I have been working on my new talk. Its working title is, The Three Biggest Mistakes Business Leaders Make with Communication and how they cost Millions.

I talk not only about the cost of ‘monetary millions’, but also the cost of millions of squandered ideas, conversations, relationships, opportunities and goodwill. I also talk about the upsides; the benefits of working the solutions – the antidotes – listed below.

The three biggest mistakes I discuss are:
1. Denial – we deny that things are, or could be, as bad as we know they are. The antidote is curiosity
2. Selfishness – we lose perspective and focus only on ourselves. The antidote is connection
3. Fear – we worry about the consequences and so we don’t act. The antidote is courage.

Here’s an example, which comes from my book, The Art of Courage, about a guy I met called Bruce. You’ll be able to see all of the above playing out:

I found Bruce really annoying. He was one of the people I met when I went to the local offices of an international sportswear manufacturer. A friend, John, who is a senior sales manager at the company, had arranged that I would gate-crash their office. John was the only one who was expecting me.

I burst into the room to find a group of around 10 people sitting around having a meeting. “Excuse me, guys,” I said, walking to the front of the room. I glimpsed John suppressing a smile. “Excuse me, can I help you?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “I just need two minutes of your time. I promise you, you won’t regret it. I want to speak to you about the most important of all virtues, that of courage. It is not religious, I am not a nut, there is no catch and I think you will find it pretty interesting and useful.”

He feigned an irritated frown, then nodded for me to continue. I delivered my talk to an enthusiastic reception. The team was intrigued by my message and they asked many questions. How do you do it? Aren’t you scared you’ll be beaten up? How does this apply to sales? How can I get over the fear of cold calling? They all engaged positively, except Bruce.

He was dismissive; he seemed to have an answer for everything, and had done it all before, bigger, better and faster than everyone else. “Do you have any fears, Bruce?” I asked. He shook his head – smugly. “Nope.” I asked John about Bruce afterwards and it turned out he was in fact struggling, both at work and in his personal life. It seemed all that bravado was a façade. I felt for Bruce when I heard his real story. I imagine he was trying to compensate for the challenges he was facing by putting on a confident front. Unfortunately, he was doing himself a disservice as he came across as plain arrogant, and he wasn’t endearing himself to his colleagues and customers.

When I left that office I felt certain my talk had been of little value to Bruce, so I was shocked when John told me a few weeks later how well Bruce was doing. It seemed Bruce had been listening to my talk after all. After that meeting he got on the phone and made a call he’d been putting off for weeks.

John’s excitement was palpable. “You should have seen him, man. He was pumped when he made that call. He asked all the right questions and he listened. And he did the final tough bit with ease.” “What was that?” I asked. “He asked for the sale,” John said.

Bruce closed the deal there and then, and his performance had continued to improve steadily.

Wikipedia defines communication as: To transmit information, thought or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood.

Either communication is delivered satisfactorily, or it is not. When it is not, it’s almost certainly a function of the above three mistakes – we either go into denial, become selfish or become fearful.

When things are clearly communicated, it helps on every level, even if the outcome is a bad one. At least then, we can do something about it. When things are not communicated – and for as long as they stay not communicated – things get worse and worse.

Did you ever see the movie, Sliding Doors? When Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a London ad executive, is fired from her job and rushes out to catch a train, two scenarios take place. In one, she gets on the train and comes home to find her boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch), in bed with another woman. In the second, she misses the train and arrives after the woman has left. In the first scenario, Helen dumps Gerry, finds a new man and gradually improves her life. In the second, she becomes suspicious of Gerry’s fidelity and grows miserable, but she fails to talk about it, being caught in the impact of not communicating, of being in denial and being fearful particularly.

Often though, we think we have got our message across, but in fact we haven’t (more denial?)

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

To illustrate what I mean, get out a pen and paper and do this:

  1. Draw a simple house, the kind you did when you were about six or seven. You know the kind that has a triangular roof and windows and a door.
  2. Do that now….
  3. When you have done it, scroll down and look at my version, below:







Are they the same? Roughly, maybe. Exactly? No. Because I was not explicit, you got what I said, not what I meant to say.

If I had said to you, “draw a triangular roof, on a square house with four square windows and a rectangular door,” we would have been much closer and the job would have been done, fairly impeccably, yes? This happens all-the-time, doesn’t it? We have an intention to communicate something and the other person received something else. I was first shown this by Maryse Barak, thanks Maryse! I added the smiley face for fun.

We make assumptions: that the other person knows what we mean, that we don’t want to patronise them by appearing to dumb it down and insult their intelligence. The result? We screw it up by not delivering, clearly and succinctly what it is we are trying to convey.

As a result, depending on the context, opportunities, relationships, money, ideas, and even life, gets lost, for example, in the sinking of the Titanic.

How many factors went wrong that lead to the sinking, and how many do you think were a function of denial, selfishness or fear? This article outlines the 10 series of events that lead to the sinking. It was a ‘perfect storm.’ Planes don’t ‘just fall out of the sky’, or marriages just fall apart.

There is always a whole chain of events, mostly around failed and inaccurate communication.

Next time you communicate something try the following:

  1. Be very explicit: Tell the person you are going to risk being really deliberate and it’s because you want to be really clear
  2. Tell them in vivid detail, like you were explaining it to foreigner who doesn’t understand your language very well
  3. Then ask them to repeat back what you have told them
  4. Notice what happens. Above all, take-your-time.
    Here is my picture. (Okay, the smiley face was just me having some fun and definitely not part of the brief!)

Finally consider, when communicating, that you are explaining the concept you are about to share with your 5 year old child or your 85 year old grandmother.

If they are both unlikely to get it, you should probably reconsider and go back to basics!

What do you think? Comments? Opinions? Agree? Disagree?

All the best,