A wise old man—the grandfather of a friend of mine—once told me he always marveled at the fact that two strangers could address each other from across a crowded street and make noises in such a manner that they could understand each other.
He was marveling at the wonder of human language. I have done the same many a time—but I’ve just as often marveled at the spectacle of so many of us in business wasting this magnificent gift.
I believe the ability to communicate effectively is perhaps the most accessible and powerful competitive advantage an entrepreneur can bring to the table. I stress this to my students at Columbia Business School and to all entrepreneurs I mentor. Poor communication only hinders you from becoming successful. I wrote about this recently for OPEN Forum in the context of co-founder disputes.
So, let me begin with a few recent examples of communication breakdown, where a lack of clarity leads to massive misunderstandings and a huge waste of time:
- A friend who is a fledgling entrepreneur in a new-ish mentorship program was recently introduced by the managers of that program to an investor he thought was a mentor in the program. The meeting was a disaster. At the end of the meeting, he learned that the investor thought he was being pitched on the business, whereas my friend was opening up about the business and its issues to someone he thought was there to help him. Problem: Neither the program nor the mentee knew their audience.
- Another first-time entrepreneur was told by a large tech company’s “acceleration program” that he was probably going to be accepted. He knew this could be huge for his business—including possible integration with the larger company’s product. He worked for months tailoring his product to theirs. Recently, in a conversation with the large tech company, they told him that the program really hasn’t started yet and is more “conceptual” than anything else right now. Problem: There was no mutuality. The big company's casual comment was taken as gospel by the entrepreneur.
- I’ve seen countless entrepreneurs defeat themselves in the way they describe their business to others. They can’t capture the essence of their business for other people and keep butchering the pitch with heavy jargon, minutiae and blather. Problem: Lack of clarity. If you can't explain your business with crystal clarity, no one will.
There are many elements to communicating effectively, of course, but understanding these five items is critical. All of them are important, but I would say clarity is the most important of all and you should start there. If people can’t understand exactly what you mean, all is lost.
- Listening: Speaking well is largely due to being a good listener and understanding what people are saying. It’s about not talking “at” them, but “with” them.
- Insight/Understanding: How well do you know your audience? Are they in your industry, in your peer group or outside of it, foreign, local, elderly, young? Would you talk to non-native English speakers the same way you’d talk to your closest friends?
- Context: Do you understand their reason for including you in the conversation? Where are you and what’s the occasion?
- Attention/Mutuality: Are they truly interested in your conversation or are they politely trying to get away?
- Clarity: Remove ambiguity and articulate your points clearly. Be aware of how they might misinterpret you or vice versa. At the end of the conversation, summarize what you spoke about to make sure you’re all on the same page.
Think about some of the great communicators of our time. For me, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffet come to mind, and each has his own distinctive style. If you think about the great communicators in your life, I bet you’ll see a pattern of success. So what are the keys to learning how to communicate clearly?
- Start at home. If you’re not a great communicator and want to get better, start at home with your significant other. Tell them that you want to be a better communicator and then be super-conscious of your approach. Are you listening well? Are there still misunderstandings or are you having excellent mutual dialogue? Don’t stop until the latter is second nature to you.
- Practice. No one was born a great orator—it takes hours and hours of practice. Have your pitch down cold, practice in front of a mirror, a video camera, or your family until it’s second nature to you. Watch your favorite speakers on interview shows or giving speeches on YouTube and study their manner and delivery. Emulate them in your own style.
- Decide to become great. If you know this is a weakness of yours, don’t shun speaking opportunities. Put this at the top of your agenda and decide that you will become great. Grab every speaking opportunity you can possibly get and practice to make sure you do well and get those repetitions in.
If you work at it, I’m certain you’ll see a big difference whether you’re in meetings, giving speeches, talking to employees and colleagues, selling your product or pitching investors. Make it happen. Being a great communicator is your biggest competitive advantage.
Dave Lerner is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor and host of Venture Studio. He's also Director of Entrepreneurship at Columbia University and is a Professor at Columbia Business School where he teaches Launching New Ventures.
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