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Learn how to communicate with impact – online and offline

11 April 2021

News and media


person giving a lecture to a group. Hand in focus

The shift to the world of online communication as a result of COVID-19 has changed the forums we use to talk to each other but the basics remain the same, says Dr Zina O’Leary.

She says that good communicators focus on their audience, not themselves, and learn to use their ‘authentic’ voice to motivate action in others.

Dr O’Leary will be delivering her Learning to Communicate for Impact and Influence workshop for ANZSOG in July, with a focus on communications in a variety of forums, including the online environment we are currently adapting to due to COVID-19. The workshop incorporates discussion, small group work, and individual practice/coaching in developing and delivering presentations.

She said that despite communication being a valuable skill, many people in the public sector did not recognise that it was one that can be learned and improved.

“I want public servants to know that changes in the way they frame their communication can lead to changes in their impact,” she said

The first step is to focus on your audience, not on yourself – which Dr O’Leary says is about making a shift from ‘I’ to ‘you’

“One thing we don’t do very well when we communicate is to think about what impact we want to have. We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to say, but not about what we want our audience to do,” she said.

“You need to know about your audience, what motivates them, what they want. You need to ask how can I motivate you to action.”

She said that former US President Donald Trump won the 2016 election because he was able to connect with a particular audience in a way other politicians could not.

“He understood more about disenfranchised Americans than mainstream politicians with their huge research teams. He capitalised on the fact that this group didn’t feel heard or accepted, or part of the national discourse, and was able to ‘speak their language’

“A lot of his comments were negative and divisive, but his audience had never heard a President say the things that they themselves were thinking.”

US-based Dr O’Leary said she, like many others, was learning how to best engage people in a virtual environment as part of her teaching, and that the workshop will discuss the pitfalls of trying to communicate virtually.

‘There are big challenges for everyone on virtual communications, especially with bigger groups. You don’t have the same body language, you can’t force the accountability on people the way you can when you can look at them individually or walk around a room. It is easier for people to zone out and lose interest,” she said.

“The best communicators are always reading their audience, and adjusting to it. They are making it a two-way conversation even if only one person is speaking – this can be lost in virtual communication if they are flying blind.

“You need to find different engagement tools and think about how to make it a two-way conversation in a way your audience is comfortable with – whether it’s chat functions or polls in larger groups.

“You need to work harder to make sure your audience is seen, appreciated and valued.”

Moving away from ‘reporting’ to find an authentic voice

Dr O’Leary said that people had usually only been taught to communicate through reporting, rather than through advocacy and influence.

“We have often been doing book reports from kindergarten right through to our professional lives, rather than thinking about how to influence people” she said.

She said the process of shifting from a reporting mode into a persuasive one was one of the keys to helping people unlock their authentic voice.

“If I am asked to describe a movie to you, I use a totally different voice compared to if I’m asked to persuade you to go and see a movie. When you become someone who wants to have impact and influence, that’s when we hear the authentic voice.”

She said that public sector workers were less likely to have found their authentic voice than those in other sectors.

“There are some cultural issues – some public services can still have a ‘Yes Minister’ mentality, and a focus on informing others, and an idea that this is what being a professional looks like.

“But a person’s authentic voice will still sound professional. We all have a number of authentic selves – think about the different ways you talk about something with your close friends, compared to your parents.”

“We often mask or block our own authenticity and make our communication less effective. I don’t teach you to have an authentic voice, I simply help you tap into it.”

Dr O’Leary’s teaching on finding your authentic voice covers not just the style of communication, but the use of body, voice, and language for maximum impact.

“The cadence and intonation of the reporting voice is not authentic. These aspects of vocal performance are incredibly important; it’s like the soundtrack to a movie, it cues you in to what you are supposed to feel,” she said.

Dr O’Leary says that you don’t have to have the communications style of a TED talk to be effective, and that introverts can be as good communicators as extroverts.

“There are many ways to successfully communicate, but good communicators bring their best self forward, no matter what that best is.

“I can’t stop you from feeling nervous but I can help you to tap into something unique about yourself that you can bring to a presentation. You might be witty, or warm and engaging, or passionate about your subject, and you need to get that across in the first 30 secondsand allow yourself to be seen as who you are.”

The two big communication mistakes

Dr O’Leary says that one of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that everyone is interested in what they have to say.

“Just because they are in the room or on the zoom call doesn’t mean they want to hear from you. People are really self-interested, and many are only interested in what effects them,” she said.

The other is to forget that in the internet age, you can never be the source of all knowledge.

“Your audience can get more breadth and depth of information on almost any topic from google, which makes your job to focus on the impact of what you have to say,” she said.

Learning to Communicate for Impact and Influence will be held online over two morning on July 7 and 8. For more information, or to register, click here

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