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Episode 52: Effective communication matters in small biz

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

“We talk about scaling when it comes to products, but we don’t talk about scaling when it comes to communication.”

Meet Dr. Ebony Utley, associate professor at California State University, Long Beach. Ebony has turned life challenges into empowering tools she’s given others, to better connect and communicate in business and beyond.

For Xero Gravity #52, she joins Elizabeth Ü to share powerful ways to hone your communication skills with your team, your family and friends, and yes — yourself.

You’ll hear how practice is the key to listening, giving clear direction to staff, pitching your business to stakeholders and public speaking. Ebony also recommends striking a balance— learning your employees’ communication styles, giving them room to grow, and taking responsibility for your words by improving them, based on response (verbal and nonverbal). Plus a bunch more, including the ta-da list!

Small Business Resources:

Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Dr. Ebony Utley [DU]

Promo: You’ve just tuned in to Xero Gravity, a podcast for small business leaders and entrepreneurs around the world. Now to your host, Elizabeth Ü.

EÜ: Howdy everyone. I’m Elizabeth Ü, and you’ve just tuned in to Xero Gravity.

Guest soundbite:

“Like everyone’s got a voice, you’ve just got to learn to listen — right? So I’m just the conduit to which other people’s stories — that they’re telling in their own words— reach greater audiences.”

EÜ: Meet Dr. Ebony Utley. She’s a communications expert and associate professor at California State University Long Beach. Here she teaches courses on intimacy, pop culture and technology.

She’s an adviser for the dating app Queery and creator of online relationship game, Love Lines. This has been one of my favorite conversations so far on the show. Communication touches so many aspects of our lives, personally and in small business.

Dr. Utley shares with us some incredible insight about conquering our public speaking fears.

Guest soundbite:

“Your first public speaking audience is yourself. So anyone who practices a speech alone in their rooms or in their heads is doing it incorrectly.”

EÜ: So we have all of that and more coming up on Xero Gravity, right after this.

Promo: "Do you want 30% off Xero's beautiful accounting software? Businesses new to Xero can head to xero.com/signup and use the promo code XEROGRAVITY to get a discount on a 6-month subscription."

EÜ: Dr. Ebony Utley – thanks for joining us on Xero Gravity.

DU: Thanks for having me.

EÜ: So I’m curious, what kinds of things do you get up to for fun?

DU: Oh my goodness, I am a scotch drinker…

EÜ: Cool.

DU: …and every time I tell people that – every time I tell people that, they say, “you don’t look like a scotch drinker” and I say, “Thank you”. [laughs]

EÜ: [Laughs]

DU: But scotch is definitely one of my hobbies. I’m also really into yoga and I watch a lot of reality television, and I know that sounds kind of suspect, but I do relationship work, and if you want to know how people see relationships in our society then you have to watch them play out on reality television. So that’s not just play, that’s also a little work, at least that’s what I tell people.

EÜ: [Laughs] Well I understand that you have a background in traditional speech and communication. So at what point did you become fascinated with this field?

DU: Oh my goodness, I think it started with a catalog when I was in high school; and I’d already been accepted into Indiana; and I was looking through the catalog trying to figure out what I wanted to major in, and I was leaning towards English — but I found speech communication and I was like, “Ha, that sounds kind of interesting.”

It seems a little more applicable than English, so I’ll just try this out and picked speech com as my major. Plus my advisers told me that you’d never make any money with a degree in English. And I went to my first com class, and I learned things in class that I really use outside of class, and I was like “wow” this is great. It actually works! And then I was sold on speech communication and you’re right, I started out really traditionally, started with abolitionist rhetoric and then moved my way up to technology. I guess I sort of walked my way through history I suppose, until I got to the present day.

EÜ: Do you remember any of those lessons from your first communications classes that you were able to use outside of class?

DU: Yeah, it was really, really basic things like when you meet someone new use their names. People like to be referred to by their names, like make eye contact, nod slowly and say things like “tell me more.” Right? And people will be more inclined to open up to you. And I was like ah, that seems kind of suspect in the book and the activity, but I went home and tried it on my roommate and it worked. So much so that my roommate eventually got to the point where it’s like, “Stop treating me like a com case.” [laughs]

EÜ: Oh no! [Laughs]

DU: And she was like, “Talk to me like a normal person — it doesn’t work anymore.” [Laughs].

