Vanilla Ice on Effective Communication
Many people who have clear memories of the 90s still might not recall the name Robert Matthew Van Winkle. However, even those with foggy memories are sure to recall his stage name: Vanilla Ice. As I was contemplating some of the strategies that contributed to my own success, I recalled the sage advice offered by Vanilla Ice in his chart-topping hit, Ice Ice Baby:
All right stop, collaborate and listen
In those six words, Ice offers those born into a generation of ICQ, MSN, AOL, Facebook, SMS, iPhones, iPods, Blackberries, Twitter, Pounce, Blip.fm and YouTube helpful ideas on achieving success in the modern workforce:
In this article, I’m going to explore these ideas, and show you how you can put them to work. It might not make you a chart-topping superstar, but it will make you a more effective communicator and allow you to work more efficiently.
During the last decade, I’ve seen many new graduates join the workforce and attempt verbal communication using the same approach they use on SMS or IM. The problem is that when you’re presenting to people verbally, especially when you’re dealing with complex topics, you rarely benefit from the immediate two-way exchange provided by IM. Even if all the points might eventually coalesce into something of beauty, your audience will rarely indulge you. Jumping around like Clifford Stoll to provide tangentially related information can make your entire presentation seem both rushed and incoherent. So, take Ice’s advice and stop.
Ask yourself what it is that you really want to say, and then distill it until you arrive at several key points that you can cover at a more leisurely pace. Slowing down will make your audience more comfortable and will make your presentation more powerful. Nonetheless, as you strip out extraneous information from your discussion, don’t discard it. Set it aside in case anyone asks you to dig deeper into a particular point. You’ll have the benefit of a tersely cogent presentation and you’ll be equipped with the right information if anyone asks. When I’m going to present – even if it’s to a single person – I like to use a two-column layout to prepare for the discussion:
- Key Points
- Supporting Information
Listing key points helps me clarify what’s important and what is merely supporting detail. During the discussion, I generally cover what’s in the first column unless someone asks for additional information. If I’ve done my homework, I have the answer to their question at my fingertips. If not, I promise to get it and do so immediately following the meeting. To help solidify this concept, let’s assume I need to present a weekly status report about my project project and must explain why we’re going to fall behind schedule during the next month.
|Key Points||Supporting Information|
|Foo, the lead developer will be away for training next week||He’s going out of town. The project will not be charged for the training. He’ll be in the same time zone and will respond to email at noon and 6pm.|
|The training will help introduce more efficiency into the way defects are managed||The current defect management tool has capabilities that are not being used, and we would like to incorporate those practices into the development process. When Foo returns, he’ll provide training to other team members and share the training tools via the project wiki.|
|Because of Foo’s absence, we’ll have a schedule impact this week||N/A|
|During the next three weeks, new processes and tools will allow us to catch up.||Foo is the project architect, but at this stage in the project, the framework is built and people are busy working on their modules. Foo is primarily contributing as a developer, so his absence won’t be a bottleneck.|
|After five weeks, we’ll be back on track or ahead of schedule.||Catch up might happen sooner than five weeks, but could be stretched out to allow for some development of new team standards/process documentation that can be given to new members.|
You can use a similar conversation framework if you’ve identified a problem and seek approval to correct it. Since I generally advise people to avoid presenting problems without offering possible solutions, this scenario is a little more complex than merely conveying information. Nonetheless, you can still employ the column-based approach. Begin with the two-column layout to describe the problem.
- Central Problem
In the next section, list possible solutions along with the benefits and drawbacks in a three-column layout, making sure you identify your preferred solution.
- Potential Solution
Finally, conclude with a two-column layout that describes the next steps.
- Specific Actions/People Involved
Make sure your discussion wraps up with a specific request to put your plan into action – which takes us to Ice’s next piece of advice.
Outside the confines of small businesses, few things happen at the hands of a single person; there are always others who are responsible for part of the work, those who are held to account for the task’s completion, and still others who must be consulted before the decision is made or informed about progress. For small tasks, there may only be a couple of people who comprise the various roles, but on large projects, there are often dozens of people who play a greater or lesser role in moving things along. When working on large projects, many people resort to a [[wp>RACI diagram]] to make sure that all the appropriate people are included. As I’ve discussed before, consultants tend to use spreadsheets for everything, and making a RACI chart is no exception. On large projects, project management often becomes a project of its own (cf. the PMO of many large transformations) and as organizations experience natural attrition, keeping a current RACI chart often becomes a real burden.
When someone opens with wisdom like “All right stop, collaborate and listen”, you’d be forgiven for assuming that sage advice would end there. However, Ice doesn’t rest on his laurels. Just moments later, he offers further pearls. He rhymes:
Ice is back with my brand new invention
Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Flow like a harpoon daily and nightly
Will it ever stop yo I don’t know
Although he is alleged to have asked, “Will it ever stop, yo? I don’t know.” what he surely intended was, “Will it ever stop? Yo! Web 2.0.” It’s true. Ice invented Web 2.0 and what he offered was a series of tools that streamline collaboration and make it easier to ensure that all the people who are responsible and accountable for a task, don’t consult and inform others at the cost of making progress.
