Going back to the office soon? As a speech trainer, one common source of anxiety I’ve been hearing from people is the social interaction they’ll once again have to make with colleagues.
But like any other form of public speaking — yes, elevator banter counts — small talk skills have nothing to do with your personality, and everything to do with learning to empathize with your audience.
If you want your skill and comfort levels to soar, avoid these seven conversational pitfalls:
1. Assuming that nobody wants to talk to you
If you’re shy, I get it. But you’re not the only one. If you’re fretting about seeming confident or “natural,” you’re missing the point: Stop thinking about yourself.
Instead, think of reaching out as an act of service. After so many months of social isolation due to the pandemic, odds are enormous that the person next to you is just as eager to make a connection.
2. Interrupting or intruding upon an existing conversation
Timing is everything. If you see two or more people vigorously engaged in conversation, they’re probably not ready for you to barge in.
First, wait for a lull. Then once you have someone’s attention and, ideally, receive a non-verbal go-ahead, that’s your chance.
Keep distance in mind, too; don’t stand too close or too far away. You do want to be heard. You don’t want to shout or come across as creepy.
3. Start talking without having something to say
If someone appears distant or lost in thought, moving into their personal space and mumbling “hey” is hardly an icebreaker.
Try asking permission (e.g., “Hi. Is it okay if I talk to you?” or “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you something?”) and make sure you have a fully formed question or comment in mind (e.g., “Are you having a good time?” or “How do you like being back in the office?”).
It’s all about creating a comfortable opportunity for the other person to respond.
4. Broaching controversial topics
If you’re talking to someone new, it’s generally best not to talk about weighty, off-putting or polarizing topics, like abortion or politics.
If you gravitate towards those topics later on, great. But for starters, aim for something simple and close at hand that you and the other person can observe together. Maybe it’s the music you’re both hearing, the food you’re both tasting or the big “Welcome Back” office banner you’re both facing.
5. Being hard to follow
Once you’ve made a connection with each other, keep that connection going by making yourself easy to understand.
If you speak different languages, for example, slow your speech and enunciate clearly. If you tend to speak in slang, don’t use words they might not know. If they ask you what you do for work, answer in a way that doesn’t take five minutes or deploy a lot of workplace jargon.
6. Talking too much about yourself — or about the other person
It’s often said that people love to talk about themselves, and that asking questions is the secret ingredient to good conversations. But that’s not true for everyone.
Nobody likes to feel interrogated, so if you sense that questions aren’t welcome, back off. Instead, tell a story, offer an opinion or otherwise relieve them of the burden of performance.
If you can’t sense where their interests lie, try asking about subjects you’re interested in (e.g., “Hey, do you think this shirt looks funny?” or “Have you been to any good, new restaurants in this area lately?).
7. Wasting someone’s time
If you’re talking to someone, talk to them. Don’t stare at the floor or look over their shoulder at another person. Put your phone away. Be present and give them your full attention.
It’s easy to dismiss small talk as an insincere, unwanted and unimportant social nicety. But every relationship you value began somewhere — with an initial conversation. Was it profound? Did you cure cancer? No. But you made a genuine connection.
Understanding what other people want, how they feel, and how they see the world is becoming increasingly important in our complex, globalized society. Social skills enable us to make friends and create a network of people who support us. But not everyone finds it easy to interact with other people. One of the main reasons is that two of the most important social skills — empathy, i.e. being able to empathize with the other person’s emotions, and the ability to take a perspective, i.e. being able to gain an information by adopting another person’s point of view — are developed to different degrees.
Researchers have long been trying to find out what helps one to understand others. The more you know about these two social skills, the better you can help people to form social relationships. However, it still not exactly clear what empathy and perspective taking are (the latter is also known as “theory of mind”).
Being able to read a person’s emotions through their eyes, understand a funny story, or interpret the action of another person — in everyday life there are always social situations that require these two important abilities. However, they each require a combination of different individual subordinate skills. If it is necessary to interpret looks and facial expressions in one situation, in another it may be necessary to think along with the cultural background of the narrator or to know his or her current needs.
