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The recent International Association of Business Communicators conference convinced me that digital devices are no substitute for real human interaction

In his monthly column for BCBusiness, branding expert Ben Baker shares his insights into how to communicate value effectively, so people want to listen and engage. In the end, it’s about creating influence through trust.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) recently held its 19th world conference in Vancouver. Lucky enough to get a press pass, I spent my time there trying to understand the future of communication.

The June 9-12 event saw some 1,400 participants from more than 40 countries, working for major corporations with significant budgets, gather to explore the theme Think Forward. Organizers broke the conference into five subsections: 

  • Leadership and strategy
  • Marketing and brand
  • Reputation
  • Employee engagement
  • Communication skills

Days started before 7 a.m. and went late into the evening. The goal was to bring together like minds from different backgrounds, cultures and businesses to explore how communication is changing and must change in the digital world.

Topics ranged from internal communication challenges to how to engage audiences across mediums in a meaningful and cohesive manner. The two days I spent with delegates, at sessions and chatting in quiet corners, led me to believe that communicating in a relevant way, so that people actively listen, understand and engage, was critical to the success of every one of their organizations.

I had a chance to listen to some incredible presentations and meet people from around the globe. The question I asked everyone was, What do you think the future of communication looks like?

Their answers gave me hope that as digital as the world has become, analog methods of communication will continue to provide us with the best understanding and results. With that in mind, here are five things you can do to sharpen your communication skills.

1. Pick up the phone
For me, five conversations captured the theme and feel of the event. The first was the Monday morning keynote speaker, U.S. radio journalist and author Celeste Headlee, who implored us to shut down our email, if only for parts of the day, and pick up the phone and talk to people.

“Empathy has fallen by 40 percent over the last 30 years” and “only one in five people believe that miscommunication is their fault,” according to Headlee. If so, no wonder our ability to communicate effectively has diminished. If 80 percent of the time we think it’s someone else’s fault that we’re misunderstood, why should we bother trying to raise our game as communicators?

Connecting person-to-person enables us to understand each other, show empathy and solve problems much better than we ever will through Outlook or Gmail, Headlee argued. Her explanation: verbal clues and tone of voice are missing from those digital exchanges, which are never truly interactive and don’t capture the nuances behind what people are typing.

2. Get employees on-board
Robyn Hannah, a representative of Dynamic Signal, spoke about the on-boarding process. Although her talk was dense and a way to sell the California-based company’s employee communication and engagement platform to industry members, she made a compelling argument that we often don’t on-board effectively.

If an organization doesn’t make employees feel part of the team from day one, they’re much more likely to seek other work sooner rather than later. People want to be listened to and valued, and understand how their efforts matter to the success of the business. My recent e-book, Top 10 Ways to Increase Employee Engagement and Company Loyalty, goes into more detail on the subject.

3. Engage your target audience on their terms
Later on the first day, I listened to Ayesha Lett, who joined us from Barbados and has spent most of her career as a print and TV journalist.

Lett focused on digital storytelling—using video to tell a corporate narrative in an effective way that engages the right audience and compels it to take action. The example she used onstage was the Rainforest Alliance’s “Follow the Frog.” Lett showed this video to make the point that we need to engage our audience where and how they want to be engaged. Using platforms and language that we approve of but don’t resonate with the target is futile. No one out there will listen, understand, share or act.

4. Talk to your people
Day two started with a keynote from Pim de Morree, co-founder of Corporate Rebels. This Netherland-based company’s mandate is to travel the world to better understand the most inspiring workplaces, and report back what makes them so special. 

The biggest takeaway: employee engagement greatly increases when the CEO and other senior management get out of the boardroom and take the time to understand first-hand what’s happening within their company.

Why? As information gets reported up the chain of command, it gets condensed and censored. By the time it reaches senior management, it no longer resembles the reality for those engaging directly with the customer. That disconnection leads to poor decision-making and policies that have little chance of creating the changes needed for organizational success.

5. Make company culture a team effort
The last and probably the best session I attended was with Mark Schumann, VP culture with Sabre Corp., who talked about understanding, developing and communicating company culture. 

Schumann’s two-hour workshop—which showed how to engage an audience and enable them to learn from each other—was compelling, interactive, and informative. Its lessons went well beyond culture. With probing questions, Schumann, whose Dallas-headquartered company specializes in technology solutions for the travel industry, allowed the audience to become the teacher. He asked us for examples of where we saw culture work well and not so well, the biggest challenges in communicating culture and how to achieve an effective one. 

The short answer to the last question was the same as we heard throughout the conference: break down silos wherever and whenever possible, and enable different parts of the organization to understand, teach and engage. No one department has all the answers or all the skills, so the more we can work together to create a place where everyone focused on one task—customer experience—the better off we’ll all be.

I want to thank IABC for giving me access and helping me see that the future of communication is to realize that technology, for all its benefits, needs tempering. Human-to-human communication, live and engaging, must be paramount, and tech is only there to augment when talking is impossible.

Ben Baker wants to help you retain and grow your most valuable asset…your employees. He provides workshops and consulting to enable staff to understand, codify and communicate their value effectively internally and externally and Lead at Any LevelThe author of  Powerful Personal Brands: A Hands-On Guide to Understanding Yours and host of the IHEART Radio syndicated YourLIVINGBrand.live show, he writes extensively on brand and communication strategy. Contact Ben here