Getting clear to communicate effectively – Interview with Sandra Van de Cauter

Public speaking can be very frustrating. Many industry leaders fail in getting their message across even when they master many others skills. Regardless of your profession, communication skills are a must-have. Effective communication contributes to career success, being among the most in-demand skills that employers look for. It is not enough to come up with excellent ideas and solutions if you are not able to communicate them clearly.

On 27 June, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Europe hosted a workshop where Sandra Van de Cauter helped the participants to understand the essentials of good communication and the preparation that is required to communicate effectively during oral presentations. Sandra proved to be an excellent coach with a broad vision and yet a focus on the important details. Her workshop comprised interactive exercises so the attendees trained different aspects of communication. (e.g. the importance of preparation to give presentations that are more powerful.)

Sandra is a distinguished toastmaster and has recently written the book Get Clear: Craft and Deliver Impactful Presentations Worth Hearing. In her book, which came out in April this year, Sandra explains a method by which any person, after going through the four stages of the method, will be prepared to deliver a presentation in a meaningful and impactful way. The method emphasizes the importance of the psychology and presenter’s thinking process in the outcome of the presentation. The book also shows that the responsibility of delivering a good presentation and communicating efficiently lies ultimately with the presenter. No excuses.

After meeting Sandra at the HBA workshop, I had the opportunity to interview her to go more deeply into what good communication is about and to talk about her book. These are the highlights of our conversation.

Sandra, what sparked your interest in communication and presentation skills and in helping organizations and business leaders to improve?
My first encounter with the complexity of communication and presentation skills was in 1995. I had been a mentor for new colleagues for two years before starting a two years Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) training in 1997. In 1998, I was co-trainer for communication seminars for ground handling staff of Sabena (former Belgian Airlines). As a trainer, I not only provided training material but found myself presenting a variety of topics to a broad public.

I found it fascinating how the same presentation would be received so differently from a different public. It made me think about who is responsible for understanding the message you want to deliver.

In your experience, where do you think that people fail? Which are the most common mistakes in communication?
People often think that they make sense when they speak.  When they notice that, nobody understands them they do not necessarily reflect and ask how come. Often it is assumed that the problem must lay with the audience. Therefore, a big mistake presenters can make is to project their failure onto the audience. Thinking ‘it must be them’, but that is not true.

Another mistake that I often see is when presenters lay more importance to impress the audience rather than to be understood. In this moment, communication becomes one-sided and self-centred. The focus is no longer the audience, no longer on what the audience needs to know. That is when things go wrong. As a presenter, you do not make a good impression by just talking. A presenter leaves a good impression when the message is of interest to the audience.

It is not the same to know something and to explain it, right? In other words, what does a person who explains him/herself correctly do differently from one who does not?
A person who explains himself or herself correctly is a person who aims for being understood. This person is capable of stepping into the shoes of their audience.

Making sense of what you know to someone else can be very difficult. This is due to the fact that the knowledge we hold has been acquired over a long period of time, sometimes years of experience or study. When we want to transfer that knowledge to people in a short presentation slot, we need to focus explicitly on creating a clear message. Taking the time to think what the audience really needs to know, how much information is enough, how much is too much and how much is confusing. After presenting, it is important to offer the audience the possibility to ask questions for further clarification purposes.

What can organizations do to improve the communication among its employees?
I honestly think that we have to approach communication in a completely different way. Start by stop calling Communication Skills a ‘soft’ skill. Communication is not a ‘soft’ skill; it is a ‘core’ skill.
Communication is the glue between everything that we do during the whole day. It drives everything we do in the business.
Evaluating communication skills should be part of the hiring process, which would also require training managers to be able to assess these.

What are the organizational barriers that hindrances the flow of information among employees or departments that might result in a commercial failure of an organization?
The main hindrances I have witnessed during my whole career so far, in every business and industry I worked are twofold. The first hindrance is the personal agenda that the employee or manager has. People who are more focused on their personal gain and are not willing to communicate clearly. The second barrier is the identification with the title of the job. Once people identify with their business cards it is over. There is no way you can have a conversation on equal level with someone who became his or her title.

As a result of the two main hindrances a third hindrance is born: people that don’t want to see others being successful.

To reverse these three main hindrances we need to start tackling the last one so the other two will have way less effect or will not matter as much.

Which is the most critical thing for an oral presentation to be a success?
Over the years, I have developed a method called get clear. This process has four steps that I believe a presenter really needs to follow to be able to be effective. From this process, I would like to highlight the very first part of the get clear method: Focus. Gain awareness of your own personal motivation to present. This awareness process turns a speaker into his/her own ally. You want to be your own best friend when you present.

If we are given very little time to prepare an important presentation, which things should require our full attention and which could we do without?
First of all, it is a misconception in the business that it is normal to have very little time to prepare a presentation. It is something that we got used to but I think it is counterproductive.

However, it happens and often it is a fact that people are not giving a lot of time to prepare. My advice is to go through the four stages. Every part of the get clear method is important. This method only requires a couple of hours to draft a very clear, concise and appropriate presentation totally adapted and in the format your audience will understand.

The only thing you can leave out is a presentation tool: avoid spending time on slides, beautiful visuals or other representation tools. Focus on the message.

Communication is bidirectional. Is there anything that the audience can do to help the message to get across or are they just passive receivers?
The audience is equally responsible for understanding the presentation. So if you are invited to a meeting, first of all, it is your responsibility to really know why you are invited, what is expected from you and if you should really be there. You should be the right audience for the right presentation. It is the responsibility of the audience to accept or decline the meeting.

Now, when after the presentation you remain with some open questions, it is the audience to speak up during the Q&A session. I think it is counterproductive to leave a meeting having more questions than answers.

Which would be your advice to someone who wants to improve their communication skills, what would it be?
There is one book that I really like, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from Stephen Covey. Habit 5 explains the art of listening with the aim of understanding instead of listening with the aim of replying. There are differences between replying and understanding. In the end, it only takes one person to get clear, you. Ask clarifying questions. The NLP meta model is excellent to learn how to ask questions. As a final thought most presenters sabotage themselves constantly, finding all kinds of excuses to be ill prepared. Just remember the audience does not care about your excuses, they only care if their time is well spent. Gain awareness on how you sabotage yourself. Become your best ally. Get familiar with how to get clear and you will be more than fine, you will be successful.