EÜ: So there’s a statute of limitations, diminishing returns on your communication skills.

DU: Just with roommates, but with other people it works just fine.

EÜ: So you’ve also invested quite a bit of energy into thinking and writing about hip hop culture, including both what is communicated within hip hop culture and also how people communicate about hip hop culture. So what inspired you to dig into these topics?

DU: As you mentioned, I started out doing really traditional speech communication stuff. So I started with abolitionist rhetoric. It was really interesting in how young black people were advocating for social change. And then I followed that through to civil rights and black power rhetoric. And then I was looking for the next stop, like where is that happening? That’s definitely happening in hip hop.

So I started thinking more about hip hop as a social movement and hip hop as a form of expression, and also a response to oppression — and I decided to focus particularly on rap and religion. So that’s the title of my first book, Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangster’s God. It’s about how and why rappers talk about God, and it’s really an intimate relationship, so sometimes God is your homie and sometimes God is a father figure and sometimes God is a lover, and that’s problematic. If it sounds problematic that’s because it is problematic, but that’s another story.

So anyway, I got really interested in intimacy and how people build relationship, and I was reading a lot of rapper bios and I noticed that, you know, most of them have wives and children. but most of them also have girlfriends and children simultaneously, and I was wondering how that works. So I did a project on infidelity and I did a project on early sexual experiences, and now I’m just really interested and obsessive about people’s relationships and romantic intimacy.

EÜ: And how is all of this relevant, not only in the US but around the world? Are things the same; are they different?

DU: In different contexts right, things differ. I mean and different age groups of course they differ, like across cultural experiences they differ. But the ground zero is that every human being is interested in intimate relationships with other human beings.

So I think that that part of the research is universal. Everyone is interested in the same questions, like what is love and how do I know when I’ve found it and what happens when you fall into it, what happens when you fall out of it, and is it something you can fall in at all. So those are the big human questions that I’m really interested in exploring now.

EÜ: So tell us more about how these topics have contributed to your understanding of human nature in general?

DU: Ah you know that’s a really interesting question, because I started out with the dark side of things, you know, infidelity and early sexual violations. Sometimes I just wake up and the world’s a terrible place and no one’s safe, you know? But all of these people are telling me stories of survival, so that means that survival is possible. And they want to share to help other people, and so that’s why I take the work so seriously: because I want to be the person who brings other people’s stories so that the reader will hear all those stories and realize, “I’m not alone. This happened to someone else and she’s okay, right? This happened to some other man and he survived it.” I don’t believe in being the voice for the voiceless, like I don’t believe that at all. Everyone’s got a voice. You’ve just gotta learn to listen. Right? So I’m just the conduit to which other people’s stories — that they’re telling in their own words— reach greater audiences.

EÜ: You just gave me goosebumps, I love this. And you’re also an entrepreneur yourself. So tell us more about your Love Lines project?

DU: Yeah, so again, I’ve got all these stories, and I know that most people don’t read. Like my best friend, she loves me dearly, but she’s never read any of my stuff and she’s not going to. It’s just not her thing, right? And I’m just like, there are so many people who are not into sitting down and reading, so how do I get these stories out to a broader audience in a way that’s accessible and interactive? And I was like, “Oh I know, I’ll build a game, right?” So I spent like 36 hours reading about literary game theory and then I built one [laughs].

EÜ: Wow! That’s Love Lines.

DU: And that is Love Lines, yes, that is exactly how Love Lines was born.

EÜ: Well I love how you’ve turned these personal challenges you faced into tools that other people can use.

So now it’s time to dig a little deeper into this episode’s theme, which is of course why effective communication matters for small businesses. So first of all, can you explain why effective communication is so important?

DU: Well the alternative to effective communication is ineffective communication, and that means if you’re not letting people know what you need and when you need it, and what you do and why you’re doing it, then they’re not going to be able to support you. And if they can’t support you, then your product is not getting built and it’s not getting marketed and it’s not getting sold. And it’s not getting bought by your customers, so your communication is your ground zero for building everything else in your business.

