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July 2014

7 things good communicators must not do

In this simple but informative TED Talk, Julian Treasure offers up seven things that effective communicators must exclude from speech. This list of seven is a kind of "bad habits to avoid" list. They are not the only elements that can derail effective communication, but it is a good list from which to start. "I call them seven sins somewhat tongue in cheek," Julian says in the comments section on the TED Website. "I am not saying these things are bad or wrong, simply that they tend to make it harder for people to listen, especially when they become habits." Yes, suggesting that one avoid these behaviors always and forever can become a sort of dogma as well. However, he is right that these behaviors are for the most part injurious to our reputations, credibility, and over all effectiveness.

Julian's presentation is short, clear, and concise. Still, to help you remember the contents after you've watched the talk, I summarize the key points below and include a few of his slides that display the key points. The last one (number 8) is one I have added to the list. You surely may have some more to add.

7 (or 8) things to avoid when speaking
Here are the seven (well, I added one of my own). These can be applied to any context from banter with friends, meetings with coworkers, and of course, presentations in all their myriad forms.

(1) Gossip
Yes, we all do it from time to time. But there are some problems with it. For example, says Julian, "we know perfectly well the person gossiping five minutes later will be gossiping about us." This reminds me of that Eleanor Roosevelt observation: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." 

(2) Judging
"It's very hard to listen to somebody if you know that you're being judged and found wanting at the same time," Julian says. Judging, of course, is very human and is not necessarily a bad thing. Context is important. But when judging gets in the way of honest dialog, then we have a problem. Judging can be a great barrier to the receiver actually hearing what is really being said.

(3) Negativity
It's very hard to listen to someone who is seemingly always negative or has a great habit of looking on the bad side of things. When one's default reply or approach is to focus on the negative, it becomes hard to take their words seriously. Negativity, of course, is not to be confused with critical thinking or even skepticism. Negativity keeps us from seeing the possible in the seemingly impossible.

(4) Complaining
This one is very close to negativity above. We all hate "the complainers" even though we may find ourselves in this role without knowing it. We must be mindful that we do not enter into a kind of downward spiral of negativity and complaining. Complaining is different from venting feelings or frustrations with a trusted friend. This can be quite healthy for getting things off our chest. Complaining refers to, I think, an approach to daily living with is always "glass half empty." Chronic negativity and complaining does not help anyone. Most importantly, it does not help you. As the Dalai Lama says "Your sadness will not solve the problem. More sadness, more frustration only brings more suffering for yourself. No matter how tragic the situation, we should not lose hope."

(5) Excuses
"Some people have a blamethrower," Julian says. "They just pass [blame] on to everybody else and don't take responsibility for their actions, and again, hard to listen to somebody who is being like that." It is a natural thing to want to make excuses for our failings. After all, no one knows our inner struggles or our external antagonists better than we do. But deep down we know better: We must take full responsibility for our mistakes and our failures. Far from being a kind of acquiescence, it takes courage to admit failure and to apologize without making even a single excuse.

(6) Exaggeration 
Embroidery and exaggeration, says Julian, demeans our language. For example, he says, "if I see something that really is awesome, what do I call it?" Exaggeration can become out and out lying, and we don't want to listen to people we know are lying to us." A lot of this depends on which culture we find ourselves in, however. Julian called this bad habit lying, but I have listed it as exaggeration. We know lying is wrong, obviously, but we should be careful too when our enthusiasm results in the kind of exaggeration that distorts facts.
(7) Dogmatism
Julian refers to dogmatism as "the confusion of facts with opinions." And he says, "when those two things get conflated, you're listening into the wind. You know, somebody is bombarding you with their opinions as if they were true. It's difficult to listen to that." I would add to this deliberate obfuscation. For example, when an individual will not answer a simple question clearly—one that everyone knows the answer to—because they fear not adhering to a predetermined narrative.

Julian Treasure's slide listing the 7 bad habits in communication.

(8)Self-absorption. Egocentricity, selfishness, and conceitedness. A presentation, or even a conversation, is not just about you. Not caring about your audience is one of the easiest ways to ensure failure in communication. Don't waste their time, ever. Be brief, be concise, then be done (a version of FDR's "Be sincere; be brief; be seated." One needs to have great empathy for an audience and be fully attuned to the situation. Regardless of the context, it is never appropriate to just plow ahead with one's monologue regardless of how the audience is feeling.   

Four things that good speech must have
The list above are things to avoid. "But is there a positive way to think about this?" Julian asks. "Yes, there is. I'd like to suggest that there are four really powerful cornerstones, foundations, that we can stand on if we want our speech to be powerful and to make change in the world." The first letter of these four foundational pillars of good speech form the word HAIL: Honesty. Authenticity. Integrity. Love. The latter being not a romantic love, Julian says, but rather the spirit of wishing the other well. Love in this case refers to human compassion and empathy for others. I would argue that empathy is certainly one of the keys to effective communication and healthy relationships of all kinds.

HAIL: Slide from Julian Treasure's presentation

Improving your voice
It's not only what you say, but how you say it. Many of our conversations or presentations are not effective in part because of how we speak. That is, how we are using our voices. In this section Julian touches on a few tools that we can use to improve the sound of our voice so that our messages may become even that much stronger or clearer. Julian begins with register. Some people talk a bit through their nose. Most people are talking through their throats as they strain to be heard or be listened to. The key is to bring our register down a bit lower. "If you want weight, you need to go down here to the chest....We vote for politicians with lower voices, it's true, because we associate depth with power and with authority." Julian finishes by suggesting with use other speech tools such as, timbre (smooth, rich, and warm—like hot chocolate), prosody, pace (including silence), pitch, and volume. In the end Julian makes a good point that we need to warm up our voices before we step on the stage to make a speech or give a presentation.

The toolbox: Slide from Julian Treasure's presentation.

"We speak not very well into people who simply aren't listening in an environment that's all about noise and bad acoustics" Julian says in closing. But, he says, "what would the world be like if we were creating sound consciously and consuming sound consciously and designing all our environments consciously for sound? That would be a world that does sound beautiful, and one where understanding would be the norm...."
Using this video as a teaching tool
ClassI used this video in a 90-minute communications class at my university this week. First I have students (in groups) come up with their own list of "7 things you must avoid" when communicating effectively. I explain to students that this could apply to presentations or speeches, or even one-to-one conversations at work or with friends. Each group then writes their ideas on the whiteboard and we discuss as a class. Then I ask them to discuss what they think are the "foundations of good communication." In other words, what are 4-5 foundational elements that effective communication is built on. I draw a roof with four empty pillars on the whiteboard—each pillar represents a foundational element. Their ideas, I tell them, are what they think are the foundations of good communication. After some small group discussion they share their ideas again. About 40 minutes has passed by now. Then I tell them we are going to watch a 9-minute TED talk where a communication expert will outline "7 bad habits" or "7 deadly sins." Following this the speaker will name his ideas concerning the four foundational elements. At the very end the speaker will touch upon several key items concerning our voice with tips for improving how we can improve the sound of our voice. Julian does not go deep with any of the content in he video, but this is fine as the class does indeed go deeper with myself acting as facilitator.