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Communicating on the Third Level

As a business presentation coach, I have found that there are three primary levels of communication among small-business professionals in virtually any industry:

1. Do no harm. The person who communicates on this level simply wants to get to the end of a presentation, meeting, or talk without hurting his or her reputation, company, or brand. For my book, 10 Simple Secrets of the World's Greatest Business Communicators, Dilbert creator Scott Adams told me "50% of presentations in Corporate America aren't intended to transmit useful information. They're intended to transmit the idea that you know what you're doing and that you have things under control." He's not exaggerating. It's very true.

2. Get listeners to care. Communication on this level manages to engage listeners to the point where they truly get excited about the product, service, or cause, and are eager to hear more. It's a good place to be.

3. Change the way listeners see the world. Although rare, the person who succeeeds with this approach actively changes the belief systems of his or her listeners. Intuit (INTU) founder Scott Cook once told me that as an entrepreneur pitching his company to investors, Intuit's sales growth gave investors "permission" to believe in the story, but the strength of his presentations "changed their belief systems." Reaching this level can propel your business much further than you've ever imagined.

Level Three communicators are all around us. I met many of them while doing the research for my book: Starbucks (SBUX) founder Howard Schultz, founder Jeff Taylor, Intuit's Cook, New York real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, and many others. Remember, all of these people were small-business owners or entrepreneurs before they reached the pinnacle of success -- several have become billionaires! And it was Level Three communicating that helped them get there.

SPICE IT UP. An excellent example of a Level Three communicator is personal-finance guru Suze Orman, who started as a small-business owner in Emeryville, Calif. Today, her books, columns, products, and TV shows have made her a standout among the more than 650,000 financial planners in America. How did she do it? By communicating at Level Three with each and every person she encountered -- from her early customers to the masses who now watch her TV shows.

Before interviewing Orman for 10 Simple Secrets, I had the pleasure of meeting her several times as a TV host. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and it rubbed off on everyone she met behind the scenes -- from the makeup person, who learned how she could get out of debt, to the floor manager, who learned how giving up his pack-a-day smoking habit would help him retire with all the money he needs.

I watched as Orman spoke to these people for just a few minutes -- and gave them advice on transforming their lives. That's Level Three!

Level Three communicators share three traits: They're clear, concise, and compelling -- the three C's. I'm often asked what makes a message compelling. Listeners are engaged by stories, anecdotes, and analogies. As one client recently suggested, they add "two shakes of pepper" to their conversations.

POINTS OF CONTACT. Starbucks' Schultz is a master at telling stories to reinforce the reason behind introducing a new product or launching a new employee initiative. Similarly, Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer will tell anecdotes about customers who were satisfied with their experience. Each Level Three communicator looks different, sounds different, and has a different background, but each individual has a technique or two you can identify and adopt for your own small-business communication, whether you're addressing investors, employees, colleagues, or customers.

I'll explore each of these topics in future columns, which I'm happy to report will now appear twice a month. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions or examples of effective communication in small business, or if you would like advice on your own approach, please e-mail me at the address below. I'm happy to hear from you. Until then, keep striving for Level Three!

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