Going Back to School to Learn to Communicate

Categorized as: on September 28, 2011.


Photograph courtesy of Lisette Verwoerd on Unsplash

Lessons on talking and not talking from the Stanford Nonprofit Management Institute

 by Suzanne Skees

As the autumn leaves unfurl their brilliant foliage and crisp days wane, I still get that urge to go back to school.  And here in Palo Alto, California, about 325 of us from 15 countries and 35 states are doing just that, this week at the Stanford Nonprofit Management Institute. It’s a mix of funders,  nonprofit directors, and fundraisers, drawn by the overall 2011 theme: partnering for impact. I’m eager to dig in to such session topics as emerging funding models, cross-sector impact measurement, and hybrid business models. My big surprise already?–none of these management tools will work unless, first, I learn how to talk.

Being a connector by nature and a writer by training, I bring equal parts communications services and financial grants to my work here at the Skees Family Foundation, based in northern California with partners in the U.S. and 28 developing countries. I consciously, constantly work on my interpersonal communications skills and nonprofit advocacy storytelling. I’ve hoped that all of these words of mine might matter. Uh, not so much.

“Can you guess what’s the #1 criticism of leaders?” asks Francis Flynn, professor of organizational behavior in the Stanford Graduate School of Business. On-screen flashes a photograph of a hippopotamus. “Many employees report that their managers suffer from this syndrome,” Flynn quips, “you know, little ears, really, really big mouth.”

Our challenge looms larger than just listening. Research indicates that, in fact, it does not ultimately matter what comes out of our mouths. Turns out, modeling behavior has far more impact than anything we say.

Kind of like with my kids: no one listens to the talk; they are simply watching the walk.

Moreover, Flynn says, modeling can be effective only when three factors converge:

  • is the modeling authentic or contrived?
  • is it observable or public, so that others can be aware of it?
  • is it routine, or does it happen just once?

Big and splashy shows do not work as well as routine, repeated behavior. Flynn gives an example of a CEO and CFO who drive 5 hours to a meeting instead of flying, eat burgers at A&W, and stay at a budget hotel, all to exemplify cost-saving to their company. It’s not credible because their hourly rates exceed the dollars saved on their road trip. It’s a grand gesture rather than a quiet, reliable pattern.

325 students sit upright as Flynn challenges us our manage our actions, not just our words. But he doesn’t leave us on mute; he walks us through how to communicate effectively when we do need to speak up.

“Provide compelling contrast rather than just trying to sell your viewpoint. Give a singular focus: this is rarely achieved. We usually think that if we can convey 5 data points, our presentation will be more valuable. However, the human brain (across intelligence levels) can only retain about 8 pieces of new data. You’re better off delivering just one message, with repetition across modalities.” Playing a 3-minute clip of Steve Jobs presenting a new iMac, Flynn shows how Jobs used visual graphs of byte speed, snarky comparison with the Compac Presario, drumroll escalating to a whir as 2 computer screens displayed a hovering moon on the Compac side and a flurry of high-speed flying tools on the iMac side.

“Give a choice between simplicity, which is irresistible, and complexity” (confusing). “Don’t just make a statement; demonstrate it; because again, we believe what we see, not what we hear.”

When it comes to managing our organizations–or trying to get people to adopt prosocial behavior–persuasion research indicates that “people are more likely to comply with requests if they are consistent with what similar others are doing.” Sitcoms use canned laughter to make solitary viewers more inclined to laugh; restaurants that “salt” their tip jars get bigger tips; and hotels launder fewer towels when their sign says “join our other guests who reuse their towels.”

“We are sheep;” Flynn laughs, “we are lemmings, to a much greater degree than we want to admit.”

Peer pressure can be utilized in two opposite directions. Besides the appeal of belonging to a group, we can also engage individual accountability. For example, when Flynn needed to collect evaluations from his team, he discovered that a group email reminder resulted in only 2 of 28 getting it done . . . But when he sent notes to individual inboxes, he got 100% response. Sometimes, what works is just to ask, 1:1, for a key person to take on a concrete task or role. It’s about simplicity, clarity, direct communication.

I realize the irony that I have just spent 800 words talking about how to stop talking and begin showing. As I drive back to my office, however, this communicator is pondering how to be a little less of a hippo.

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