I don’t know what Minnewanka means yet. I’m sitting, as we speak, on a tourist barge in Banff National Park (Alberta). About to go out boating on a 14-km-long lake named Minnewanka. Anyone who has been here will probably tell you the most striking things about this place are the incandescent blue-green water and the pastry-like mountains, with layers of rock that make them look like cakes of baklava…huge baklava. Dessert to salve the spirits of the mountain giants.
Our tour guide is Todd, and the skipper is amazingly just 20 years old…Pierre. He says he has been working here all his life. I’m sitting in the second tier of seats, up toward the back where I can hear the growl of the engine as we pull away from the dock and out into the peaking little waves.
As Todd begins talking, I realize after awhile he hasn’t said much at all about the lake. He’s been talking about wildlife, showing pictures, and making mild jokes that relax us. I got to share the fact that I had seen a mother mountain goat and her kid one morning up on Norquay mountain, coming down from the ski area. I suppose that’s the goal; we have an hour to go, and he has to talk about something. There’s plenty of time left later in the tour to talk about the lake and the rocks.
I believe there is another reason he’s talking about wildlife. There are lots of issues with the wild things up here. Many bears have been sighted, and parts of the park are off limits to tourists. What better time to warn people and get them to listen than right after they’ve just paid $45 to be part of this captive audience. You want to hear every word he says to get all of the value. But you also are looking to your guide to guide you, because this is something you haven’t done before, and it is a big lake. And those are seriously huge chunks of baklava-like rocks. And those Rocky Mountain Sheep have big, honkin’ horns. The unknown makes you a better listener.
That, actually, is one of the tricks of being a good communicator. You shouldn’t think only about what you want to say. You also should think about when and where you are going to say it. What’s most conducive to your audience hearing what you have to say?
For example, if you are a CEO and you have bad news to discuss with your employees, should you call a special meeting? In some cases, it might not be a bad idea. You want to be clear about the situation, but not too dramatic. Drama makes everyone inordinately nervous about something that is probably not the end of the world.
What you need is something to lead up to the bad news that will relax your audience–like the facts about wildlife Todd shared. You don’t want to trick your people into listening to you–just set the stage for a philosophical discussion from their leader. You want to show your knowledge and quiet strength to reassure them, as well as impress upon them the importance of the issue and demonstrate your authority and reliability as their leader.
Only the slightest good natured humor about small things is appropriate here. Otherwise, you risk jarring your crew with sudden bad news after they’ve been laughing.
It’s okay to be transparent in your motives, by the way. Todd knew that we knew that he was helping relax us with the wildlife stories, and we didn’t mind. It worked.
Maybe you can tell your employees things you recently found out about the company’s history, or tell a story everyone loves that the new people have not have heard. Help everyone anchor themselves in the spirit and culture of your group.Then you can move the discussion into something more serious and down to earth and less lofty…such as low sales or the loss of a big client.
When you tell the bad news, be matter of fact. Don’t apologize if you don’t need to. Give people a plan of action, so they know what you are going to do and so they know what what they should do.
When Todd the Minnewanka tour guide began talking about the lake and the valley and the glaciers that carved it, he kept it simple. He told us where the boat would go next, so we could plan our photos. He put us at ease by removing any doubt what would happen next.
Then, when he was done, he said he would let us just enjoy the trip back…and he and the crew would be there if we had questions. He walked slowly toward the back of the boat and asked each of us if we had any individual questions, and continued to share information to enrich our experience.
For example, at the deepest, we went over 465 feet of water today–85 of it having been added over seven years beginning in 1941 when the valley was dammed to assist in the war effort (WW II). Yes, they missed using the electro-hydraulics for the war by four years, but the water now provides much of the electricity in Banff National Park.
You can do the same as a leader or guide of employees. Once you’ve set up expectations, you then can leave your people to work under the new conditions, but remain available for questions and make the rounds at a later date to ask each person if he or she has individual questions.
Todd the tour guide was the CEO of this boat for this day. He led us through the tour confidently and positively. He showed us the spirit of the lake, from the expected trivia about the beautiful setting to other topics of interest surrounding the lake: namely, the wildlife (and some of the history). He showed us how to experience the lake with a richness we never would have seen without his guidance,
“Winnewanka”, I find out when I look it up after the water tour, means “spirits of the lake.”