EÜ: You mentioned this yourself and several guests on our show previously have mentioned that we so often don’t know what we don’t know. So with that in mind, what are some telltale signs that we might need to improve our communication skills?

DU: When especially from your team, when what you’re getting delivered is not what you had in mind. I mean as the leader of a team that’s your fault, right? If you told them to deliver X and they brought you Z, there was something in the way you communicated X that was unclear, and that’s something you need to give more thought to when you’re communicating to other people.

But also with your team members, you don’t want to be so restrictive in your communication that they only produce cookie cutter products and they don’t have enough room to be innovative and deliver things that you might not have expected, but are just as good as or sometimes better. So it’s a fine line, right, between knowing exactly what you want and communicating it clearly, but also letting the team members know through your communication that they have enough wiggle room to be productive contributors to the team and deliver something that’s going to maximize everyone’s potential and profits.

EÜ: And how often do people know that when they’re not getting what they asked for, it’s because of their communication skills? I mean it seems like so often folks are going to want to blame people outside of themselves. So what is – what are – some of the moments that help people realize “Okay, I need to actually work on my communication skills rather than just blame people around me?”

DU: Yeah, one of the first things is the nonverbal messages of your team. Like when you are, you know, explaining to them what it is that you want face to face. If everybody’s eyes are glassing over that is on you, right? If no one wants to – if no one wants to make eye contact with you, then chances are they’re very intimidated by you and by extension they’re going to be afraid to play, right, and take that wiggle room to do something that might be out of the box. If their arms are folded and they look really closed and distant, that means they’re resentful of you and perhaps you’re not including the team members the way you need to be to maximize their productivity.

So nonverbal communication is definitely ideal. If you’re using email and some sort of text communication — if you don’t get immediate responses, sometimes that could be a suggestion that a team member is feeling some type of way, I like to say, or in their feelings right, or in about something that you said, and so they’re trying to decide the best way to respond to that. Again, it’s communication. This time without the nonverbals. That doesn’t mean that you automatically need to shoot back with 20 different messages because maybe they were busy.

EÜ: Right.

DU: It’s that balance, right, that you’ve got to notice. Like are these patterns or are these team members? Is this a team member who’s just slower to respond or is this a team member who always responds on time, but I sent this message, and then there is no immediate response and then I wait a bit and there’s still no response.

So there might be something about the way that I communicated it. And some things: when you get to know your team members, you know some things deserve a phone call, right — as opposed to just non-messaging. If it’s time to talk about a new contract with a contractor you should probably halt that conversation half way through and be like, “Hey, can we get on the phone and talk about this instead, so we can reduce the miscommunication.”

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that being an effective communicator is knowing the best way to communicate with each of your team members, because everyone’s different and everyone responds a little differently, and how I do that is I ask them, “How do you want me to communicate with you? Do you prefer email? Do you prefer text? Like do you like the long messages, do you want bullet points? You tell me how you think and learn best, and that’s the way I want to communicate with you.”

So as a leader sometimes it’s a bit annoying to have different apps for different members, but if I know I get immediate responses and this is how that person thinks, then that’s what I’m going to do to make them feel most comfortable and to maximize our communication between the two of us.

EÜ: So changing gears a little bit: small business owners need to know how to pitch, so whether it’s pitching the business to investors, or pitching products and services to customers or even pitching partnerships to potential vendors distributors, buyers, it goes on and on. What pitching tips can you offer so that we can be more persuasive?

DU: I think practice, practice, practice. So here’s the thing: when we talk about building products, we talk about you know, you build something like your basic [NVP] and then you test it, right? You iterate and then you re-iterate and then you do the back and forth product or process to make sure that you have the best product. I think most people are kind of familiar with that process now, like after the lean startup. But nobody thinks about it that way in terms of communication and we should, right? You pitch to someone sort of informally and they’re just like “Oh, I don’t know what you mean.” And you’re like, well okay, then you need to pitch again.

So for example when I was meeting with the advisers at the small development agency, they kept asking me about my projections and how I was going to make money, and I told them about my market and they were like, “Okay, but what’s your secondary market?” and I’m like, “My primary market is really solid. Why does no one understand that?” And so then I came back with numbers about the size of my product, my initial market, and how quickly it could grow, and then I never got another conversation about my secondary market, ever.

