Beyond Buzzwords – Make Your Communication Count


It’s easy to be seduced by catch phrases after all they’re catchy. The trouble is, when the incorrect, the fundamentally flawed, and straight up ridiculous are blindly believed and repeated in the classroom, trainers can lose credibility with both participants and program sponsors.

In a world where actual answers are but a web click away, it’s important to fact check your statements. Doing so will not only safeguard your reputation, it will help you demonstrate value. To accomplish this we must be as thoughtful and accurate with our words as our finance colleagues are with their data.

Sloppy Statistics

A common trainer trap is parroting unchecked figures. For example, I’m sure most of us have heard a facilitator confidently assert that 92% (or was that 87%) of communication is non-verbal. Either way, it’s a compelling factoid that makes for interesting conversation. However if the statement were correct, telephones would be useless. What the research intends to show is the accuracy and believability of the non-verbal when there is incongruence between those cues and what is actually said. So if you ask a colleague, “How are you doing?” and the person responds, “great, fabulous, or living the dream,” but does so with slumped shoulders, no eye contact and a drooping head, there is a higher likelihood that the body language is telling the truth. Of course that explanation doesn’t fit on a slide so some would have us believe that the secret to successful interpersonal connections is a quick game of charades.

At a recent HR conference a presenter confidently told a room full of seasoned practitioners that 70% of change efforts fail – as if the statement were some grand insight that explained away the shortcomings of project sponsors. The only eye-opening element of the message was that it’s still being used. Consultants have been kicking around the concept for over two decades and while perhaps once directionally correct, again we miss the point. 70% of change efforts don’t fail. Many change efforts are never accurately measured in the first place – so project owners have no clue as to the degree of their success. A small but important distinction as the latter is easily fixed.

My favorite is the 70-20-10 model of learning that many trainers evangelize. Countless organizations have reframed their development offerings based on a study that is often misquoted and rarely understood. Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership conducted the original research in the 1980s. The study, which included only 191 successful senior executives (189 men and 2 women in six North American based companies) asked the question, when you look back on your career which “key events” made a lasting change to the way you manage? Many would have you believe the results indicated the now familiar mantra: 70% from on-the-job experiences, 20% from others, and 10% from formal courses.

But that’s not quite right. You see, embedded in this data were 17.4% of respondents who reported learning via hardships – the personal and professional trials and setbacks one accumulates over a lifetime. While no one would purposefully build such experiences into a development plan, the point about learning from one’s mistakes and life lessons should not be overlooked. Another aspect of the research that gets muddled is the gray area between categories. Many times trainers are the catalyst for on the job learning as well as the other person reported in the 20% category.

The most damaging portion however, is the blanket applicability afforded to the research. Maybe what was reviewed for senior executives looking back on the whole of their careers for indications of changes to their management style is applicable to all learning including technical content, but I doubt it.

Tired Platitudes and New Fads

Sometimes trainers attempt to support sloppy statistics with faulty assertions and tired sound bites. For example, when discussing change, many attempt to explain away the alleged failure rate by noting simply that most people fear change events. But who are these most people, which changes do they fear, and is all fear created equally?

A truer statement perhaps is that people don’t fear change, they actively resist those changes they don’t understand, fundamentally disagree with, or envision coming out the other end having lost something significant. But that analysis takes time, a commodity few of us have in abundance, so the discussion is truncated or avoided altogether. Instead, we are told that the cycle of change and associated employee response is directly aligned to the cycle of grief and loss.

But does that stack up against real world experience? After all people actively seek and embrace change all their lives. Examples are abound: learning to drive, going to college, starting a new job or project, getting married, having kids, changing cities, landing a promotion, etc. So are trainers saying people only fear hardship related change? If so that’s encouraging and more easily addressed. Clearly the topic deserves more than a dusty number and an untested rationale.

New statements are just as damaging. Catchy titles and corporate clichés would have us all lead from the front for example. It sounds compelling, a militaristic analogy that would place corporate generals on the front lines with their troops, bravely leading the charge against the competition. The visual might be helpful for leader egos and employee moral, but does anyone stop to ask, who minds the strategy when leaders jump to the weeds?   

The Jargon Trap

If I hear one more trainer try to manufacture a connection with business mined program participants by discussing the big picture impact of reducing silos in an effort to enhance departmental synergy and create more bandwidth so we can better leverage our customer-focused client portfolio, I may have to take the conversation off-line and empower myself to proactively leverage some psychological resources before the force fed paradigm shift lands me in the loony bin.

There’s nothing wrong with channeling your inner Alex P. Keaton. Just make sure that you have something meaningful to say. Seasoned professionals understand the importance of clarity and brevity. If you’re looking for the proverbial win-win, resist the temptation to string together buzzwords and instead focus on facilitating meaningful dialogue.

There is a difference between talk leadership and thought leadership. The first attempts to prove importance, status and personal relevancy by verbally water-boarding participants into compliance. The latter seeks to deliver insights so compelling that attendees can’t help but see value in the experience. Sometimes trainers provide the insight and sometimes they orchestrate the transfer via a well-placed assist. Knowing what tool to use and shifting seamlessly from consultant to coach to facilitator and back again, is more valuable than any corporate speak.

Make It Count

With classroom time under scrutiny and companies often opting for cheaper more scalable solutions, it’s even more important for trainers to demonstrate value. Having a buzzword free zone where trainers and participants fact check assumptions and clarify statements can make for a more meaningful and productive experience – and isn’t that what everyone is after?

For all our challenges, trainers have something most employees rarely do – an audience. It’s our responsibility to make the most of those moments. Get it right and we become the ambassadors of change, the brokers of best practice, and the catalysts for what’s next in our organizations. And until someone invents an app for awesome that, to me, seems like a worthy pursuit.

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