The One and Only Key to Becoming A Compelling Communicator
Forget everything you’ve ever learned, and learn this instead.
Sex is conversation. Conversation is sex. By the end of this piece, I’m going to tell you why, but first, I’m going to share a tiny observation.
I’m a writer, which ostensibly means I get paid to wrangle words into a coherent and catchy message to communicate things to a target audience. This is, candidly, not a very hard job to do with a modicum of success: As former coach of Indiana University basketball, and role model to no one, Bobby Knight once said, while addressing journalists: “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.” My job is not hard to do. Spelling. Grammar. Syntax. Studied it. Practiced it. Never even went to college for it.
What I learned, as a writer — and one who’s gleaned a fair bit of professional success and personal fulfillment from it — is that being a compelling writer doesn’t necessarily translate into face-to-face communication. There are, by my count, at least four people I’ve met through writing on the Internet who, upon meeting me in person for the first time, immediately regretted that decision.
Conversely, there are a litany of people with whom I am close in real life, who make it a point to call out that they don’t actually like reading me, if they even read me at all. The words might be mostly the same, as is the mind behind those words (which is to say, my mind), but their effects can be as radically different as a gentle sunshower vs a category-5 hurricane. It’s all rain, but all rain ain’t the same, and it’s really the wind that’ll kill you.
So, what is it, then? What’s the disconnect? It all starts with these two unassailable and inevitable truths:
- Words matter, but how you wield them matters more.
- Words matter, but way less than you’ve been led to believe.
In this essay, we’ll talk about these two truths, how they apply, and how you can apply them to become the most compelling communicator in the room, no matter that room.
I want you to imagine you’re listening to someone speak — either directly to you, or to a group, or on a broadcast, or you’re eavesdropping on another conversation. At every point during your listening experience, you have the option to decide whether or not you’d like to continue listening. You might tune them out, check your phone, turn off the TV, walk away, change the subject, or end the dialogue. How you do it matters less than that you decide to do it at all. What would cause you to do so? Succinctly: boredom and/or aggravation. What causes those? It’s time to look at the levels of communication.
“Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.”
Elanor Roosevelt may not have come up with this maxim (there are conflicting reports as to whether or not this is an ER original), but she certainly said it and popularized it. It is mostly true, yet as it applies to communication in general, I would like to broaden the scope of this idea into something a little bit more holistic, and deepen it to include something even beyond ideas.
All communication is an exchange. An exchange of what? To quote a 21st Century Poet Laureate: “There’s levels to it, you and I know.” Seven, in fact. Here they are:
Level 1: Data — “It’s 74 degrees today.” Or, “I’m going to the Kendrick Lamar concert is Thursday.”
Level 2: People & Gossip — “My husband’s an idiot. He told me it’d be in the 50s.” Or, “I hear Kendrick Lamar has a ghostwriter.”
Level 3: Thoughts & Opinions — “74 is hot for April.” Or, “I can’t wait to see Kendrick Lamar on Thursday.”
Level 4: Plans & Actions — “I don’t think you need to wear a jacket today. It’s 74.” Or, “Would you like to come with me to the Kendrick Lamar concert?”
Level 5: Ideas — “I wonder if it’s so hot in April because of climate change.” Or, “Rap really is the rock-and-roll of the Millennial generation, and Kendrick Lamar is our Bruce Springsteen.”
Level 6: Beliefs & Services — “On a second thought, it might get down into the 40s tonight. I can give you a jacket in case you get cold.” Or, “By the way, if you do want to come see Kendrick with me, the ticket’s free. Really.”
Level 7: Emotions — “That first warm day in April feels like that first kiss from someone you’ve been crushing on all winter.” Or, “Omgggg I am on Cloud Nine right now. Thank you so much for offering me a ticket. I’d love to go.”
As you can see above, as you go up each level, the content contained in each corresponding example becomes more engaging, more evocative. To truly communicate effectively, it helps to communicate at the highest level possible, as often as possible.
The pinnacle of communication is a pure exchange of emotion. When you feel something, and you can actively transfer that feeling to someone else … and the less that gets lost in the transfer, or the deeper the emotion exchanged, the more compelling the communication. That’s not to say Level-7 is always appropriate, or always possible, but the higher the level you can hit, and the more often you can hit it, the more persuasive, memorable and fascinating you become. Words matter, but how you wield them matters more. How do you wield words to make them convey pure emotion? Through the power of stories.
What separates stories from lower-level communication? Stories have rises, falls, starts, stops, laughs, twists, plots, ebbs, flows, cadence, rhythm, narrative. They have — in other words — emotional elements that charge them up. They convey authenticity and vulnerability. Let’s use my back-catalog as an example:
There’s hundreds of thousands of people at Medium who write about personal development, love, relationships, politics, economics, science and music. At the risk of sounding like I’m beating own chest (see, here I’m providing data), 99% of them aren’t as widely read or acclaimed as I am. Why? Because I wrap my data, thoughts, opinions, plans, ideas and beliefs in real-life stories. And not just any stories, but really, really emotionally raw and vulnerable stories. Some personal. Some not-so-personal. But always extracting the as much emotion from them as possible.
