The 3 Communication Pitfalls for Technical Experts

hidingbehindscreenSome time ago, I walked into a client’s office to ask who the new CTO was:  all I could see was the top of his head behind the barricade of 2 massive computer screens.

Was he expecting a volley of fire from enemy territory or did I catch him in a game of hide and seek?

Whatever the reasons for his visual masking, one of the Directors seemed a bit concerned:  how’s he going to forge links with other departments and sell up services?  We only see him between the cracks of his fortress.

The new CTO seemed to be under the impression that for anything more than a face to half-face meeting, an email would suffice: a clear example of the challenges with which technical experts struggle, when they suddenly need to manage people, push strategy and develop business links.

Here are some of the 3 main obstacles these specialists need to overcome:


Over reliance on email

Sitting behind a screen shooting off emails or slugging through reports can have a pay off: firstly you don’t have to get up,  except for coffee,  the phone or the loo and secondly,  you are protected from the vagaries of pesky humans.

Unfortunately,  you can’t use an instruction manual to help you navigate their utter unpredicted lack of perceived rationale,  the proof of which lies in that email you’re replying to now.  You know as you press ‘send’  it’s like throwing a missile but sod it.  A point has to be made and you’ll be making it.

Unfortunately,  that email is not really a missile but a leaky boat –  and you’re both in it.

The best way to really ‘get’ what someone’s intention is by seeing them.  So if you want to get through those choppy little waves,  you better row yourself over to their desk and save yourself a mauling by a shark later on.


Too much detail

That PowerPoint with the 70 slides,  accompanied by aerial and close up photos of the processor you’re proud of is going to bore the pants off commercial when they see it.

They know you know your stuff, they just don’t know how it’ll affect them.  To know how much to tell them seems like a telepathic skills. However, all that’s necessary is that you find out what their problem is and how you can be the solution.  To do that,  ask and the way will be obvious.


Not communicating the bigger picture

Having mixed commercial and technical teams in workshops is always an eye opener: they realise that they’ve been working with only half a map in front of them.   Neither has the full picture and both realise how much they benefit from the missing half.

Management don’t communicate the bigger picture to tech teams: they think it either doesn’t concern them or they don’t care to know.   So,  technical teams need to be more proactive.   Ask questions such as:

  1. How does this affect the business in the long run?
  2. What difference will it make to you when this is completed?
  3. What’s  the rationale for this?

The last question could be replaced by ‘Why? But that could provoke a defensive reaction,  especially in email.

The developers and coders need this information – and want it – so it’s important to ensure that the context is filtered through the teams.

Once this information is clear,  tell everyone –  not just the decision makers.   Knowing why we do what we do and what difference it can make,  means teams can be more proactive and driven.


What other specific communication challenges do you think technical experts have?

Let me know right here…

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Give them a Wallop!

Sock it to them!

Sock it to them!

Getting cut short in your prime

You get in front of senior management, having prepared your 30 minute presentation, having practised your body language, eye contact and tricks to engage the audience.  You’re ready to go: all psyched up and beating with adrenalin.

OK.  That’s what you imagined.  One participant on my 2-day Knock Out Presentations course asked:

“What happens once in the Board Room when they’re running late, like they always do.  You’re 10 minutes from the end of the meeting and you’re asked to spit out your message there and then”

Here’s what you can do:

  • Tell them exactly what you want – but without the rationale you’re more likely to get refused;
  • Whizz through your slides, talking twice as fast.  You’ll sound like Mickey Mouse on amphetamines and they’ll take in nothing.
  • Chuck your handouts across the table – if you’re lucky they’ll go through them before forgetting about the contents. The worst scenario is that the pages will be made into paper planes flying towards the recycling bin.


Walloping the Board when you’ve little time

Instead, try this technique, ‘The Wallop, Down, Up, Please’ approach. Before I explain, I would love to take the credit for this but must, reluctantly, give this to Andy Bounds author of the ‘Snowball Effect, Communication Techniques to Make You Unstoppable’. My pride is dented but I hope to get Karma points for not saying it’s my own original invention…

Here we go:

1. Wallop – Give the impact of the situation, usually negative. This hits the ‘pain’ button, telling the audience the impact of not doing something;

2. Down – Make the situation worse (“And, as a result, this will also happen…”);

3. Up – Give the alternative that improves the situation;

4. Please – Now make your request



And an example:

1. Wallop – We’re spending £230,000 per month on X

2. Down – Even worse, the number will increase over the next couple of months. Projected needless waste will cost £2.8 million this year. This will increase to over £5.6 million in the next couple of years.

