When gestures trump words

Whatever else you may think of Donald Trump (and, let’s face it, even by his standards, he’s had a bizarre couple of weeks), it’s hard to deny that he’s an effective communicator. A large part of that is to do with the way he uses his hands.

The BBC made a short film about it when he first won the Presidency, which you can still find online.

The key point is the way he uses big, vague, airy movements, to characterise his opponents’ policies – then follows up with very precise, focused gestures to characterise his own. ‘Chaos’ versus ‘clarity’.

What’s interesting is that, even though a lot of what he’s saying doesn’t stand up to robust intellectual scrutiny, it doesn’t matter – because most of the audience is more influenced by his hands than by his words. His gestures make people believe him.

‘Wow’, they think. ‘This guy really knows how to cut through the bullshit and make stuff happen.’

Now, I’m not suggesting Trump is a leadership model you should copy. But I do think there’s an important lesson in this for all of us – and last month’s Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece of research to back it up.

Joep Cornelissen is a Professor of Communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

He and his team contacted a large number of established investors and, posing as entrepreneurs, asked if they could send a video pitching a new piece of medical tech.

They sent out four different versions of the video, all featuring the same ‘entrepreneur’ (actually a Dutch actor).

Version one used a lot of figurative language to describe the new invention.

Version two included regular hand motions to help explain the idea.

Version three used both.

Version four used neither.

The results were striking: investors who watched version two of the video were 12% more likely to invest than any of the other groups. In other words, when you’re pitching an idea, gestures matter a lot more than what you say.

This was not what Cornelissen and his team had been expecting. Given the widespread reliance on analogies and storytelling when pitching ideas, they’d assumed use of language would be key.

In fact, the investors said they had a much more tangible sense of what the product was, and how it would work, when they saw the hand gestures. It reassured them, in the same way Trump’s audience is reassured by his repeated ‘wave and pinch’ gesturing.

The trick, it seems, is to use gestures selectively. Not just waving your hands all the time, but finding one or two killer gestures that lend weight and conviction to your key points.

Of course, it’s also important to remember who your audience is – and what they’re likely to be focused on.

When Cornelissen repeated the experiment with his students, he found they were much more likely to be swayed by the figurative language, because their primary interest was to understand the idea. Whereas investors are more interested in understanding the person pitching it: Do I believe them? Am I confident they can deliver?

A point worth keeping in mind for any CEO with a change agenda they need to engage their business with.

People can’t score if they don’t know where the goal is

The American business magazine INC asked executives in 600 companies to estimate how many of their employees would be able to name their company’s top three priorities.

Their average estimate was 64%.

When INC then asked employees in the same companies to name those priorities, only 2% could do it accurately.

It’s a reminder that most businesses are a lot more complex than their leaders realise.

They have too many priorities – and those priorities change frequently and often contradict one another. Which makes it very hard for anyone outside the leadership team to know what they should be focusing on.

Businesses that win are the ones that find a way to simplify the complexity and make it easy for people to know the right thing to do.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Never trust anyone without a sense of humour

There’s nothing wrong with being professional, but it’s a good rule to be wary of people who take themselves too seriously.

A sense of humour is just common sense with the volume turned up. That’s why comedians are so good at capturing and expressing simple, timeless, human truths.

Dull, serious people, by contrast, tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They’re not usually good at grasping alternative viewpoints or engaging with new ideas. You should be especially wary of any leader who won’t poke fun at themselves, because it’s a sign either of insecurity or of a narcissistic personality disorder.

As Eric Sykes put it: ’We are all idiots. The ones who don’t think they’re idiots – they’re the ones who are dangerous.’

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Trust is a 360-degree thing

There’s a tendency to think of trust in up-down terms. And it’s obviously good if the people in a business know they can trust their employers. But a winning culture is one where everyone in a team knows they can trust everyone else in the team: their leaders, their peers, the people they manage.

If you don’t know the person next to you has got your back, you waste a lot of time and energy looking over your shoulder. Which is why it’s good to create an environment where no-one has to do that.

Where people can work from home without worrying that their colleagues think they’re building a new patio.

Where no-one takes credit for somebody else’s work.

Where people can express an honest opinion in a respectful way without worrying that it will impact their career prospects.

It’s surprisingly hard to build an environment like this. But, if you manage it, the benefits are extraordinary.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Information doesn’t filter up very well

There’s an old army story about an officer on the front line who needs to get an important message to his commanders:

‘Send reinforcements; I’m going to advance.’

