controlling conversations

Conversation Strategy and Planning by Matthew Cook


I started thinking about writing an opinion piece on conversation planning a while back. After attending Brooklyn Beta and reading To Sell is Human by Dan Pink, I’m ready and even more galvanized than before. Let’s go.

Start actively participating in conversations. Failure to plan discourse is stupid. Blindly accepting what someone says is dangerous.

Research by the Carnegie Institute of Technology says that 85% of an individual’s financial success in life is attributable to human engineering–basically your personality and communication skills. Forbes wrote a good overview of CIT’s findings. Research like this (and many other sources) continues to point to what a lot of us innately know and see in our day to day lives: Intelligence isn’t as closely linked to our success as who we are and how we communicate is. 

If it’s widely understood that communication is so intimate with our success, why do we spend such little time preparing for it and carefully considering outcomes?

As a freelance Producer, I have a ridiculous goal when talking to clients: never meet a response that I didn’t already consider. It’s impossible to meet that goal, someone inevitably throws out something insane that I never thought of. The point of that high bar is not to gauge my success or failure, but rather to keep myself engaged. 

For us web industry folks, this comic by Matthew Inman nails our occasional feelings about client communication. The truly painful thing about the situation depicted here is how avoidable it is. As individuals or teams that create beautiful things that solve complex problems, we sometimes forget that our end purpose isn’t to create the perfect user experience or architect content in the most intuitive way, it’s to serve a client. You can build the most amazing thing ever, but if you can’t convince your client of its value, you’ve failed.

Willful resistance aside, It’s your fault when your client doesn’t see value in your work.

Continuing with the humor, remember this poem? Taylor Mali makes some great points about tone and conviction, and his feelings perfectly illustrate that you have to participate if you want your communication to be effective. Stop spectating your conversations or waiting for them to happen to you.

With SuperFriendly and Arbitrary (shoutout to my dudes Dan Mall and Jamie Kosoy) I precap, take notes, recap, and real-time strategize in almost every client conversation. I literally use two moleskin notebooks, textedit, Skype chat (private), and Skype chat (client) in addition to verbal conversation for almost every call. I’ve mapped out a way for myself to make note of things I find important and respond immediately or record them for strategizing later. Note taking isn’t about memorizing for a final exam. It’s about gathering specific thoughts and feelings at a specific time in a specific context. Not considering negotiation and verbal discourse, I’m equipping myself to communicate. I’m trying to catch all of the little pieces so that I can not only understand what’s being talked about, but also project possible outcomes and infect all of my conversations involving this client with an understanding that goes beyond bullet lists, action items, and knee-jerk reactions.

To round things out, consider this article from 2011 published on the Psychology Today website. Psychologist Mitchell Handelsman, Ph.D. is addressing multiple problems with the lecture format–one of which is:

“I tell my students that nobody will ever pay them to sit and listen, or to take notes. Even Roger Ebert doesn’t get paid to watch movies. Rather, he gets paid to think, analyze, critique, write, and communicate.”

What I took from this article is that there’s definitely a place for one-way communication, but that place isn’t in a conference room with your client at a review milestone. No matter your role, your skill, or how smart you think feel, you need to be wrestling with both sides of these conversations. You may not get to respond immediately (or even ever), but you darn well should be ready.

Here’s a basic outline that I’ve started using when strategizing before hopping on a call with someone–specifically clients:

  1. Who am I talking with and why am I talking with them?
  2. What is this person bringing into this conversation that will affect how they view what I need to tell them?
  3. How can I earn this person’s trust and what do I not understand about them?
  4. How might they react when they hear what I’m about to tell them?

That’s it, and it’s super basic. These questions often lead to more questions for myself, those additional questions for myself often lead to more questions I’ll have for the client, and those questions often lead to conversation topics that I would have never prepared for if I hadn’t taken 10 minutes to devise a plan. 

We need to get more tactical in our conversations. We’re often surprised when a conversation ends up in a crazy place. You can never fully keep that from happening, but you can be ready and head off the big issues.