To date, countless studies have been conducted that examine empathy and perspective taking as a whole. However, it has not yet been clarified what constitutes the core of both competencies and where in the brain their bases lie. Philipp Kanske, former MPI CBS research group leader and currently professor at the TU Dresden, together with Matthias Schurz from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and an international team of researchers, have now developed a comprehensive explanatory model.
“Both of these abilities are processed in the brain by a ‘main network’ specialised in empathy or changing perspective, which is activated in every social situation. But, depending on the situation, it also involves additional networks,” Kanske explains, referring to the results of the study, which has just been published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. If we read the thoughts and feelings of others, for example, from their eyes, other additional regions are involved than if we deduce them from their actions or from a narrative. “The brain is thus able to react very flexibly to individual requirements.”
For empathy, a main network that can recognise acutely significant situations, for example, by processing fear, works together with additional specialised regions, for example, for face or speech recognition. When changing perspective, in turn, the regions that are also used for remembering the past or fantasising about the future, i.e., for thoughts that deal with things that cannot be observed at the moment, are active as the core network. Here too, additional brain regions are switched on in each concrete situation.
Through their analyses, the researchers have also found out that particularly complex social problems require a combination of empathy and a change of perspective. People who are particularly competent socially seem to view the other person in both ways — on the basis of feelings and on the basis of thoughts. In their judgement, they then find the right balance between the two.
“Our analysis also shows, however, that a lack of one of the two social skills can also mean that not this skill as a whole is limited. It may be that only a certain factor is affected, such as understanding facial expressions or speech melody,” adds Kanske. A single test is therefore not sufficient to certify a person’s lack of social skills. Rather, there must be a series of tests to actually assess them as having little empathy, or as being unable to take the other person’s point of view.
The scientists have investigated these relationships by means of a large-scale meta-analysis. They identified, on the one hand, commonalities in the MRI pattern of the 188 individual studies examined when the participants used empathy or perspective taking. This allowed the localisation of the core regions in the brain for each of the two social skills. However, results also indicated how the MRI patterns differed depending on the specific task and, therefore, which additional brain regions were used.
Matthias Schurz, Joaquim Radua, Matthias G. Tholen, Lara Maliske, Daniel S. Margulies, Rogier B. Mars, Jerome Sallet, Philipp Kanske. Toward a hierarchical model of social cognition: A neuroimaging meta-analysis and integrative review of empathy and theory of mind.. Psychological Bulletin, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000303
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. “Empathy and perspective taking: How social skills are built.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 November 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/11/201110090427.htm>.
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Few people would disagree that empathy is a good thing to have. But for some people, the ability to “feel” or share in the emotions of others, and understand them as if you were experiencing them yourself, doesn’t come naturally. And while it’s been suggested that this feeling is what makes us “truly human,” it’s OK if you want to improve your empathy.
Empathy is not only useful as a human emotion in and of itself; it can also help us become better listeners, managers, partners, and even increase our happiness as a result. What’s most interesting, though, is the emerging theory that empathy can in fact be learned. It’s not static; you can actually make yourself more empathic.
How empathic are you to begin with? There are a variety of tests available to assess how much you identify with others, but one of the most popular is the Empathy Quotient or EQ, which was developed in 2004 and consists of 60 questions you have to rate, such as, “I can tell if someone is masking their true emotion.”
Being too highly empathic can also have its difficulties; for one, it makes it nearly impossible to watch movies based on cringe humor, but for another, it can mean that your own emotions become clouded by what other people are thinking and feeling. If you’d like to increase your empathy a bit, though, science has some ways to help out.
1. Hang Out With Strangers More
In 2015, a group of Swiss scientists confirmed what might seem relatively obvious: humans learn more empathy when we spend time hanging out with new people. Having positive experiences with social groups that have different experiences than we do helps break down the idea that our experiences are different at all, and creates a better link with others.
2 . Experience Stress For Yourself
For a long time, it was assumed that all stress made people react in ways that got them away from the stressful situation, either by retreating into themselves, battling it head-on, or running away. Now, however, we know that a specific kind of stress doesn’t follow this pattern; instead of prompting people to hide away from others to protect itself, it seems to cause an increase in empathy.
A study in 2017 found that when you’re stressed out doing a task (and are told you’re doing it wrong), your brain’s “empathic circuit,” which helps you imagine the pain and emotions of others and connect them to your own feelings, show more activity. In the study, 60 male undergrads were put through a stressful test while being given negative feedback, and then shown images of other people undergoing a painful procedure.