And then I realized it was me — it was how I was communicating it. I was communicating it from my professor, intellectual standpoint. This is a good idea, but the business people needed to hear how many people it was going to reach every year. And so it was just having a bunch of those failed conversations that weren’t really going the way I wanted them to, and I realized because I wasn’t giving them the information that they needed.

So just because you don’t have an investor on deck yet, doesn’t mean that you couldn’t ask a father in law or a sibling or another family member to listen to your pitch. If they had money, would they give it to you? And if they’re just like, “No, I wouldn’t give it to you,” then ask them why and see if that’s information that you could incorporate before you scale up.

We talk about scaling when it comes to products, but we don’t talk about scaling when it comes to communication, and that’s exactly what this is. You start with people that you’re close to, people that support you and then you scale out to a slightly bigger audience, the friends of friends, you scale out to a slightly bigger audience, next thing you know you’re on a pitch stage and you’re ready to go.

EÜ: So you’re speaking of scaling up your communication skills. Public speaking is such an important skill for entrepreneurs, and a lot of people suffer from public speaking angst. Do you have tips you can offer entrepreneurs who want to build their public speaking skill?

DU: Your first public speaking audience is yourself. So anyone who practices a speech alone in their rooms or in their heads is doing it incorrectly. You need to look at yourself in the mirror, you need to watch your body language. If I’m practicing a speech and I look bored, that’s a problem. If you’re boring yourself, you’re going to bore everybody else.

EÜ: [Laughs]

DU: Then you record yourself on video, you know, you get your cell phone or you get your laptop. You record yourself on video practicing public speaking and you send it to a handful of your closest friends: you get their feedback. So again, you know it’s safe, you know it’s a good audience, you know these people love you and they don’t want you to fail. But they’ve got to see you and they can tell you. I have this habit of blinking a lot. It’s actually not something I can fix but it’s the first thing my friends always say when I send them those videos, “You’re blinking way too much.” So they can pick out these sorts of things.

So I think some of the public speaking fear is the unknown. Like what are these people thinking about me in the audience. But if you test it with smaller audiences you can know, and some of those things will make you proud. You’re like, “Yeah, people are thinking that I look really confident and I stand with my shoulders back and I make eye contact.” But some of those things you might want to adjust, like you don’t make eye contact or you have a tendency to slope and hang your head down and those sorts of things.

That means you have to emulate the greats and that means you have to get good feedback, and sometimes that might mean you have to get a really good coach. But it isn’t something that’s just going to one day rollover and be like,”I’m a great public speaker today.” You really do have to practice and train for these things if you want to do it well.

EÜ: So in addition to communicating effectively with the people around us, you’ve pointed out that we also need communicate effectively with ourselves. So how do you recommend we talk to ourselves as entrepreneurs, but really just as humans?

DU: Yeah, I mean especially as an entrepreneur, it’s really easy to beat up on yourself because things aren’t going according to your timeline, or maybe you’re not equipped. Maybe you start to think, “I don’t have the skills that I need to be successful.” Entrepreneurship can be a really lonely road, and if you don’t talk nicely to yourself it’s going to get hard. Because first of all you’re already running on not enough sleep, right? And you’re probably anxious about your burn rate and where all your money is going, and so you’re stressed and you’re mean to yourself in your self communication. It’s going to become a bigger problem down the road. So sometimes I’m the queen of to-do lists: they’re everywhere. But a friend suggested to me once that I start a ta-dah list, and it makes all the difference.

So instead of looking at the list and going snap, “I didn’t finish anything on that list today,” I make another list on my whiteboard that lists all the things that I did accomplish. And you know as an entrepreneur you might have had a really productive day and not have done anything on your to-do list because some other crisis occurred and you had to take care of it. But if all you saw was the to-do list at the end of the day you’d be really sad about that.

So the ta-dah list is a really practical application where you list all the things that you did, or during the day you start listing the things that you did and you look at that and you’re like, “Okay, I can sleep today because I did these productive things and I can talk nicely to myself.”

