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Are You Asking? Communication and Presence

are you asking

A great conversation or presentation walks a fine line between art and science.

Getting the mix right means getting lost in your passion for your subject on the one hand, and carefully monitoring your own signals (language, para-verbal, and non-verbal) and those of your audience on the other.

This is as true in writing as in speaking. Inexperienced writers don’t realize that it takes art to say simple things well. But even competent or great writers sometimes let the science get ahead of the art. For me Margaret Atwood has always been such a writer. At her best, her larger vision is breath-taking, and her control of the language is masterful. But all too often I find that I am pulled out of the moment of her stories by language that seems too skilled, too artful, too beautiful. I become aware that the words and the sentence structures distract me from that magical lost place we all love to go to when reading good fiction.

Effective business communication is about being fully present. As a manager or in sales, we are most effective when we are present both with our agendas and values, and to the agendas and values of who we are communicating with.

The improv game “Only Questions” helps us practice building a narrative and interacting with partners, while being aware of the actual words we are saying. And it is a lot of fun. Of the games I do with groups, this one generates more laughter than most.

Also read Communication Tools That Matter

Only Questions

The game is simple. Any number of players on the stage improvise a scene with only one main rule: every utterance must be in the form of a question. If a player stumbles and makes a statement, the audience yells ‘Die’ and the player has to drop out of the scene. Another player steps in and takes over the scene where it left off, in the same character.

It sounds simple, but it's not. Most participants can’t get more than 2 or 3 questions out before they forget themselves and make a statement. It is fascinating to watch people disappear into the story they are creating and forget to monitor that other part. It is cool to see how wired we are into stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if a CAT scan revealed that some part of our brain is largely responsible for creating the story, and another part is managing the task of constructing the questions correctly. That would make this a great whole-mind exercise.

Also read /human-resources/the-ultimate-business-improv

In the debrief time after playing this game in workshops, I suggest the following take-aways:

  1. Balance art and nature. It takes skill and artifice to make a story feel natural. Good story-tellers and conversationalists know that even great stories don't just tell themselves. Word choice, rhythm, even silence can make the difference between boring and compelling. This game develops the skill of unfolding a good story, while not getting too lost in the narrative. At least some part of your ‘other’ mind must still be monitoring for ‘ums’, watching for unnecessary repetition, or making appropriate word-choices in real time.
  2. Stay with us here! Great communication has at least two parts: the performer and the audience (even when those roles switch rapidly in a one-on-one conversation). A part of your mind must always be a bit detached from what you are saying, and focusing on the audience. The subtle signals of body language, eye movement, or a change in tone are something we must monitor and adjust for. When we get lost in our own stories we switch from communicator to bulldozer. We charge ahead with no idea that we may be boring or upsetting our audience.
  3. Read my lips. The words we use only make up about 20% of what we communicate. About 80% is expressed through body language and para-language (tone, inflection, and other sounds). And of the 20% only a part is expressed in direct (declarative) statements. We use innuendo, metaphor, and other verbal slights-of-hand to convey subtle social messages. Great listeners are excellent at deciphering what people 'really' mean from the complex flow of signals they put out. This game is a fun way to learn that when your partner says "Doesn't the store on the other side of the street look interesting?" what they really mean is "Let's go check out that store!"

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