I ‘discovered’ it by chance – the one question that significantly elevates my communication skills.
It will also transform your delivery if you use it strategically.
Now, as a communications trainer I get variations of the following concerns:
- I’m an introvert. How can I speak so people will listen?
- How do I give a killer presentation?
- How do I speak confidently in front of a high-profile audience (of bosses/supervisors/board members, etc.)?
- How do I write sharp reports/business plans?
Such questions are valid. And the fact that you have them means that you know what’s at stake, and why you should take your communication seriously.
But here’s the thing:
Those worries are rooted in a fear of criticism and failure. This dread causes you to fret about being considered weak, not knowledgeable, or unprofessional. So you obsess about how your boss/CEO/audience/potential investor etc. will perceive you.
Then when you add the issue of the Impostor Syndrome—that feeling that you don’t belong in your field, or that you don’t deserve your present designation/accomplishments, and would soon be ousted as a fraud—your tale of woes is complete.
We’ve all been there.
Fortunately, there’s a solution, which I realised by chance when preparing the outline for an important report. And that remedy is to ask yourself the foundational question:
If I were a member of the audience or the recipient, what is the critical information I need to know?
(This will help me make a decision, approve a process or take an action.)
So what is the critical—and not good-to-know—data that will drive action?
And that’s it.
By asking yourself the foundational question, you ensure that relevance of your content to the audience/recipient is the basis of your communication. Therefore, plan your content with that question in mind. Then practise that speech, prepare for that presentation, write that email, or pen that business plan after you answer that question.
Below are practical scenarios where you can use the foundational question to craft your content.
You’re the marketing manager for data in a telecoms company, and you’ve been instructed to deliver a presentation to the management board. You’re expected to make a case for increased funding of your social media marketing activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the pandemic was an unforeseen event, there has been no precedent to learn from.
By asking yourself the foundational question, you’d zero in on the most salient aspects to prioritise in your presentation. Your outline might cover the following steps:
a) Begin with a strong statement
Highlight the successful social media campaign from your company’s main competitor. The rival secured celebrity brand ambassadors to drive awareness of its products and increased sales. State categorically that your company must adopt the same strategy to boost its revenue.
b) List increased accommodation costs that warrant extra funds
Stress that some key staff need to be lodged in nearby hotels during the lockdown.
c) Explain the tangible benefits of your social media initiatives
Inform the audience that subscriber sign-ups have doubled, thereby leading to increased sale of recharge cards.
d) Note the intangible benefits
Describe the benefits derived, such as heightened brand awareness, more referrals, and increased goodwill from the public.
e) End with a request for the management to increase funding
Reiterate your clear call-to-action: the need for the management’s increased funding of your social media marketing activities.
To strengthen your delivery, also adhere to best practices for good presentations. For example, use engaging nonverbal cues such as ‘open’ gestures; vary your tone; make steady eye contact; ensure fewer words on slides (and more visuals), and focus on the audience (and not your slides).
With the insight gained from answering the foundational question, you’d make a positive impact with your delivery that will lead to the resources you need.
You’re the new sales manager of a beloved consumer foods brand in your location. Your boss, the regional sales director, has told you to write a quarterly sales report. This is your first report since you joined the company.
Before you write a single line, have a conversation where possible with your boss to find out important aspects to incorporate in your report. Keep your questioning brief, and ask specifically about the important elements to cover. If your boss is unavailable, seek advice from people who have written similar reports, or use existing templates that you can then tweak. If all else fails, simply proceed to the list elements you consider important.
When you’ve written your important points (or received suggestions from your boss/other sources), ask yourself the foundational question, then whittle down your options.
What you’ll end up with is a sharp, tight outline that will address the points below:
i) Executive summary: A one-page overview of the report and what it would highlight.
ii) Current state of sales: Results measured against targets.
iii) Projected growth for subsequent quarters
iv) Problems encountered and solutions given
v) Call-to-action or recommendation on the way forward
Other considerations to note in your report are:
a) How you format your content to ensure reading ease by using sub-headings, bullet points, visuals, etc.
b) How you structure your sentences to encourage retention. Preferably limit your sentences to 20 words and ensure your paragraphs don’t exceed five sentences.
Your foundational question will compel you to elevate the WIIFM (what’s-in-it-for-me) angle of your audience. This will make your piece relevant and will address their needs. As a result, your report will trigger (some of) the actions you advocate for.
So, instead of worrying about how (unfairly) you’d be judged by your audience when you communicate, concentrate on how to help them. Offer the most value by using the foundational question to frame your content. This tactic will amplify your confidence and free you to become exceptional in your delivery.
The foundational question may be tweaked slightly but it should always guarantee that relevance is the heart of your content.
Test it for every speaking stint or writing activity where you’d need to make an impact. Then watch how your astonished audiences willingly offer their support.
And when they ask you for your secret, be generous – share this technique freely.
Over to you:
Do you need help in boosting your communication skills? Sign up here for my free quarterly newsletters and learn best practices. When you sign up, you’ll receive my evergreen resource on giving persuasive presentations. Ensure you download that document and refer to it before any high-stakes presentation or speech.
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N.B: First image is courtesyof Arek Socha via Pixabay. Second and third images are courtesy of Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.