To wit, from my 2018 essay, “Where My Writing Voice Comes From:”
C-word creators think they’re in the C-word industry. No, amigo, you’re not.We writers are part of the Feelings Industrial Complex. People read to feel first, learn second. You can’t just place facts and verbs in a vacuum and hope people remember them. You need to tie that shit to something evocative — something that gives people all the feels. Euphoria. Rage. Love. Warmth. Frustration. Nostalgia. Warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Moonlit nights in a meadow. Benedict Cumberbatch riding a unicorn.
This is why we grade comedies based on how much they make us laugh. And dramas on how much they make us cry. And action movies on how much they make us want to run through a brick wall. It’s what we feel after consuming art that allows us to assess if it was any good. Humans may reason based on data, and may change their minds based on ideas, but they’re only moved into action by emotions. Or, to quote yet another great 20th Century American woman:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
(I know. I know. You’ve no doubt heard that one dozens of times before.)
So that explains how to wield words to your advantage, but that’s only half the puzzle. At the top of the piece, I outlined two truths, and the second was: Words matter, but way less than you’ve been led to believe. Let’s explore that now. Let’s explore non-verbal communication.
Depending on which study you read, the percentage of communication that’s non-verbal ranges somewhere between 60%-93%. Knowing whether it’s closer to 60% or 93% or the exact percentage is somewhat immaterial. The point is: It’s more than half. Perhaps even a lot more.
What’s non-verbal communication? The way your suit fits. The way your eyes connect with your audience. How straight you stand. Your vocal tone and inflection. Yes, those are all things you learn in an MBA course or continuing education class or from one of those mildly abrasive Facebook ads hawking some e-book that’ll make you obscenely rich, happy and successful. All of that is almost true. Here’s what’s more true: congruence. Being an effective communicator is all about how congruent your verbal and non-verbal communication are with each other. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s go back to an excerpt from story at the top.
There are, by my count, at least four people I’ve met through writing on the Internet who, upon meeting me in person for the first time, immediately regretted that decision.
Well … why is that? The words were the same. The ideas were the same. The beliefs were the same. I didn’t lie in print and contradict myself in person.
So what happened? My verbal communication (just pure words) didn’t map to my non-verbal communication (everything else). I was not congruent. I was sending mixed messages, eliciting — and this is so critical — mixed emotional responses. And because words are such a small part of how we’re perceived (between 7% and 40%), my non-verbal communication overruled my words. “What” I was saying wasn’t nearly as important as “how.”
Non-verbal communication can neither overrule, nullify, distract from, support or amplify the emotion you’re trying to convey. It’s your brand. There are many smartphone providers, yet there’s only one iPhone. It may not be objectively the best phone on the market — not that anyone can tell, even reviews of smartphones are smeared by subjective bias and checkbook journalism — but it’s the iPhone. The brand is unassailable; it’s synonymous with prestige and affluence; and it inspires fervent, passionate legions of adoring fans. It elicits a strong emotional response. Take that, LG.
Sex is conversation. Conversation is sex. Sex is an exchange of emotions. It’s a transfer from one person to another, an infinite feedback loop between two (or more, you kinky motherfucker!) people. And, that, if I may draw a fucking parallel to fucking, is why so many men are so spectacularly shitty in bed: no, Brad, it’s not about using your dick to drill for oil. It’s about everything else. Your dick is level-1 data. (“This is sex.”) What are you doing with your hands? Arms? Lips? Eyes? Are you amplifying the emotion you’re trying to convey? What are they doing? Are you even listening to them?
Sex has rises, falls, starts, stops, laughs, twists, plots, ebbs, flows, cadence, rhythm, narrative. Hair pulling, crawling on all fours across the cold floor, restraint, kink and enthusiastically agreed-upon levels of violence and violation. It has — in other words — emotional elements that charges it up. It conveys authenticity and vulnerability. This is how you “devolve into puddles, sink into the concrete of your own insatiable yearning, then pull each other out, and reanimate into fully functional adults with day-jobs and electric bills.
Sex is conversation. Conversation is sex. And it’s almost all non-verbal. Want to become the most compelling communicator in the room, no matter that room? You can’t just place facts and verbs in a vacuum and hope people remember them. Make them feel something (after waiting for their enthusiastic consent … also known as listening). Tie that shit to something evocative — something that gives people all the feels — and stay in that emotional feedback loop as long as you can. And if it ends in sex? Congratulations. Try not about using your dick to drill for oil. That’s just level-1 data, and no one gives a shit what the temperature it is. They only care how hot you make them feel.