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Authenticity

5 Ways to Cut Through the Clutter

 

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

And that’s why your books
have such power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is better than length.)

Dr. Seuss


By John Millen

Some of my clients are super-intelligent financial experts, technology gurus, scientists and business leaders who share a common handicap in their communications.

They believe that they must talk in the highly sophisticated language of their field to be respected as experts.

Many also feel that they must give longer, more complicated answers so that people have a deeper understanding of their ideas. They say they don’t want to “dumb it down” by talking more simply.

None of these ideas is true. Today people are so overwhelmed with information and activity that being clear and simple in your talking and writing will give you greater influence and respect.


Successful communication

Whether your communication goal is influencing, informing, educating or entertaining people, you’ll be more successful if you seek to be understood.

And this doesn’t just apply to experts in their field. It applies to all of us. People are not paying attention anymore. We get an estimated 5,000 marketing messages a day, not including your email, texts, news, Facebook and other social media.

Here are five ways to cut though the clutter:


1) Use clear, direct language

Speaking and writing in clear language is more understandable, authentic and approachable. People are put off by jargon they don’t understand. It stops us cold.

When their attention diverts, people don’t hear what you say or write anymore. If they are present at all, they are just hearing you say, “blah, blah, blah.”


2) Use fewer words, not more

I have clients who complain that no one reads anymore. Emails, reports, white papers that took a ton of time to create often go unread.

That’s because, with our short attention spans, people are intimidated by long reports and even emails. Give them a summary, so at least you’ll have them engaged with your basic ideas.

If you hook them in the beginning, you might find that they go deeper or ask you questions. You have to engage them. That's why less is more in your presentations.


3) Use short, simple sentences

The average newspaper in the U.S. is written for a sixth-grade reading level comprehension; blockbuster novels are written for seventh-grade reading level; while the Wall Street Journal is closer to the ninth-grade level.

I learned to write more crisply and directly in high school and in college journalism. The reason you find short, crisp sentences and paragraphs in news writing is to capture and keep people’s attention.

Studies show that our attention and comprehension decline after 30 words in a paragraph. That’s about the length of the previous paragraph. ;-)


4) Be conversational

Some of the feedback I get from readers is that they feel as if I’m talking directly to them. I think this is a great compliment because my mission is to help people communicate more effectively. That won’t happen if you don’t understand what I’m writing.

My goal is to have a conversation with you about topics that matter and give advice you can take action on right away. Part of the reason this might sound conversational is that I dictate much of my writing, as I am doing right now. Does this sound conversational? 


5) Test your communication

You can ask people if you’re communicating clearly, or you can run experiments. Start sending short emails on just one topic. Stay higher level when you talk about a complicated topic. See if people are more engaged, as a result.

You can test the readability of your writing here. Just click the “Try it Now” button, which gives you free access to the tool anytime. You simply paste in your text, and it will be thoroughly analyzed for being readable and conversational.

For instance, the article you are reading gets an “A” for readability; it reads at a 7.1-grade level; 68.4 reading ease (100 is best); 13.6 words per sentence. The tool gives a complete statistical breakdown on every aspect of your writing. This is my first time using this tool, and I’m very impressed. Check it out!

The primary basis of this tool is called the Flesch-Kincaid grading system, originally commissioned by the U.S. Military to write more clear and useful manuals. Dr. Rudolf Flesch’s most famous book, published in 1955, is called Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About ItThat book inspired Dr. Seuss to write The Cat in the Hat in 1957.

Although it may seem easier to write in simple sentences and paragraphs, it’s not. You have to put in more effort and be willing to revise until it’s ready to go. As Mark Twain famously said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

If you want to engage people, your best bet is to cut through the clutter by using clear, concise and authentic communication.

To share your thoughts or ask me any questions, just hit visit our contact page.

Chick-fil-A's Secret to Success

We're not just in the chicken business, we're in the people business. –– Truett Cathy, Founder 

By John Millen

Quick quiz: Which of these three fast food restaurants has the highest per-store sales in the United States? McDonald’s, Starbucks or Subway?
 
By my headline, you might have sensed this was a trick question. The answer is Chick-fil-A. In fact, this fried chicken franchise has higher per-store sales than McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway combined!
 
