Foot in mouth - a condition all business owners should avoid. Here’s how.

We have all put our foot in our mouth at some time and said something stupid, clumsy, awkward or embarrassing. It’s the ‘you’re pregnant’ when she is not, slipping out the surprise party details by accident or making an insensitive comment when the person can hear you. In a social situation, it’s easy enough to laugh it off, slink into the background and hope that no one remembers; nothing lost but a bit of pride. In business, such slips can take on a whole new dimension, erode your credibility or even cost you business. And they happen more than you might think.

Subtle clues of communication are picked up by those around you all the time, giving hints to your team, clients or prospects about who you really are. You may not be aware, but they are all noticed subconsciously and contribute to their opinion of you. In business, there is more at stake, so sensitivity is heightened for signs of distrust, but without personal relationships to increase an acceptance of shortcomings. Extra care is needed to avoid communication landmines.

It is the high pressure situations that get us on edge, with our nerves causing us to talk too much, too fast or without thinking. Presentations, sales meeting and pitches along with team meetings put the spotlight on us, resulting in over talking, clumsy expressions and verbal diarrhoea. Sometimes you can see the wrong words coming out of your mouth, but are powerless to stop them.

Just in the past few weeks I have seen colleagues and client carelessly toss words around in a way that make the audience question their true nature. The first time was a pitch for a multi-million dollar tender, where the GM didn’t stop talking when she had finished answering a question and, in doing so, introduced a new, unrelated point that made the 8 intervewers very subtely screw up their faces. Not a good sign, with millions of dollars on the line; every 1% counts and can mean not winning a deal or raising doubts about your competence.

In another case, a close colleague had lunch with the CEO of a very big client who was recounting stories of his recent trip to China, only to add in disrespectful comments about Chinese beliefs. My colleague, sitting at the same table, is Chinese.

A very common blunder is to point out shortcomings when it is totally unnecessary. Just last week, a business owner client told his team at a seminar that one of the guest panellists would not be attending, even though no one at the event had any idea. In another, a client told his team ‘I am not as prepared for this meeting as I should be.’ In doing so, they were basically telling everyone at the start of the event that it would be substandard, even though both went just fine and noone knew the difference.

Keeping your foot out of your mouth is easy enough to do, but it means some forward thinking and planning that must become habit. With a small amount of preparation, these errors can be are mostly preventable. Moments where it is likely to happen can be pressure cooker situations where your nerves are high and the stop valve between your brain and mouth is not working so well. These strategies will help.

  • Speak more slowly than normal so your brain and mouth can move at the same pace
  • Be yourself. When you try to be something you are not, it looks awkward from the start and you are more likely to falter.
  • Take your time, relax and enjoy. If you feel like it’s painfully slow, it’s probably about the right pace for your audience.
  • Prepare for every important conversation. The more important, the more preparation.
  • If you feel stress, remember that it’s just your body trying to help you through a challenging situation. Feeling stressed doesn’t mean you are going to make a mistake.
  • Watch the reaction of your audience - subtle clues tell you exactly what they are thinking.
  • Ask questions where you can to build a conversation not just a presentation. It relaxes everyone, builds rapport and gives clues to guide you.
  • If you do make a mistake, make gentle corrections and don’t overdo the apologies.
  • Resist the urge to over-talk; a little silence during the conversation is OK.

The difference between excelling and surviving in business can often be a series of 1%’s: lots of small things that add up to give you the edge over your competitors. Communication skills are definitely high in that list. Paying attention to how you are received and keeping your foot out of your mouth, through preparation and planning, can mean you stay one step ahead.