3. Up – We can reduce these costs by over 75% – that’s a potential saving of over £4 million – by implementing x (Spend 2-3 minutes explaining your proposal, using ‘What, Where, When, How)

4. Please – Given that successful implementation could deliver £4 million of savings, please can I ask you to Action X?


(Thanks, Andy, for your example. You may nick my model below for your next book).
A similar model is the PROEP, so you’ve got two tools you can use when they say “Sorry, but could you just give us a quick overview. We’ve run out of time.”

You can find the PROEP structure here.

What do you do when you need to get your point across quickly?

Got a request you want to wedge into this structure?

Let me know in the comments!

Breaking the Email Backlash

emailPeople do all sorts of things that can p!ss you off in emails, such as:

  • getting stroppy and obstructive;
  • being patronising and bossy;
  • ignoring you;
  • making trouble by copying in more people than necessary.

Here’s what to do:

Click here for an edited version of my workshop booklet, Breaking the Email Backlash.

The workshop you need to pay for as it’s hands on, personalised and face to face.  The download, though, is free.

Then, either pass this around through, say, HR, or use this email download as a signature for your own emails, thereby politely encouraging your recipients to polish up on their written communication skills.

Job done. Peace will reign.

Download here to get it immediately.

2 quick tips for productive meetings

Only too often, we sit in meetings, bored to tears by the tangential conversation, the conversation hoggers and the lack of relevance to the agreed agenda.

I’ve put together two magic tips you can use in your next meetings to save your time, increase engagement and maximise productivity.

547 confusing graphs – yippee!

graphThe Devil’s in the Detail

It’s so easy to get trapped in the detail when that’s how you earn your money.  So when presenting to an audience, whether you’re an entrepreneur, a financial analyst, engineer or consultant, PowerPoint can easily become an onslaught of bullet points, dry data and confusing graphs: all qualities that muddy your message.


When a picture says a thousands words – or numbers

Research has shown that ideas are much more likely to be remembered if they are presented as pictures instead of words or pictures paired with words.

Psychologists call this the Picture Superiority Effect (PSE), the point of which is thus:


If information is presented orally, people remember about 10% of the content 72 hours later. That figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture.


Visuals that work

A picture saves a thousand words:


Suzanne, the IT Director of a national retail organisation, knew her audience of in Marketing and Business Development where going to be challenging.  She flashed up her slide of huge white rhino.


“So often,” she began, “The IT department are seen like this rhino:  thick-skinned, short-sighted and charging all the time.”.

A barrage of data versus one point

If you’re presenting to those dealing with data every day, seeing more of it in a presentation, can give that audience sort of  data death.  If you’re not there to persuade your audience to act on something, then it’s a report, not a presentation.  Your audience want to see the key message, the one point.

One utilities company that I was training, needed to do a presentation to their investors.  Their point: invest in us: we’re on the up, and you’ll see returns, guarded against risk.

It was a team ‘performance’ to a very financially astute crowd.  They had this brilliantly colourful slide of a ship and lifeboats, a dynamic cartoon, which was a great metaphor for the way they were operating.

We crafted a message around this picture that had such an impact on the audience, that the share prices shot up (so it wasn’t a picture of the Titanic, that’s for sure).

Numbers were mentioned in a way they got remembered but there wasn’t a bar graph or pie chart in sight and the investors loved the refreshing and memorable way this team conveyed a message clearly, with humour and the evidence to prove their success.

There’s nothing to prove so put it away!

If you feel that you need to put so much data on your slides, ask yourself if there’s perhaps a little urge to prove that you’ve done your homework as an analyst/number cruncher?

By shoving so much detail in your audience’s face, they are not only more likely to forget what you’re talking about but why.  The information you give to your audience needs to make a difference to the world in which they function.

