Stop Worrying About Content: 5 Key Elements of Communication That Have Nothing To Do With What You’re Saying

Peter Chapman
5 min readJan 24, 2019
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I spend a lot of my time talking to my clients about in-person communication. Interviews. Pitches. Conference talks. When I ask clients to design their ideal version of upcoming communications, they have a tendency to get stuck on content and ignore all the surrounding factors.

Case in point: a client of mine — call her Allison — was fairly nervous about the pitch she was giving to potential investors. The future of her company depended on this going well, and so far it… well, it wasn’t. Slides got added and removed on a daily basis. Everyone she talked to about it had strong opinions about the content, and all of their opinions were different. Her designer had changed the font a dozen times and was on the verge of nervous breakdown.

It was time for us to stop talking about the content and start talking about the overall delivery. I gave her the following framework, which I’m about to share with you.

This framework is designed to give you a strong physical and emotional platform on which to deliver your message. I use it across all in-person communication channels, from phone interviews to presentations delivered to thousands of people. First I have my clients imagine a version of the talk/one-on-one/presentation that’s going really well. Then we analyze this imagined communication along the following dimensions:

1. Setup and Follow-Up

What do you need to communicate before and after this interaction?

Set yourself up for success by sending your audience anything that will help them get value out of meeting with you. That might be an email agenda, or it might be context that participants will need in order to participate actively in the meeting. If you’re running a workshop, think about questions you can seed beforehand to get participants excited and engaged with the content before they show up.

Follow-up is your chance to ensure that the learnings from the interaction translate into action. Meetings should be followed by an email with concrete next steps. If you’re trying to collect an audience, make sure you send people who came to your workshop an invitation to sign up for your newsletter.

2. Environment

What’s the setting? How is the room set up? Where are the chairs?

If I’m planning a meeting, workshop, or rehearsal, the first thing I think about is what music I want to play as people walk in. When participants enter a room with music, their mood is immediately set. They feel like they’ve entered a distinct space. Fading the music is a clear way to signal that it’s time to stop talking and start the activity.

Environmental concerns also include any technology you need to make sure your interaction runs smoothly. Don’t be that person who spends hours on a deck only to be hamstrung by a microphone that doesn’t work.

3. Physicality

If you were to watch a silent video of the best version of your interaction, what would it look like? What are you doing with your body? What is your audience doing? Are you sitting or standing? How’s your posture? Do you move around? What are your hands doing?

These are great questions to ask regardless of whether or not there’s actually a visual component to your interaction. Even if you’re taking a meeting over the phone or recording a remote podcast, grounding yourself in a strong physical posture will have a resounding effect on your tone, and even your content. Set yourself up for comfort. Do you need to bring layers? A snack? How are those shoes going to feel after four hours of walking around a wooden stage?

4. Sound

If you were to listen to a recording of a great version of this interaction in a foreign language, what would it sound like? Consider the volume, pitch, and dynamics of your speech. What’s your tempo like? How will you use silence to your advantage?

I get my clients to practice making the sort of sounds they want to make during the communication without using words, or delivering neutral content in the tone we’re aiming for. For instance, if their interaction is meant to reassure the audience, I might say, “Tell me what you had for breakfast in your most soothing voice.”

5. Content Structure

If you were to read a transcript of this interaction in a foreign language, what would it look like? How long are your sentences and paragraphs? Are there words or phrases that get repeated? How is the dialogue divided between parties?

The single most common mistake I see clients making in this dimension is monologuing: drowning their audience in a sea of uninterrupted content. Unless you’re delivering a speech, chances are you’d be served by more interaction with your audience.

There’s a lot here, and I don’t advise applying it all at once. I like to break these questions into two parts: prep-related questions and habits you want to target during the communication. The prep questions are those you can spend time on before the interaction: setup, follow-up, and environment. My advice is to pick one of them that you tend to ignore and give yourself a goal of thinking about it consistently until it becomes second nature.

The habit questions — physicality, sound, patterns — can be tougher. When we’re fielding difficult questions or diving into the details of someone’s technical background it can be easy to forget about eye contact or posture or making sure you’re sharing time appropriately with the other participants. Again, my advice is to pick a single small habit you want to focus on for each interaction. For some clients, this means making sure they’re breathing enough before sentences. For others, it’s maintaining relaxed shoulders. The good news is that these behaviours tend to move together — fix your volume, and your posture will improve.

As for Allison, the client I mentioned earlier? She found out that once she ironed out the context for her pitch, the content flowed easily. She was able to focus on delivering the narrative she wanted: that of a poised, confident founder working on an exciting product. Armed with a structure that worked for her, she was able to adapt her content on the fly and stay focused on the big picture while fielding unexpected questions. To no one’s surprise, she closed a successful round.

To learn more about effective in-person communication, follow me on Medium or subscribe to my newsletter. In the coming months, I’ll walk you through each of these dimensions, and give you more guidance on how to apply them across a variety of formats.

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