It was a typical day at the Penguin book publishing offices when I was joined on the elevator by the President of Paperback Sales.
“I have to say,” he said as he pressed a button for the 5th floor, “I really appreciated how you showed up at the sales meeting yesterday.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“I just really like how much energy you bring to your presentations, you get the sales team excited about the list, and that’s what really matters.”
Our conversation didn’t really go further than that, which was fine with me. Flattering though his praise was, he was a veteran executive and the president of his division. I was an assistant editor who made $32,000 a year. Back then, over a decade ago, there was only so much presence I could muster when speaking to power one-on-one. And truth be told, his compliment wasn’t a surprise. Book editors are generally pretty introverted, so it wasn’t too terribly hard to draw on my background in theater to stand out in that crowd.
But years later, I’d think moreabout what he said: “You got the sales team excited about the list, and that’s what really matters.”
Beneath the surface of this observation is the most important point to be made about the act of communicating as a whole.
The President of Paperback Sales didn’t talk about my theatricality, or my generous use of the word “awesome.” He didn’t talk about techniques. What he said was that I got the sales team excited about the list. Most editors would stand up and read a prepared statement they had written, never looking up from their paper, pretty much just rattling off the jacket copy currently en route to the printer.
He said what he did because he understood that an editor’s pitch has a purpose. Sales reps at a book publishing company have an enormous list of titles to pitch to outlets like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and the reason I was in the room was to help the salesforce proficiently and enthusiastically convince those outlets that our books were worth selling.
He understood that I was there to help create a desirable outcome.
Communication is about offering clarity, not getting cutesy
The mistake that most people make in their communication is that they focus on themselves. This isn’t just the editor who reads a dry statement from a piece of paper, but the scientist who speaks in technical language to laypeople, the salesperson who reads from their PowerPoint slides in a presentation, the manager who prattles on about their job at a networking event, or even the author who invents their own cutesy terms so as to convey ownership of their content through registered trademarks.
Each of these people is making their communication decisions from the perspective of their needs – their expertise, their lack of interest in connecting with their audience, or their insecurity around legal threats.
Instead, an effective communicator eliminates technical jargon to meet the audience where they’re at. They’ll share compelling stories that draw their audiences in, and forsake PowerPoint in favor of simply checking in with their audience to get a sense of their pain points and needs.
They understand the eight most important words in all of communication, that effective communication values the recipient over the sender.
It’s not about you
I never would have earned the praise of a divisional president of one of the largest book publishing companies in the world if I stood before them and focused on my needs – my insecurity about being the low man on the totem pole, my desire to make a good impression, or the fact that I would have several thousand tasks waiting for me at my desk by the end of the meeting.
I made every decision based on answering a very simple question: How can what I express serve others?
By valuing the recipients of our message over ourselves, they come back for more.