The statistics for annual sales in 2017 are incredible:

  • McDonald’s –– 14,036 units with $2.7 million in sales per store.

  • Starbucks –– 13,930 units with $945,000 in sales per store.

  • Subway –– 25,908 units with $417,000 in sales per store.

  • Chick-fil-A ––2,225 units with $4.1 million in sales per store!

Most astounding is that Chick-fil-A achieves these sales in six days of the week, since its stores are closed on Sundays.
 
It’s fair to ask, what’s the secret to Chick-fil-A’s success?
 
Its chicken is very good but that can’t be the only draw. While any business has many factors contributing to success, this privately held company has built a culture of employees who are emotionally committed to its mission: To have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.
 
Much of the fast-food industry, and retail in general, delivers in a robotic way:
 
Customer receiving food: thank you.
 
Fast food employee: no problem.
 
Chick-fil-A has a different approach:
 
Customer receiving food: thank you.
 
Employee: my pleasure!
 
That’s right. In a world filled with hate-spewing politics, vile internet trolls and coarse language entertainment, Chick-fil-A is winning with kindness.
 

Credit: Chick-fil-A

Politeness as brand differentiator
 
The company’s focus on showing acknowledgement, respect and even love to customers has become a category-killing brand differentiator.
 
The industry tests and reports on every aspect of fast food interaction and Chick-fil-A is the reigning champion of “politeness” in the drive thru. This 2016 study rated the company’s drive-thru number one based on courtesy to customers.
 
Chick-fil-A continues to win with employees who are trained specifically on the factors tracked in the study: having a pleasant demeanor, smiling and making eye contact, and saying “please” and “thank you.” In the drive-thru, employees go outside to speed the line and make face-to-face contact while taking orders on electronic pads.
 
Words matter
 
This treatment extends to the interior of the store where there are flowers on the table and a well-honed welcoming attitude. Employees learn to use specific language and behavior, such as avoiding terms like “combo” or “super-size,” and opting for “entrée.”
 
“An entrée is different than a combo or a six-piece. It's a different language. ... That language is part of my experience in helping change the expectation,” according to Quincy L.A. Springs IV, who runs a Chick-fil-A location in the Vine City neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia, in an interview with Business Insider.
 
Employees also circulate frequently to visit with guests. Instead of asking, “Can I get your trash?” they ask, “May I clear your tray?” A tweak of phrase that makes a difference.
 
Happy employees, happy customers
 
One of the reasons employees treat customers well is their positive work environment. Glassdoor listed the company as one of the 100 best places to work in 2017. 
 
The decision to be closed on Sunday was made by Truett Cathy when he started the company in 1946. He believed that employees should have “one day to rest and worship if they choose.”
 
It’s estimated that the family-owned business loses up to $1.2 billion per year by being closed on Sundays. But that hasn’t hurt sales. In fact, Chick-fil-A also leads the industry with 51 years of consecutive revenue growth, even through several recessions. 

Chick-fil-A has managed to create a positive culture of employees on a mission to give its customers a positive experience with fast food. It’s made kindness a differentiator.
 
There’s a lesson here for leaders: It always comes back to people. How can you and your team highlight your most valuable resource, your people, and your relationships?
 
To share your thoughts or ask me any questions, just hit visit my contact page.

Photo Credit: Chick-fil-A

Three Ways to Differentiate Your Personal Brand

At a local women's leadership conference, I had the opportunity to hear Carla Harris, Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley, give some really great advice for women, and men, on achieving success by differentiating yourself in the workplace.
 
As an African-American woman on white-male-dominated Wall Street, Harris has learned to position herself in a way that allowed her to thrive while being true to herself.

She offered a wide range of wisdom, focusing on three core messages. (If you’re tempted to read ahead, go for it – people loved her third idea as much as I did and I would recommend you seriously considering trying it in your workplace.)
 
1) Be authentic
Too many people try to act in a way at work that is not really who they are. This causes anxiety, disconnection and feelings of being an impostor. Being your authentic self, Harris says, positions you for success, because:

  • You are your own competitive advantage. No one can be you the way you can be you! The last thing you should ever do is to submerge that which is uniquely you.