But the telephone lines have been cut, so the only way to get the message through is to pass it up the line. By the time it gets to headquarters, the urgent message has become:

‘Send three and fourpence; I’m going to a dance.’

It’s almost certainly an apocryphal story, but it makes an important point: the more people a message goes through, the further it’s likely to stray from its real meaning.

Which is why you need to keep the lines of communication from your front-line employees as short as possible. They’re usually best-placed to know what your customers think and how proposed changes will work in reality.

But, if their feedback has to pass through too many layers before it reaches a decision-maker, a lot of its value and meaning will be lost (especially if any of those layers don’t like what it’s saying).

Your job is to make sure the right information flows up as easily as it flows down.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

It’s not about the camera

The word ‘great’ gets used too freely these days. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that Don McCullin is a great photo-journalist.

There’s a retrospective of his work on display in Tate Britain until 6 May. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to go.

The pictures are extraordinarily powerful. As well as the war photography for which he’s best known (Vietnam, Biafra, Cyprus, Northern Ireland), there are poignant, gritty images of life in the industrial Northeast and in London’s East End, where McCullin grew up.

What makes the pictures so powerful is their ability to tell a story. McCullin’s gift is for identifying and capturing small moments that somehow express a much larger truth.

Like the picture above, taken at a protest in Trafalgar Square in the 1960s. Hundreds of photographers were covering the event and they all got plenty of pictures that showed the police and the protesters facing off. But only McCullin got this shot.

That’s partly about being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly one of McCullin’s skills. But it’s mostly about empathy – about being able to look at a scene with the eyes of a human being, rather than the eyes of a technician.

‘I use the camera like I use a toothbrush,’ McCullin once said.  ‘The most important photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same shots. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

That’s a pretty good definition of how communication works.

You can have the best technology in the world, the coolest graphics, the funkiest presentation – and none of it will make much difference.

Because what really matters is the story.

 

When engagement isn’t engaging

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’.

That’s Goodhart’s law (named after the economist Charles Goodhart, who first articulated it to explain why private enterprise principles introduced by the Thatcher government hadn’t worked very well).

I thought about it this morning, when I was going through my emails and found one inviting me to ‘The Engaging Employees Conference’ in London.

Of the 32 scheduled speakers, the one that most caught my eye was the HR Director of Wonga, a business that collapsed five weeks ago and is currently being wound down by the administrators.

Since the sub-title of the conference is ‘Optimising Performance’, having a speaker from a failed business is probably inconvenient for the organisers. But it’s also a timely reminder for delegates of what they should really be focused on.

The fetish for measuring employee engagement has been steadily gaining ground since Gallup first pioneered it in the 1990s, with their Q12 Survey. This invited employees to answer (anonymously) twelve different questions about their experience of work. ‘Do you understand what the business is trying to achieve?’; ‘Do you understand what’s expected of you?’; ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ and so on.

The idea is that, if you keep asking the same questions every six months, the movement in the scores will tell you which bits you’re getting right, which bits you need to focus on and, ultimately, how engaged your employees are.

According to Gallup, businesses with high Q12 scores demonstrate significantly better performance: lower turnover of staff, higher sales growth, greater productivity, better customer satisfaction scores. Which is why nearly every large organisation nowadays carries out some kind of engagement survey.

The problem, as Wonga and others have found, is that improving your engagement score does not necessarily lead to improved performance.

It’s a perfect example of Goodhart’s law in operation.

An engagement survey is useful if it helps you build a true picture of the experience your employees have at work. As soon as you turn it into a target, you’re blurring that picture and encouraging managers to ‘game’ the numbers so that their score always shows improvement, even though the underlying experience may not. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m 100% in favour of engaging employees.

I just think the best way to do it is by focusing on the things that will improve their experience of working in your organisation.

Not asking them the same questions over and over again – and then fiddling the numbers to tell a story they don’t recognise.

I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old Irish joke about a city boy from Dublin, who comes out to the country for his cousin’s wedding.

He can’t remember the way, so he stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer looks at him, scratches his head, thinks for a moment, frowns and says:

‘You know, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I feel a bit like that when I’m talking to clients and they ask me (always with the same slightly embarrassed tone) how to make their SharePoint pages more engaging.

Let’s face it, if you were setting up your internal channels from scratch, how many of us would choose SharePoint as the hub? It’s an archive system, originally designed for document retrieval. Which is fine, if you want people to use it like a reference library – but not much use if you want to get them engaged with what’s going on in your organisation.

