Thursday, September 24, 2009

“Shut-up and dance”

A critical part of communication is not what we had thought it to be all along. If history had commanded corporations to ensure that they ‘speak out’ their advertisement campaigns and product features in as forceful a manner as possible, contemporary times are destroying that strategic belief to forward a line of thought that perhaps quite the opposite is true now, if one wishes to succeed fantastically!

I teach a course in communication. After I have taught students the importance of making a good first impression, of the power of words and how to use them effectively, of the factors to keep in mind so that one is understood properly, of how to use one’s voice to make a speech most interesting, I tell them, “Now you know everything about speaking in public, but you still are not a master communicator.” And that is because there is still something more to communication than speaking. Speaking is just 33% of communicating. Then what’s the rest? Well, let’s try to figure out that.


This was decades ago when America was torn with the Civil War and Lincoln was fighting hard to abolish slavery. He wrote to an old friend of his and asked him to come to Washington to discuss some problems. When his friend came, Lincoln talked to him for hours. Lincoln went over all the arguments, letters, newspapers, articles, which had arguments both for and against abolishing slavery. After talking for the whole night almost, Lincoln finally bid goodbye to his friend without even asking him his opinion. His friend later commented that that night, Lincoln did not want advice, he wanted a friend.

A man once met Stephen Covey and put forward his problem, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.” A visibly surprised Covey commented, “You don’t understand your kid because he won’t listen to you? But I thought to understand another person, you need to listen to him!” The father looked even more surprised.

To put it simplistically, what is it that Lincoln’s friend did, which the father in the second case did not do? Yes, listening! That night, Lincoln wanted a sympathetic listener to whom he could unburden himself. And perhaps the father in the second case did not realise that most children want absolutely nothing from their parents but an empathic listening. Children are waiting to open up if only they were listened to without being ridiculed or judged.


Toyota was designing its Tundra Truck, but considerable inputs come not from designers, but from farmers. A team from Toyota spent days visiting different regions of US – horse farms, factories, construction sites and more – to meet with truck owners. They did not just ask them about their preferences for towing capacity and power (in a truck) but even silently observed them at work. Through this, the team learnt the ideal placement of the gear shifter; they also learnt that the door handle and radio knobs needed to be extra large because pickup owners often wore gloves all day. Clearly, no amount of discussions or brainstorming sessions could have possibly revealed these nuanced preferences.

Earlier, while Burger King used to serve Coca Cola, PepsiCo was trying very hard to convince Burger King to add Pepsi to its menu; but Burger King kept saying it had room only for one beverage. To this, PepsiCo argued that Burger King promoted “choice” in its advertising and offering Pepsi was a way of giving consumers a choice. The negotiations reached nowhere. Finally, somebody in PepsiCo listened, and really listened to what Burger King was trying to say; and consequently changed Pepsi’s pitch. The new pitch stressed the similarly between Burger King and Pepsi. The pitch forwarded the proposition of how both Burger King and Pepsi were number twos gunning after the number ones; and how, therefore, it made sense for Burger King to kick Coke and bring Pepsi in.

Pepsi never in its wildest dreams could have thought of suggesting to Burger King to throw out the leader; but someone out there read between the lines, and bingo, the deal was done. Later, an executive at Burger King said – this is exactly what we were trying to tell them for months, we’re glad they finally listened.

‘Listen’ to succeed in business, for not many people are doing it as everybody is so eager to talk. In listening lies the formula for success. Albert Einstein has famously said: “If A equals success, then the formula is A=X+Y+Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut!”


A master negotiator uses “silence” to sell. Silence helps him to listen and actually learn; and even when there isn’t much to learn, it gives you a chance to collect your thoughts. Ever wondered why Japanese businessmen use the help of human translators even when they might understand perfectly well what you are saying. It’s a masterful negotiation technique – it gives them time to frame their reaction and then respond cautiously. If you are too quick to speak/respond, you may make a mistake sometimes. Well, not the Japanese.

Everyone knows that in business, there are few places as delicate and important as the negotiating table. A master negotiator is one who listens well. Not just listens well, but listens aggressively. It goes beyond simply listening to words. A master negotiator listens with his eyes and ears. He observes the other person closely. It was Captain Michael Abrashoff’s ability to listen aggressively that helped him transform the worst ship in the Pacific fleet into the top ship in the entire Navy. He realized his young crew was very talented and full of great ideas, which came to nothing for no one in charge ever listened. So he listened aggressively, observed keenly and picked up every good idea the crew had; and a miracle happened – the worst ship transformed into the best. His simple logic – the crew sees things the officers don’t, all that the captain needed to do was to see his ship from the crew’s eyes. Business is no different. You need to see the business from the customer’s point of view. You need to aggressively listen – which means you see the body language, the facial expressions, the tone of the voice; and not just the words. You understand the feelings behind the words. As someone said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” I would say the foundation of any relationship is to listen, and listen aggressively – as a Chinese proverb says, “To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.”

After all, those are aggressive observers and listeners who always get what they want. Remember, every teenager knows the best time to ask his dad for his car is when dad’s in a good mood (preferably in the evening, after he’s had a drink or two!). Good people observers are master negotiators and great leaders. If a teenager can be in the know of these tricks, it’s time you used them too. Customers always give a feedback – either by buying your product or the competitors’. Observe carefully. Listen to the market, watch your competitors aggressively. Many a time, we miss important clues as we are busy ‘acting’ (formulating strategies, changing plans etc). Stop and shut up! It will help you think better.

Motorola had a magnificent run of success in the 1990s when it grew from $5 billion to $27 billion in annual revenues in just a decade. It was around this time that a New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall died on the Mount Everest. But as his life ebbed away, he talked to his wife; and his parting words, “Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much,” captivated the world’s attention – all thanks to a satellite phone link. Motorola took this as an inspiration and developed a bold and very expensive venture named ‘Iridium’. It planned to launch 66 satellites to ensure people were connected to each other always, irrespective of which part of the world they were in. By the time Iridium was ready to be launched, the world was already used to the traditional cellular service; and no one wanted a satellite phone whose handset was the size of a brick and that worked only outdoors. Iridium did benefit people who were stuck in remote places; however, the company forgot to calculate that not many people needed to call home from the South Pole or Mount Kilimanjaro. The company ignored the markets needs and wants. It failed to listen aggressively and change accordingly. As a result, Iridium – that was launched in 1998 – had filed for bankruptcy in 1999, sealing Motorola’s fate.

So if you want to really make it big and succeed, it might well do you good to shut up and simply dance your way to success.

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