Instead of creating an Excel document which is emailed to a team (that ignores it along with their other 1,587 unread messages), it’s better to use an online spreadsheet that many people can update. Alternatively, using a wiki to maintain the RACI diagram will allow multiple editors, constant online access to current information and allow advanced users to subscribe to changes via RSS. Not only can the diagram be maintained in the wiki, but the wiki could also be used to document progress and decisions made. That way, those who need to be consulted would have an opportunity to offer input and those who merely need to stay informed would receive updates of significant decisions.
If you’d rather not use a wiki and want something more structured or purpose-built, there are many excellent project management tools that you can use instead. A couple of my favourites are FogBugz and BaseCamp, both of which are can be purchased on a hosted subscription basis. If you prefer a self-hosted solution, FogBugz is also available for installation on your own hardware. If you’d prefer an open-source package that you’ll self host, Trac and Bugzilla are excellent alternatives. Another great thing about both is that you can find them as pre-built virtual machines, so standing up a basic environment for a pilot will be a cinch.
Whichever option you select, with tools to help manage administrative tasks, those responsible and accountable for a task can devote more attention to moving things ahead.
Barack Obama touches on the themes of listening and collaboration in the speech he gave to a jubilant and tearful crowd following his election as the 44th president of the US:
There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
Effective collaboration requires us to listen to one another – especially when we disagree. Although listening is crucial to successful long term relationships, many people have not mastered this crucial skill. Partly, I suspect that it’s because many people love to tell their own story – and because consultants are paid for their advice, listening has paradoxically not always been their strong suit. I fell into this trap until an erstwhile girlfriend sat me down one day and said, “I think it’s time we have the conversation conversation.” I’m glad she did that; it’s made an incredible difference in almost all of my relationships, and certainly made me both a better romantic partner and more effective client advisor. So, even if you’re not a great listener, the good news is that it’s easy to improve. All you have to do to get started is to stop (thank you, Ice) talking and start embracing these tips:
- Eliminate distractions. This will be difficult for people who greet the SMS chirp of their phone with the fervor of Pavlov’s dog, but it spoils things and is really disruptive. So, pretend you’re on an airplane and switch off all electronic devices and move the discussion to a place where you’re not likely to be interrupted by other people.
- Try reflective listening. Periodically, summarize what you’re hearing to make sure that you understand what the other person is trying to convey. This approach often provides encouragement to your discussion partner and also makes sure that the topic is well understood by both people.
- Don’t interrupt with your views on the topic. This is the area where I often stumbled. When listening to something that I found exciting, I feel the urge to interject with related experiences. I felt like my input would act as encouragement to the other person. Instead, it often derailed the conversation and left the other person frustrated and less willing to share.
- Actually listen to what’s being said. Many people are tempted to latch on to a single point of the conversation and begin formulating a response to it. People cannot multi-task (trying having a telephone conversation wtih someone who is chatting on IM), so trying to formulate a response to someone else’s point means you’ll miss out on a lot of other things. The inclination to respond does help you remember things, but it comes at the cost of a lot of missed information. Instead, jot down small notes.
- Be patient. If someone is talking about a difficult topic, it will probably take them a while to sort out their own thoughts and feel confident enough to share. The process of asking exploratory questions (one that don’t prompt simple yes/no responses) and periodic summarizing helps with this. If you need to see some examples, tune in to an episode of In Treatment or the Sopraons and watch how Paul interacts with his patients or how Dr. Melfi engages Tony.
- Practice mirroring. Just as summarizing the discussion provides encouragement and helps ensure a shared understanding, mirroring their body language will increase their sense of comfort with the situation. If they’re leaning forward, do the same. You’re not trying to duplicate their actions, but leaning in suggests a desire to share and you can indicate similar desires by doing the same. You are basically trying to have the other person believe that you’re like them and are interested in what they have to say. However, it has to be genuine otherwise it can feel manipulative and creepy.
- Don’t be quick to offer solutions. When someone is explaining a problem, they don’t always want a solution. Unless they specifically ask for your input, don’t offer it. Instead, ask questions that help the other person arrive at a solution themselves. One thing I’ve heard many times is that a consultant is someone who uses a client’s watch to tell them the time. Although it’s meant to be pejorative, that, too, has an element of truth. Instead of walking in and dispensing advice, I found that better solutions were arrived at when I offered clients information about how leading organizations in the same industry have addressed similar problems, and then helped them work through the data to arrive at a solution that suited them – after all, they generally know far more about their business than an outsider.
If you follow Ice’s tips to stop, collaborate and listen, you’ll be more successful in your job and in your personal relationships. Try to put them into practice and see how others react. If you have tips to share, drop me a note and I’ll add them to this article.