“What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m trying to hear you. I really am.
I know you’ve put serious thought into those words you’re trying to share right now. Whether your message is written or spoken, I know you want me to “get” what you’re saying.
But dang-it-all! Your Unspoken Loudspeakers are drowning out your message!
Huh? What’s an Unspoken Loudspeaker?
You don’t know this term? That’s because I just made it up. But let’s make it a thing. Because in the world of work and beyond, Unspoken Loudspeakers can make or break our communications.
An Unspoken Loudspeaker is any unspoken aspect of communication that can “speak” even more loudly than your words.
Managed with intention, Unspoken Loudspeakers can work in service to your message, like an amplifier tuned to the perfect settings to deliver amazing sound. But ignore them, and you risk that noisy interference that drowns out your words, overshadows your intentions, or negates all the hard work you’ve poured into planning and crafting a message.
There must be dozens of Unspoken Loudspeakers, and I’ll be curious how you would add to this inventory. For starters, let’s look at six ways you may be communicating without saying a word.
1. Your timing
Let’s say your company is in the midst of a reorganization. Some positions were eliminated immediately, but others are phasing out over time. It’s no secret that people are on their way out, and not by choice. Now is not the time to announce that you’re upgrading all the laptops or starting a tuition reimbursement program.
Not only would this timing pour salt on already painful wounds, but it may also power your rumor mill with reasons to question your motives, decisions, and actions.
In this case, you may be wise to save the good news for later, once your reorganized team is focused on working together for the future.
2. Your absence
The fact that you miss a communication moment may send people’s imaginations into overdrive. Their invented narratives may shout: “She doesn’t think this is important!” “He’s too busy for us!” “They don’t share our passion for the project!”
If you don’t want inaccurate assumptions to become your story, then show up. And if you can’t show up, try to reschedule, send a delegate, or communicate a sincere explanation for your absence.
Here’s a special watch-out if your company has gone all-in on a virtual platform like Microsoft Teams: Beware how visible your absence can be. In Teams, it’s easy to scroll the invitation list to see who’s in, who declined, and who’s a no-show. Don’t be fooled into thinking no one will miss you; someone will notice your absence.
3. Your silence
Sometimes the wise comment is no comment. When a conversation devolves to gossip, for example, your best bet is to refrain from joining (or use your voice to end that nonsense). In those moments, what you don’t say says a lot about your character.
On the flip side, your silence can be deafening. Suppose you interviewed me for a job last week and promised to follow up “in two or three days.” By noon on day three, I am sweating bullets. By day five, I’ve lost all hope. When you call me on day eight, I’m equal parts relieved, annoyed, confused, and questioning whether I can work in a culture with such a squishy calendar.
4. Your visuals
You’re 20 minutes and six talking points into a nine-point checklist. And I have no clue what you’re talking about because your slides are a freaking mess. So many words. A jumble of fonts and icons. Data tables in 10-point type. Trend lines going down even though you said things are looking up. I wish you’d just close PowerPoint, ask me to number a sheet of paper from 1 to 9, and let me write my own version of your checklist.
Your visual effect is even more personal than slides and screens. Consider how you show up. In virtual meetings, are you a black hole in the grid, or a moving presence in the conversation? Is your camera pointed at your ceiling and forehead or your head and shoulders? Are you looking at your second monitor, or simulating eye contact by looking at the camera? How’s your background? What’s your screen name? All these details create an impression.
And whether you’re appearing on screen or in person, your body language can be crazy loud. That’s why all I can remember about Professor What’s-His-Name is how he paced the floor with his arms crossed, even when he was speaking passionately about …. what was it? Honestly, I have no idea.
5. Your omissions
In our Story Mode workshops, Jill often gives a mini lecture on the importance of details. Not just the ones we choose to share, but the ones we opt to withhold. The choice should be a strategic one.
Sometimes an omission leaves a gap—a gaping hole in your logic or business case that keeps me from saying “I get it” or “yes” or “sign me up!”
Other times that missing detail is the very thing that stokes my curiosity and keeps me coming back for more. It’s the reason I click “learn more” on your web page, raise my hand to ask a question in your seminar, or schedule an appointment with your sales rep.
6. Your position
If you’re a senior executive, business leader, or prominent figure, take all the Unspoken Loudspeakers above and crank them to 11. Your position is an amplifier unto itself.
A CEO’s absence or silence can influence a stock price. A founder’s confusing pitch deck can cost a sale. A politician’s “no comment” can monopolize a news cycle for weeks.
All six of these Silent Loudspeakers are within your control. Pay attention to them. Adjust your actions to strike the right balance, avoid the noise, and deliver your message at the perfect volume.
What did I miss? What other Unspoken Loudspeakers do you see interfering with—or amplifying—communications in your world? Join the conversation over on LinkedIn.