If people want more detail, wave your report at them, but don’t give it out until the end.  That way, they’ll know you’ve done your homework, and that they can get to the nitty gritty when they want, but you won’t be hearing the rustling of pages while you present your message.

When you give the facts that your audiences need to make the changes that will impact their world, you’ll be seen as an expert and a trusted advisor.


What’s the best use of visuals you’ve seen?  Comment below and we’ll swop tips!

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How to Pitch in the Middle East

Here’s a short video I’ve put together to give you:

5 Top Tips to Win Pitches in the Middle East

…after a client of mine was struggling to win business in Abu Dhabi.

Tip no. 4 came as a shock to him:  I might as well have said, “Richard (not his real name!), take your head off and throw it down the drain.”  However, he adapted and…well, you’ll hear what happened.

So ‘Hadi!’, ‘Yellah!’, Let’s go!

See you in the comments…

Twelve Tips for Terrible Teams

I’ve put together for you Twelve Tips on How to Create Terrible Teams.  For those of you who think that I regard dysfunctional, non-productive teams as a a benefit to an organisation, I have to emphasise that the article is ironic: it’s the ‘how not to’ school of learning.  Obviously, for terrific teams, just reverse my ‘advice’.

It’s the small actions that go a long way and as you read ahead, you’ll realise how little you have to do to make Teams that Tick, not crumble.

1. When appearing in meetings, never look interested: check your mobile messages and emails. There are two reasons for this: a) the meeting will simply drag on if you show interest; b) you are signalling to those present that you are part of a big, wide world that cannot simply stop just because they believe they need your time.

2. We understand how difficult it is to motivate teams. So why bother? Harbour the belief that everyone has only one driver: money. If an individual feels burdened and unappreciated, pay them more. However, don’t say ‘thank you’ or redelegate work. It takes too much effort.

3. Avoid conversations about career paths. The next thing you know is that you’ll have some incompetent individual wanting to know why they’re not CEO within 6 months.

4. Don’t delegate. You need to take full credit for everything. However, when it all goes wrong (and it will if you’re trying to do everything), then….

5. remember.. it’s not your fault! There’s a group of individuals who are there to make you look good, and if they’re not, they should be on the end of your foot.

6. If those who are promoted have a skills gap, then why did you promote them in the first place? Some Managers and HR Executives believe training is the answer. That takes time and money. At the most, buy them a self-help book and a couple of videos.

7. Forget this post-modern bilge of knowledge sharing, in the form of pods, lunchtime seminars or mentoring. Recognising the skills and experience of your teams will engender pomposity and you don’t need that on your plate. More to the point, if they demonstrate that they may know more than you about something, what’ll happen to your job?

8. Ensure that you ignore all emails from your staff. You are too important to deal with trivialities from the little people. Also, it breeds co-dependency.

9. We live in a fast moving world, where appearance matters. Put these two together and what we’re asking of the successful workforce is that they are seen to be working late. If you can’t balance work and private life, then buddy, one of them will have to go.

10. Reward yourself: in front of your team. By displaying your achievements, you will increase the likelihood that they will respect you. If they don’t respect you, at least they will know who’s boss, which is still pretty good going.

11. Constantly postpone appraisal dates. If they’re doing well, you’ll only have to reward your staff and that creates chaos and cost.

12. Set unreachable goals. Everyone needs something to strive for: keeps them on their toes

Let me know what YOU think are the three most important actions a manager can take to keep a team performing well.

When Advice is Not the Answer

Don't give me your advice!

Don’t give me your advice!

A woman and man are talking after work. She complains about day, he gives advice and she gets angry, exclaiming that he’s not listening or doesn’t understand her.

Men are left bewildered, “Well why talk about a problem if you don’t want my advice?”

Now, here’s the secret code of conduct:

Women know how to deal with the problem, most of the time. That’s not why they’re talking – it’s just to emotionally let off steam.

Cutting in with advice may be repelled as it seems patronising, unless you show understanding before you do.

Having said this, I cut in on the complaining with a range of males  by proffering (unasked for) advice.

My extensive research yielded anger and frustration in 95% of cases.

The others don’t count as they never listen anyway. So there we are. It’s not just a man/woman thing. It’s more general than that.

