BE MORE HUMAN
How to be more human in our communication in Defence
By Chris Huet
Air Vice-Marshal Alan Titheridge was one of the most inspiring leaders I encountered in the Air Force. I vividly recall a time in 1999 when I passed him in the tunnel between R1 and R2 in Russell Offices.
I was a newly-promoted squadron leader, recently returned from a few years overseas on exchange. ‘Tith’ called my name and asked me how things were going. I was amazed he knew who I was and recalled my name. My actual first name, not my callsign.
Tith has an incredible memory for names. It reflects his individual connection with each person he works with. It was this connection, this demonstration of personal concern for me, that led to my great respect for Tith. Even though I never worked for him directly, I trusted him implicitly.
A human connection is the key to effective communication. When we speak directly with someone else, show concern for them and share personal stories, they are more likely to hear our message and believe it. There are three ways we can be more human in our communication in Defence and industry.
Create an emotional link
To influence others, we need an emotional connection with them. We like to believe we are rational beings, able to separate reason from feelings. This is not true. Emotion shapes everything we perceive, remember and decide.
If we ignore this fact, then we will fail to communicate. Transmitting data and arguments is not enough. We need to create an emotional link with our audience before they will trust our message and accept our logic.
Neuroeconomist Dr Paul J Zak found that when we experience this emotional link our bodies release oxytocin, a brain chemical that influences the way we think about others and make decisions. Oxytocin relaxes us and makes us let down our natural defences. When we feel connected to someone else, we trust them. They become more credible in our eyes.
One way to stimulate the production of oxytocin in someone else is to show consideration for them. In a conversation, we do this by listening and asking reflective questions. When speaking to a larger group, we need to tailor our words to meet their needs, not ours. Explain why your topic is important to the audience and why they should care.
You can also show why the topic is important to you. Don’t be a passive narrator in your communication – allow yourself to be seen. People trust us more and listen more closely when we show vulnerability and share a part of ourselves.
In Defence, we tend to be rigid, detailed and fact-based. But when we remove all emotion from our communication, the audience trusts us less, feels disconnected from our message and is less likely to act. If we create a human connection with our audience, we increase the likelihood our idea will take hold in their mind.
Another powerful way to put ourselves into our communications is through stories. Our brains are storytelling machines. We have evolved to connect effects with causes, creating stories to interpret and make sense of the world. Messages conveyed through narrative are more easily heard, understood and recalled.
When we hear facts and figures, we use only a small part of our brain to process the words and interpret the consequences. When we hear a story, much more of our brain becomes involved. The richness of experience created by stories makes the content more engaging and memorable.
The most powerful stories have characters we can relate to in some crisis or challenge. These tales draw us in, until we become part of them, experiencing similar emotions to its characters. When this happens our brains release oxytocin, creating trust.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) realises the power of story. The agency’s Narrative Networks program studied the effect of narrative on the way we think and act. Fifty neuroscientists, including Paul Zak, examined how stories can help counter radicalisation, improve military communication, and create innovative treatments for PTSD.
In Australia, we see stories in Defence and industry public relations efforts. Christmas videos, for example, include troops telling us about their experiences and sending messages home. But it is difficult to find a story in communications from our leaders, particularly in formal speeches.
When we stick to a script prepared by someone else and don’t tell a personal story, we miss an opportunity to make an emotional connection with the audience. Narrative is the most effective package for messages, not talking points, PowerPoint presentations, or scripted speeches.
Lectern-bound speeches have another weakness – they are one-way data broadcasts. Effective communication is two-way. It is not enough to send your message and assume it will be received, intact and complete.
We speak and listen with our whole bodies, even if we are not conscious of it. Seeing and hearing the response of our audience allows us to tailor our message so that it is understood. Face-to-face communication amplifies our voice, reduces the chance of misunderstanding and makes our message more likely to stick.
Face-to-face communication is vital to building productive relationships between Defence and Industry. If Industry is to be a fundamental part of Australia’s defence and security capability, then relationships and regular communication are essential.
Trade shows and conferences are recent examples of this in action. Defence leaders engage with Industry at Pacific, Avalon Airshow, Land Forces, and Defence+Industry conferences and expositions. This engagement creates effective relationships and improves Defence and Industry’s understandings of each other’s needs and perspectives.
Unfortunately, some parts of Defence still deny opportunities for individual meetings with industry. These groups prefer formal industry briefings which are hampered by strict scripts, prescribed slides and speeches from lecterns. Briefings such as this are poor forums for communication.
Industry, for its part, needs to respect its face-to-face meetings with Defence leaders. Industry representatives need to avoid prepared pitches, and listen as much as they speak. Only in this way will they create trust, connect with their audience and communicate effectively.
To succeed, communicate with a human connection
Defence’s environment is changing rapidly. In this world, influence and persuasion are as crucial as procedures and organisation. Why we are doing something needs to come before the details. Success depends on communication.
To move others to action, we have to create an emotional link with them. This link makes our audience trust us more, hear our message and act on it. An emotional connection is the bridge across which our message crosses. Without this bridge, our transmission disappears into the noise of the everyday.
We create an emotional connection by putting ourselves and our audience into our communication. We tailor our message to the person we are speaking to. We tell stories. We face our audience and respond to the way they are hearing us.
We must be more human in our communication. Our survival in the challenges of the future depends on it.
Chris Huet has over thirty years of experience in public and private sector leadership and technical and creative communication. He spent twenty years in the RAAF as an F/A-18 pilot before moving to consulting and business development.
Chris is also an award-winning spoken word poet and two-time TEDx presenter. He draws on practical knowledge and the latest research to help leaders speak more effectively, to inform, excite and persuade their audiences.
This article is the third in a four-series on Communication in Defence, and was published in the September-October 2018 issue of ADBR. The next article will end the series with thoughts on how to embed communication with a connection within Defence.