The more stressed they’d been by the process, the more empathetic the subjects felt towards the people in the images, even though they were strangers. The study shows that just undergoing a kind of stress, even if it’s a different experience than the person you’re hoping to empathize with is undergoing, can help you build more empathy — so it’s not as simple as going through the same thing as someone else.
3. Make More Friends — And Go Through It Together
An experiment at McGill in 2015 found that our sense of empathy has a literal effect on our experience of pain. In the experiment, people were asked to put their arms into ice water in the presence of others doing the same, either strangers or friends, and rate their discomfort. Oddly, when friends were doing the same experiment, people rated their own pain as higher — not because empathy is painful, but because when we empathize more with someone, such as a friend, it seems to make us literally feel (or believe we feel) other peoples’ pain.
However, it didn’t take very much for an empathetic bond (measurable by the response to discomfort) to form. Just 15 minutes playing a video game with strangers changed them into people who could literally feel each others’ pain — thanks to empathy.
Lesson: to increase a sense of empathy, it’s important to be open to new experiences, both the good and the bad. Your friends, family, and partners — as well as the strangers who will one day become friends — will thank you.
Here’s a strategy brands such as IBM and Starbucks have been using for years to bolster their marketing reach and their revenue – employee activation.
By harnessing the potential of the people who know your brand better than even your most devoted customers, you can tap into a rich source of brand advocacy and fuel growth.At the same time, you’ll boost employee engagement.
Engaged employees have a vested interest in your organization’s success. They are aligned with your messaging and vision. And they offer something much more important than greater productivity.
A positive employee attitude can engage your customers as well. Look at it this way. As many as 68 percent of customers abandon a brand as a direct response to poor employee attitude.
The bulk of customer brand perception – about 70 percent – doesn’t depend on the ingenuity of your video marketing strategy or the quality of your products – it’s human interaction with customer service representatives, your employees at in-person events, email and live chat responses, and the content your employees are sharing about your brand.
When your employees do share your company’s content – something that’s not likely to happen without motivation, only about 3 percent of employees share company-related content – you are looking at a healthy boost of customer engagement.
This positive impact is exponential. When you can motivate 6 percent of your employees to share content, customer engagement increases by 60 percent. With 10 percent active employees, you’re looking at the potential for a 100 percent increase.
The bottom line is, the experiences customers have with your employees shape the impression of your brand more than anything else.
On the other hand, when you fail to activate your employees, you’ve effectively created a financial black hole for your organization. Disengaged employees cost businesses from $450 to $550 billion each year.
So, how can you activate your employees?
The key is in understanding what employee activation truly means. Hint: it’s much more than offering a carrot.
When you look at examples of excellent employee advocacy programs in action, you’ll see that it’s more than a few tweaks to your organizational processes and internal communications. It’s a shift. A transformation that’s going to take time and conscious effort, but one that you can fully achieve with the help of a few tools, tips and strategies to help you activate your internal experts.
Let’s get started.
What Does Employee Activation Involve?
Employee activation is all about motivating your employees to share content with their social networks. We already know that word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most effective techniques for generating leads and boosting sales.
Employee activation takes this one step further, tapping into your employees to expand the reach of your brand. Just how much of a difference will this make? It can potentially have a seismic effect. This is because, for the typical business, the social networks of employees are 10 times the size of the social following of the company itself.
“When you can activate your entire company to be brand ambassadors, the full effects of social selling can be felt globally.”
-Koka Sexton, Sr. Social Marketing Manager formerly of LinkedIn and Hootsuite
Being able to activate your employees offers more benefits than a wider social media net for your brand to reach out to. Way more.
Your organization will experience a cascading positive effect because as you put in the effort to activate your employees through training, supporting, mentoring, and mobilizing, you’re also aligning their work with the purpose and mission of the business. You’re making their job more meaningful.
This isn’t just a shiny ideal. Purpose is what makes getting out of bed in the morning to come to work appealing. And it’s something consistently profitable companies have been focusing on for years – take Southwest Airlines for example.