So I switched to empathy and one of either two outcomes occurred:

  1. my research subjects changed the subject.  I even shut a barrister up.  Amazing.
  2. if empathy didn’t stop the conversation, it continued it.  When that happens, read on…

How to give advice

Ask – permission “May I suggest something?”
Tell – give the advice
Ask – approval “Is that helpful?”, “Is there anything in there, that you can use?”

You can also use stories so the conversation will look like this:

  • Ask

“Can I tell you about something that happened to…You may relate to this…”

note: you’re not assuming that the story is anything like their situation and you’re covering yourself.  It’s like those situations when people say ‘The exact same thing happened to me!’ and then they tell as tale that bears no relation to your own experience.

  • Tell – story
  • Ask – as before.

How would you apply this advice (!) specifically to your client and colleague relationships?


Sticking Your O.A.R.S. In

A gentle steering vs. a harsh kicking


Trenton Oldfield, the protestor who jumped into the River Thames disrupting the annual Oxford/Cambridge race in 2012, must have been extremely grateful for the skillful steering of the boat and the beady eye of the cox, that helped him to maintain his head, even though his brains had obviously sunk somewhere deep into the River Thames. 

This clever negotiation of obstacles appears in Motivational Interviewing, which is based on the skill of using O.A.R.S.,  that look slightly different to the ones that negotiated their way around Trenton’s head.  O.A.R.S. stand for:

Open Questions, Affirmative Responses, Reflective Listening and Summarising.

Motivational Interviewing (M.I.) is not so much a zip in a power boat but more a gentle steering to get someone to change their behaviour, or as, in Trenton’s case, keep his head.

There are times are times when a sharper kick may be called for as in a ship-building yard for an oil company: “Get your hard hat on!” is best delivered as a curt reminder than woven into a half-hour feedback session.

Getting a colleague to be more ‘team spirited’ may need a lighter hand. More recently, I was told to help a director in IT consultancy to be more available to his staff. Tricky business, commanding people when you have to keep rapport, so here are the fundamentals of M.I., a management skill that can help you gently transform behaviour.

Note that the elements that make up M.I. can be used in any order.

The Elements of Motivational Interviewing (M.I.)

Open Questions

Closed questions can be useful and open ones, which provoke answers fuller than one word responses, build momentum and help to explore change more fully.  For example, ‘Do you feel you deserve the promotion?’, will provoke a different level of answer than ‘What makes you feel that it’s time for a new role?’


  • Uncovers hidden agendas
  • Discloses blocks

Examples of Open Questions:

  1. What’s been happening since we last met?
  2. ‘What triggered this meeting today?
  3. How can you help yourself with…?

Affirming Responses

These are statements and gestures that recognize a person’s strengths and acknowledge the desired behaviours or moves towards those behaviours, no matter how big or small.  By emphasising the positive attributes, you build up the individual’s confidence to change.

Advantages of Affirming Responses:

  • Affirming Responses can help build trust. If you are trusted, you are more likely to get to the bottom of issues and tackle the oft-underlying issues that lurk between the surface and are the foundation for the ‘stated’ reasons.
  • Such responses can make are encouraging and show recognition of a person and their abilities and/or efforts. If you’re trying to change behaviour.
  • The use of ‘Affirming Responses’, will be more likely to create that transformation.

Examples of Affirming Responses are:

  1. You’ve clearly made a lot of effort.
  2. I appreciate you were willing to share that with us.
  3. If I were in your shoes, I don’t know if I could have managed nearly so well.
  4. You’ve tried very hard to make things happen.
  5. I’m really impressed by the way….

Reflective Listening

At its simplest, Reflective Listening simply means repeating key points or phrases.  You may think that parrotting back what’s just been said could sound a bit moronic but, unless you overuse this method, it will rarely seem so because it prompts the speaker to either reconsider what they’ve just said or elaborate on it.

Rephrasing, paraphrasing and reflecting back feeling, are also forms of Reflective Listening.

Advantages of Reflective Listening:

  • Builds up empathy in the conversation by showing understanding
  • Ensures you don’t react to something that you’ve misinterpreted but getting clarification
  • By demonstrating recognition of the current situation, you’ll be helping the other to commit to change.

