some cases, a good priest) knows how to do that with ease. You can learn, too. After all, you wouldn't have read this if you didn't think you could.

I have years of experience in saying the right - and wrong - things, and will share stories, tips and ideas that I've picked up along the way. Check back often for new posts. 

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