They focus on both company culture and customer service and make a point of recognizing employees regularly on their website, their brand magazine, and they have a library of videos sharing stories form real customers who appreciated the experience they’ve had with the brand.
Taken further, active employees have a lot to gain. When they share their insights, expertise and vision, they are building their own personal brand, which can support their careers in the long run.
“If you help brand your people, they will help brand your company.”
You’ll have employees who are both engaged and motivated, and who can benefit themselves from their experience as an employee advocate. The more they invest into the company through sharing content and brand advocacy, the more they have to gain professionally. Win-wins tend to be good for everyone.
Here are just a few of the bonuses other companies are already seeing from a serious approach to employee activation:
Easier to attract top talent. Employees are trusted 3 times more than your organization’s CEO by potential recruits. When they are visible on social media as brand representatives, it’s a lot easier to attract quality hires.
Increased employee retention. Companies with active social engagement are 20 percent more likely to retain talent.
Better brand storytelling. Want more authentic content? Get it from the people who are the heart of your business by inviting them to share their voice. Neil Gunn, the Digital Strategy Advisor for the World Wildlife Fund in the UK says, “The theory is that people who have the stories to tell are on the ground. If you really are going to do social well, you need to make the connection with those who have the story to tell.”
Boost in sales leads. For employee sharing on LinkedIn, research shows that sales leads increase by as much as 58 percent.
3 Brands with Employee Advocate Programs
Take a look at these examples of brands who have made engaging their employees a priority.
Dell excels at activating their employees on social. What they’ve done is create a dynamic training, support and facilitation program to empower their sales employees to be active on social and to ensure social usage is as effective as possible.
Employees who want to be a part of the program go through training.
Dell then gives their employees branded accounts to use (@dell).
There’s a Governance system in place to guide the process, approve ideas, and, in general, facilitate more worthwhile marketing and recruiting content.
They also have a specialist team to monitor and respond to customer service issues and branded conversations on social media.
This highly structured approach has been a big win for both employees and Dell.
Sales employees who use social media outperform nonsocial salespeople by 23 percent. For Dell, they get way more customer engagement – social content posted by employees, for Dell, is eight times more engaging than the content the brand publishes. It’s also boosted profits, by over $14 million.
Adobe’s Social Shift Program is another forward-thinking approach to employee brand advocacy. It offers education and best practices to help employees become better brand advocates. Employees can even test their ambassador skills by practicing with simulated experiences.
Lauren Friedman, head of Global Social Business Enablement for Adobe says of their employee advocacy, “We believe that people trust people. People buy from people. Relationships fuel our overall success.” She also points out the program works through enabling and encouragement, giving employees plenty of room to be themselves, saying, “We don’t want to create an army of Adobe-bots!”
Adobe then encourages employees to share on different platforms.
Post on the Adobe Life blog
Participate in contests for social sharing with weekly recognition for top ambassadors
Adobe scouts out ideal spokespeople to post on LinkedIn and Glassdoor
Employees who really stand out are invited to special events like Adobe’s MAX conference
Their strategy works. Over one-third of Adobe’s employees have gone through the Social Shift. Adobe is known for having the most social employees in the entire tech industry.
Headed by the always visionary Howard Schultz, Starbucks is another company that has been motivating employee brand advocacy for years. This hasn’t just led to active employees on social media and boosted trust in the brand, it’s also sparked their customer-based brand advocate army. Starbucks is king at inspiring user-generated content.
Starbucks encourages employees to share brand updates and stories on their social media profiles. They also use their internal team to gain feedback before releasing new products. This is an excellent technique for B2C brands who want to test out new ideas on ‘consumers’ before launching into the real-world.
“[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance, and as such, the primary catalyst for delighting customers. [They] elevate the experience for each customer – something you can hardly accomplish with a billboard or a 30-second spot.”
Your employees are more trusted, more social, and may be some of your brand’s best storytellers. Here are tips and strategies you can use to motivate them to be vocal about your brand.
1. Start Small with the Social Stars You Already Have
Talent consultant Lars Schmidt warns that starting an employee activation initiative with your HR department or upper management can backfire. “Employees may be skeptical if HR or leadership pushes them to act. If they see their peer participating, they’ll be more compelled to follow suit and your initiatives can grow organically and authentically.”