Examples of Reflective Listening are:

  1. So you feel…
  2. It sounds like you…
  3. That must be…/What a….!

Summary Statements

You reinforce what has been said, and prepare the conversation to move on to another subject.

Advantages of Summary Statements:

  • Verify your facts or get agreement to action.

Examples of Summary Statements:

  1. This is what I’ve heard. Tell me if I’ve missed anything.
  2. So if we look back at what’s been happening so far, would it be fair to say…
  3. You mentioned…and how…have I got this right?

Sealing the Commitment to Change

The statements below are examples of ‘change talk’, where the person knows that a change is necesssary:

  • It can’t go on like this.
  • I wish things were different.
  • I really need to look at how we’re going to reach those targets.

If you hear this kind of talk you can use:

Methods for Evoking Change Talk:

* Asking evocative questions
“What worries you about your current situation?”

* Using the importance ruler (also use regarding client’s confidence to change)
“On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is unimportant and 10 extremely, how important would you say it is for you to_____?

* Exploring the decisional balance
“What do you like about your present pattern?” “What concerns you about it?”

* Elaborating
“What else?” Ask for clarification, an example, or to describe the last time this occurred.

* Questioning extremes
“What concerns you most about? What are the best results you could imagine if you made a

* Looking back
What were things like before?”

* Looking forward
How could you improve the way things are?

* Exploring goals and values
“What things are most important to you?”

Ultimately, instead of going in for the kill with advice, or threats (thinking of an ex-boss here!), the other person will have been directed to ‘own’ their solution. We’re more likely to change if see, feel and state that need rather than if someone tells us. Encouraging that dynamic, can be draining for managers: it sets up the interaction of disciplinary parent to their naughty child. Put the time in on your O.A.R.S. for the boat to gain it’s own momentum and allow you to get on with other things.


Kicking Open the Door

Dealing with Objections

doorWhat happens when someone raises an objection and you know there’s a way round it…if only you knew those magic tactics to turn a ‘no’ or ‘not interested’ into at least a ‘you’ve got something there: let’s talk’, or even a ‘yes’.

The Pause-Align-Deflect technique was just one of a bundle that I gave to client who need to know how to handle objections.

This technique comes in three stages:

1. Pause

Why? Because it gives you time to think. If you’re given an objection such as ‘We don’t have enough money for your service’ and then dive in, you may sound a bit desperate. You need to be regarded as a solution finder to your potential customer’s problem.

2. Align

This is where you agree with the gist of a statement, rather than the content. So in the example above you’d be asking something like ‘It’s important that you allocate money to your priorities, isn’t it?’. They’ll nod in agreement, which opens the door for you to…

3. Deflect

This is usually in the form of a question and will help you keep the door open with your clients e.g. ‘What are your priorities at the moment then?’ You may find that you can help them with those priorities! Alternatively, you maybe able to indirectly do so by referring a contact. This will gain trust and a sense of partnership so that you’ll be near the top of the list when they do need you.

Here are a few more examples that could be just a relevant to professional services as charities:

Client: “Your company’s too big”
You: “Receiving the proper attention and care is important.”
Deflect with a question:
You: “So what do you look for in a relationship? What are your expectations?”

Client: You’re no different from anyone else!
You: It’s a minefield selecting a xxxxxx, isn’t it, especially with so many in this area. Can you talk me through your selection process?

Client: I’m not actually sure we need your product.
You: It’s really vital that you select the right resources when you’re growing. What are the main areas of your service you’d like to develop.

Client: Our budget has been cut.
You: Allocating funds to the right product is vital now. Where are your priorities at the moment?
Client: That won’t be a solution.
You: We don’t want to waste time and effort on something that won’t work. What would we need to do to make it work?

You may find that the your client/potential client isn’t ready to bite yet, for example in the last dialogue.
However, your question can perhaps uncover opportunities thay you haven’t yet considered or give you an idea of when the time is right.

What you might realise as you read this is just how applicable this technique is to discussing next steps, performance appraisals, brainstorming and more. You can deal with disagreement and keep the door open to solutions.


What specific objections do you find it difficult dealing with?  Let me know below and I’ll see if I can help you