In my previous post, Want to be a Better Consultant? Then Start Talking Like a Real Person, I share the realization that changed the way I interact with clients. Here, I share the specific tactics that have helped me become a better listener and thereby made me a better management consultant.
1) Admit you have a problem
I didn’t change my approach because I was failing. I changed because I believed I could do better.
I recalled times I literally talked over clients because I was so focused on making a point. Think about that. I was so focused on transmitting information I literally prevented the people who paid my bill from telling me something.
Why did I do that? Part of the reason was because, as a consultant, I often felt I needed to be knowledgeable and “have answers”. Also, I thought I was really smart and well prepared. I couldn’t wait to share all my knowledge with my client. My ego made me a less effective consultant.
2) Talk slower
Why are you speaking so fast? Do you think it makes you easier to follow? Sound smarter?
So slow down.
Believe me, only good things will happen.
3) Pause – Talk – Pause
Every time a client stops speaking, take at least one breath before you speak. This ensures they are really done and it gives you a split second to gather your thoughts.
Every time you finish a thought, pause.
Not only will people have time to absorb what you are saying, you leave a natural opening for others to speak.
4) Communicate one thought per “turn”
A client asks you a question. Give the shortest possible answer to the exact question they asked. Then shut up for a second. Do not answer the question you think they are going to ask. Don’t answer the question you think they should ask. Just answer. Then be quiet for a moment.
5) Know what your objectives are. Figure out a plan for how you will get there.
A conversational approach requires finesse and flexibility. You will not drive the conversation from the top down. So you need to understand what you need from the discussion. Then use your questions (and your answers) to guide the conversation to meet your objectives.
6) Make it worth their time
95% of the people who you speak with during a consulting engagement were not involved in hiring you. They don’t know you. They may not want you there. They may or may not want your project to succeed. They probably don’t want to hear you talk and they may not even want to spend their limited working hours providing you with information.
Think about how to make your meeting at least vaguely interesting for them. Position how the project could assist them. Share anecdotes from other projects that relate to their departments. Don’t come across purely as a taker.
7) Ask for opinions
Whether you are conducting an interview to obtain information or delivering a presentation to share results, the opinion of your audience remains paramount. When in doubt, ask and ask often. Pepper the conversation with questions like “does this match your experiences here or at other companies where you have worked?”, “do you think this sort of approach could work in your company?”, or a simple “what do you think about this?”.
It turns out, most people have opinions and rather enjoy when someone listens to them.
8) Powerpoint is for reference only
Normal people don’t want to listen to somebody read powerpoint slides. Presumably they can read. Would you enjoy a new novel more if a consultant read it to you? I really, really hope not.
The only major advantage for powerpoint is pictures. A good chart, diagram, or picture can provide context and information quickly and powerfully. Those are the only types of slides you should use when talking to clients. The conversation becomes discussing what the pictures are showing.
The right number of slides for a meeting is the minimum number of slides. Those pages should be filled with pictures. Details and appendices are meant to be read in detail. Nobody needs you there to do that.
9) Find ways to make it interactive
Consultants love whiteboards. I am no different. If there is a whiteboard in the room, my goal is to get every single person in the room to write something on it during the course of the meeting.
As much as consultants love whiteboards, clients tend to avoid them, at least during meetings. So, be patient. Always go first to break the ice. Coax clients up to the front by setting them up for success in areas where they are most knowledgeable and confident. One person standing at the front of the room drawing is a teacher lecturing students. A group of people taking turns writing on a board is the beginning of a team.
10) Optimize the surroundings
You generally chat with your friends in places where you feel comfortable. The same applies to clients. Work to figure out where they will be most comfortable working with you (unfortunately, a beach in Cabo is probably not in your project budget). Usual choices are their office, your office, meeting room or outside area (e.g. literally a coffee shop). Everyone is different. It is your job to find their comfort area and try to organize your meetings there.
There are no easy rules to follow. You need to observe and improve over time. I try to get the easily distracted clients out of their offices and into meeting rooms. Coffee shops or external sites can be very effective for negative clients. Client office can be excellent for people less likely speak freely in larger groups.
11) You better know your stuff
Listening to people means you will often get unexpected opinions or feedback. It’s funny how that happens when other people actually get to talk. So, if you are going to adopt a conversational approach you better know your stuff well enough to deal with a few surprises.
12) Wrap Up
I’ve been working long enough to know I have not mastered anything. I have become better at some things. This is one of them. I hope this article helps you to do the same.
This is the second in a series about how to become a better management consultant. You can find the first article here: Want to be a Better Consultant? Then Start Talking Like a Real Person.
Fuel for the curious mind.