Identify your employees who are already advocates on social media and start small with them. Once you’ve trained them to use their social profiles or their dedicated branded profiles, you have your internal leaders who you can then use for a larger program.
2. Make It about Personal Branding
The best way to motivate brand advocacy within your organization isn’t by offering a financial or physical reward. It’s about personal incentive.
Especially for B2B brands, employees have the chance to share their own expertise and establish themselves as industry experts while they work for you when they post well-researched or thought-provoking content on LinkedIn, publish how-to videos on YouTube, or share links to content on Twitter and Facebook.
Your employee activation should be about empowering your employees to be the best professional version of themselves. This, in turn, benefits your brand as they are your organization’s social representatives. It also fosters an authentic interest in giving their best to the organization they work for.
Approach brand advocacy as advantageous for both company and employee and you’ll get sustainable interest.
3. Teach Your Employees to Fish
Have a support system in place at the beginning. You don’t have to start out with a social training academy like Dell or Adobe. But, at least have established guidelines, tips and best practices, and identify social experts within your organization for individuals to go to with questions or for some one-on-one guidance. This will set the foundation for a successful program.
An effective strategy is to create regular educational content. Webinars, a library of educational videos filled with social media pointers, training sessions, or short weekly or monthly meetings are all methods you can use to make sure your employees know what’s acceptable to share and the best ways they can be successful sharing their expert voice on various social media platforms.
4. Make Social Sharing Convenient with Curated Content
Your employees are more likely to be active when you make it easy for them. As part of your employee activation program, you can regularly supply curated content. Include relevant blog posts, videos, industry news, and case studies. Then, encourage your advocates to edit the posts so as to use their personal voice.
5. Incentivize with Contests
You won’t be able to maintain a sustainable employee advocacy program on incentives alone, but they definitely can keep people interested. Think weekly contests or giveaways. This type of motivation is more about keeping your employees engaged than it is the reward itself so make your contests fun and interesting.
6. Leverage Technology
Yes, there’s an app for employee activation. In fact, there are several, including plenty of machine learning algorithms and AI-inspired platforms. Take advantage of these tools to make motivating your employees that much more effective.
Elevate is a LinkedIn resource that you can use to share curated content at scale. It’s a built-in feature, making it too convenient not to use.
EveryoneSocial is the employee advocacy platform used by Dell and Adobe and makes it exceedingly simple for employees to share content to their social networks at scale.
Dynamic Signal is another useful tool for employee sharing that comes with analytics. The platform includes the ability to send out real-time notifications and personalized invites. You can also create quizzes, surveys and interactive content to keep your employees engaged.
Influitive is an advocacy platform that is used by companies like Quickbase and MongoDB. Their AdvocateHub motivates advocates to share content, reviews, and testimonials across the social web.
DrumUp lets you create custom posts and curate content. It also comes with a point system to recognize social stars and analytics to track activity. DrumUp uses machine learning and Natural Language Processing, which means you’re going to see highly relevant content with the curation function.
There are also solutions from social platforms like Hootsuite’s Amplify and Bambu from Sprout Social
7. Use Your Advocates Wisely
While your employees’ social profiles may have the Midas touch, you still need to be careful how much you use your employee advocates. This is true for two reasons. First, you don’t want to make your advocates feel pressured to spend too much time on social sharing. For them, it should be simple and easy, not another task. Otherwise, you’ll have less people interested in your voluntary program.
Second, and more importantly, too much social sharing will dilute the value and authenticity of employee content. The reason employee sharing is so powerful is that it is an individual sharing content rather than the brand. If your employees’ social networks are being inundated by posts, people are going to start ignoring the content and, at some point, it will start to feel like brand marketing content rather than authentic insights.
Employee activation gives your brand’s online presence and reputation a mega boost of trust and engagement. Leads that are generated from employee social sharing convert seven times more often than other leads. It can increase sales and establish your brand as a more trustworthy organization. It can even help you attract premium hires to help your business succeed more in the future.
On the other hand, overlooking the potential of your employees can be a fatal error. Not only will you miss the chance to rake in more leads and sales and to enjoy a brand reputation boost. You are also missing the opportunity to help your employees grow professionally and to experience a greater sense of value and connection with the company they spend 40 plus hours a week working for – and this will cost you big time.
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