  • Anytime that you are trying to behave or speak in a way that is inconsistent with who you really are, you will create a competitive disadvantage for yourself.

  • If you bring your authentic self to a relationship, people will trust you, and trust is at the heart of any successful relationship.

  • Most people are not comfortable or confident in their own skin, so when they see that trait in you, they will gravitate toward you.

Harris, who also is a highly successful gospel singer, said early in her career she would bristle when her colleagues would tell clients about her singing. She would roll her eyes when they said, “Carla is an amazing gospel singer, with three CDs and four sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.” 
 
She changed her mind when she saw enthusiastic client reactions. Potential clients would ask about her career and whether she would talk to their daughters about integrating business and the arts in their lives. 

“We ended up having a fifteen-minute meeting before the meeting,” Harris said. “When I sat down to pitch, they heard me with a different ear, they saw me through a different lens.” These conversations helped her to win business as it differentiated her “from five other investment bankers pitching that IPO.”

From that moment on, Harris said she brought to business “all my Carla Harris’s” – singer, prayer warrior, golfer, football fan – because you never know who will connect with something you love.
 

Another great example of a totally authentic leader is Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx.

2) Take risks
A second way to differentiate yourself is by showing you can take risks, Harris said. During challenging times in a workplace, everyone tells you to keep your head down so you can fly under the radar.

Harris recommends the opposite. “When everybody else is besieged with fear and everybody else is ducking, you have clear vision to see the opportunity,” she said. 
“In a difficult environment, it’s time to speak up. 
 
The issue with keeping your head down is you submerge your voice and your voice is at the heart of your power. Fear has no place in your success equation.”

Harris said to ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? She said you might fail, but failure always brings a gift: experience, and leaders will see you as a person of action who should be kept around.
 
3) Manage your perception
Harris said the important thing she has learned after two-and-a-half decades on Wall Street is, “perception is the co-pilot to reality. How people perceive you will directly impact how they deal with you.
 
She said that after five years in her career, a senior director told her she was smart and hard-working, but he didn’t think she was tough enough for the business of Wall Street. Harris was outraged.
 
magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and a graduate of Harvard Business School, she had overcome significant challenges to land at Morgan Stanley. In her colloquial speech, Harris shouted to the crowd, “You can call Carla Harris a lot of things, but ‘ain’t tough’ ain’t one of them.”
 
She thought to herself, “Suppose he really doesn’t think I’m tough enough?” One can’t be seen as weak on Wall Street. “I decided for ninety days I would walk tough, talk tough, eat tough, and drink tough, use tough in my language.”
 
It’s important to have consistent behavior and language, Harris said, and to “use this language in your environment, particularly when you are talking about yourself. You can train people to think about you in the way that you want them to think about you.”
 
Harris had a reputation for being very good at critiquing management presentations, so much so that before company roads shows for a multi-million dollar IPO or stock transaction, her colleagues would ask her to listen to a presentation and give the CEO feedback.
 
“Next time, after I’d gotten that feedback about not being tough, I said wait a minute, tell me about this guy, is he sensitive, does he have a thin skin? I don’t want to hurt nobody’s feeling, ’cause you know I’m tough,” Harris said, drawing laughter and applause.
 
“I kept using this language over and over to describe myself. Sure enough, after ninety days of work, I was behind a group of people, they didn’t know I was behind them.”
 
She said she heard a VP beating up an associate to make sure they were fully prepared for their meeting: “We’re going to see Carla Harris, and you know, she’s so tough.”
 
Carla Harris succeeded in one of the world’s most challenging business environments, Wall Street, by making her authentic self a positive differentiator.
 
She didn’t need to hide herself – she let the real Carla Harris shine through.
 
It may have been tough, but that’s Carla Harris. She’s tough.
 
Questions for you: 
How are you perceived in your workplace?
 
Is that perception consistent with who you really are?
 
Carla Harris recommends an exercise of choosing three adjectives you want people to use to describe you when you are not in the room, because that’s when all of the important decisions are made about compensation, promotion, and new assignments. The adjectives should be consistent with the position you seek.

I previously wrote about a similar exercise: 

Personal Branding: How Do People Perceive You
 
Carla has also written several relevant books.

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John

Image Credit: Morgan Stanley