Also I talk to myself out loud because it’s easy to lie to yourself in your head, but if you’re mean to yourself out loud you’re like, “Whoa that was harsh!” So sometimes you need that out loud check. And you’re like “Okay, I’m productive, I’m smart. This is going to work. I’m going to learn life lessons. It can’t fail because I’ve grown as a person in the process, I’ve grown as an entrepreneur, the team has grown.” So whatever is happening it’s supposed to be happening the way it’s happening.

I encourage entrepreneurs to write themselves a letter. I use an app called Future Me. You set a date that you want to get this email from yourself in the future and I put goals on it and I have them sent to myself every four years or so, and it’s super awesome. It’s like oh she was so cute four years ago, little Ebony, you know.

EÜ: [Laughs]

DU: Even if you haven’t checked those things off the list, you can still see how much you’ve grown. That documentation is also important when you’re having those bad self-talk days. If you just can’t, again, get out of your feelings, then you can look at something that you’ve written yourself a long time ago. You can look at the early documents for your business and your communication and you can actually see how much you’ve progressed, and you can be proud of that progression if nothing else.

EÜ: Oh I love that! I’m definitely going to implement the ta-dah list!

DU: Ta-dah list.

EÜ: So why is it so important to stay in contact with family and friends as an entrepreneur?

DU: It’s important because your family and friends need to know what you’re doing so they can support you. They’re your first line of defense, so if they know what your business is and they know what your product is when they’re out in the world and they meet someone that might be useful, they’ll know exactly what it is that you do. And I knew it was a problem when I was building Love Lines and someone was like, “Oh yeah, my friend Ebony, she has a dating app.” I’m like, “No, no, that’s not what it is.”

EÜ: Uh-oh.

DU: But then I realized that was my fault in the way that I had been communicating it. I was just saying, “Relationship game,” and that got translated into dating app, right? So it was important for my friends and family to know because they were telling everyone, they were telling them wrong, right? But they were telling everyone about what I was doing. So I was like okay, I’ve got to make sure my communication is up to par with them so they can support me in appropriate ways. If they’re using the right phrase with other people, then those other people might want to network with me and then the network builds and then your target audience builds, and then all of that can be such an easy soft way to do marketing. But it all depends on you talking to everyone all the time about what it is that you do, so that they’re familiar and they can support you.

EÜ: Well this is so great! I have learned so much here, and I think one of my favorite tips that you’ve offered is that you need to ask people how they want to be communicated with, so that you can hold them accountable. I also really love your message around being kind to yourself and making sure that the language you’re using with yourself is positive to keep you on track and motivated, and then finally I really appreciate how you’re offering this tip to practice public speaking on a smaller audience so that you can know what you might need to work on before you give your talk in front of a larger audience. So these are super helpful tips. Thank you!

DU: You’re welcome.

EÜ: And we’re going to finish up with our question countdown: five quick questions and five quick answers. Are you ready?

DU: I’m ready.

EÜ: What business, book or idea made the biggest impact on your life and why?

DU: The Lean Startup, because it’s that process of iterating and reiterating that I’m using to build the thing, and also in my communication.

EÜ: And what’s the one thing you can’t live without?

DU: WiFi. Enough said.

EÜ: And what’s the most useful app on your phone right now?

DU: It’s my Google Calendar. People ask me what I’m doing; I’d be like I don’t know, but the calendar says I’m busy.

EÜ: In one sentence: what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned throughout your small business journey?

DU: Just because it didn’t happen when I wanted it to happen doesn’t mean it isn’t happening on time.

EÜ: And finally: what skill do you want to enhance this year?

DU: I want to be more tenacious about finding mentors. I’ve been really passive about it, you know, when people approach me like, “I’m good.” But I haven’t really gone out to seek them and that’s definitely what I want to do for the rest of 2016.

EÜ: Well that’s all we have time for today. Dr. Ebony Utley — thanks so much for joining us on the show.

DU: Thank you.

Promo: Enjoying today's show? Then why not join the conversation! Just use the hashtag #XeroGravity.

EÜ: That was Dr. Ebony Utley, Associate Professor at California State University Long Beach. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity.

Make sure you join us next Wednesday when Michael Finkelstein will be joining us. He’s the founder and CEO of small business lending outfit, the Credit Junction. He also has some interesting stories from his former life as a record label owner.

So don’t miss out on that one and we’ll catch you then.

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