How to Be a Successful Communicator: Empathy

by francine Hardaway on January 21, 2011

Why is it so important to be a clear communicator,  even if you are a geek, and how do you become one?

Sure, clear communication is critical for personal relations, as the writer of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” pointed out many years ago. But let’s skip getting/staying married, passing your values on to your children, convincing the judge you really weren’t speeding, and telling the doctor where it hurts so he can fix it. Let’s go straight to pitching investors, selling a product, and building a company.

I’ve been reading proposals for the Arizona Commerce Authority’s Innovation Grants. There were 104  eligible submissions, and they ranged from software to biotech, to military supplies, to solar energy to medical devices. Each of the five volunteers had to read and rate all of the applications to come up with a short list. And we had to do it in about two weeks.

There’s a lot of money involved, $1.5 million in seed funding to be divided among the winners. That’s more than has ever been set aside for early stage companies by the state of Arizona. So it’s important that we make the right choices — that we bet on the ones with the best chance of commercializing their technologies and generating jobs and revenue.

Yet dozens of applicants, maybe as many as 30%, some of them the ones with the strongest CVs and the most experience, could not adequately explain the size of their markets, the nature and strength of their competition, how they were going to get into the market, or how their product could become a viable business and a market leader. WIldly cutting and pasting from previous copy, they tried to make the response longer, not better. Although most could tell in minute detail what the problem was that they were trying to solve, some of them couldn’t make it clear how their technology worked to solve it.

Others couldn’t explain how much their product would cost, or project how many sales they would have over the next year.

Still others failed to make me understand ANYTHING about how their technologies worked. Clearly these applicants forgot the lesson of Twitter: significant news can be communicated in 140 characters.

I wasn’t surprised. I meet entrepreneurs every day who can’t make their businesses exciting to an investor. Most expect the investor to be a mind reader — to have all the domain expertise, or the market knowledge, or the business models at the tip of his/her fingers. To “get it,” and understand why the entrepreneur thinks this is a big problem, a big market, a big idea.

But that’s not how it works. Anyone who sees a lot of deal flow is bound to come up against unfamiliar industries, technologies, or addressable markets. It is your job as the entrepreneur to educate me while we are talking, often in a very short time.

And that involves thinking of me as the audience, and trying to  imagine what I’d want to know. Yes, I said imagine. To make a successful investor presentation, you have to put yourself in my position. Especially when you are applying in writing for a grant or an award. Who’s reading the proposals? How would YOU feel if you had to read over 100 proposals in a short time?

In clear communication, a little empathy goes a long way.

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Empathy in leadership
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Phillip Blackerby January 22, 2011 at 12:24 am

@hardaway blog: How to Be a Successful Communicator: Empathy Make it vivid, personal and immediate!

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