Not surprisingly, every single comms person I know agrees that SharePoint is, at best, a mediocre solution to their communication needs.

And yet, nearly all of them work for organisations that insist they use it, because ‘it’s the industry standard’. It comes as part of Office 365, it’s easy and cost-effective, the IT people are comfortable with it, it’s a done deal.

So the comms people accept it as a regrettable fact of corporate life. And, every now and then, they give us a call to see if we can wave a magic wand and make people interested in using it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have the work.

But imagine if that happened in your marketing department: ‘We want you to make our brand really cool – but we don’t want to spend money on TV or digital, so we’ve booked you some slots on post office noticeboards…’

Or your logistics department: ‘Yes, I realise articulated lorries are a more efficient way to shift large loads, but the chairman breeds Alpacas, so that’s what we’ll be using…’

It makes me wonder whether these organisations have understood the importance of engaging their people after all – or whether they still think communication is just a box to be ticked.

Because, if you really do want to engage your people, I wouldn’t start from here.

Leading the change

I spent last Saturday at The Big Yak, the self-styled ‘unconference’ for internal comms folk. (If you haven’t been, make sure you wangle a ticket for the next one – by some way the best event in the comms calendar).

In amongst the questions, ideas, debates and free beer (thanks, Facebook), there were two big themes that kept cropping up: culture and leadership.

Specifically, how do we make our business feel more authentic? And how do we persuade our leaders to communicate in a more structured and engaging way?

It was sobering to realise how many leaders of large, public organisations still don’t think communication is a priority. Especially in a week when Theresa May finally acknowledged that her response to the Grenfell disaster (not talking to anyone about it) had been a huge mistake. If even Theresa May has figured this out, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

It was even more sobering to realise how many senior business leaders still think ‘culture’ is something you can buy by the yard from a branding consultancy. Especially in a week when House of Fraser and New Look joined the ranks of former high street titans who are unravelling faster than they can explain their relevance to a generation that knows it has plenty of choice.

All over this country, there are great big organisations that are kidding themselves they can blag their way to a sustainable future with a swanky logo refresh and a ‘tone of voice’ manual.

They’re wrong.

The only way they can engage people (customers or employees) is by creating an environment where people feel good about their organisation: happy to work for it, happy to buy from it.

And the only way to do that is if the senior leaders of the organisation behave in an honest, open and human way (rather than just talking about it and then fudging the figures to keep the shareholders happy).

The good news is that, when they do finally figure it out, they’ve got an army of great communicators to help them do it.

Make it emotional

When senior managers lock themselves in a room to define a mission for their business, the example they’re often told to aim for is John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ speech.

I’ve heard four separate consultants use this example and every one of them made the same mistake. They each identified the famous goal – ‘land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth’ – as coming from Kennedy’s speech about the space programme at Rice University, Texas in September 1962.

In fact, it came from a speech he made to Congress sixteen months earlier, the ninth item in a packed programme that also took in foreign policy, defence and the economy.

Why does this matter? Because it tells us three things:

First, that Kennedy and his advisors were smart enough to recognise when they were on to a winner.

Second, that the best way to establish an idea you’ve recognised as a winner is to keep talking about it.

And, third, that big ideas are all about meaning: people won’t remember the specific words you used, but they will remember how those words made them feel.

This is because your brain finds it a lot easier to remember things when they prompt an emotional response. A strong feeling of excitement, or pleasure, or humour, or sadness, releases dopamine into your brain – and this acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for your sub-conscious to access that memory.

What Kennedy did was to outline a bold, exciting, uplifting adventure – you can bet there was dopamine exploding in brains all over the country.

Millions of people heard Kennedy’s speech. Very few of them would have been able to remember a single one of the 2,207 words that went into it. They didn’t need to – they only needed to remember the gist.

When Kennedy later visited NASA’s Houston base to check on progress, he met a janitor who, replying to a question about what he did, said ‘Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon’.  That’s engagement.

Even tax-payers loved it – and he was telling them he was going to be spending a lot more of their money.

Would the audience have been so excited if Kennedy had said ‘our mission is to make NASA the pre-eminent global leader in aeronautical technology’? Or would they have preferred lower taxes?

Engaging people with your business is all about emotion and belief. If you get it right, it makes it easy for you to attract and motivate people who believe in what you believe in.