Monday, July 23, 2012
FOR BETTER COMMUNICATIONS, COACH - DON’T COUCH
To coach: the art and practice of guiding a person or group from where they are toward the greater competence and fulfillment that they desire. (Leadership by Coaching, Tony Stoltzfus)
To couch: to word or express in a certain (conscious) manner for effect; e.g., “They couched their protests in diplomatic language.”
If you are a regular or longtime reader of DISPATCHES, you already know that we are big proponents of coaching - especially when it comes to providing comments and direction to creative teams hired by the brand to develop leadership communications. And we have often made the distinction between evaluating creative work and coaching it: the former typically centers around telling the creative teams what is wrong or what we don’t like; the latter centers around finding what’s good or potentially good in the creative work and adding value to make it better.
But, for most of us, evaluating comes much more easily than coaching. For one thing, most people find it a lot easier to identify something that is “off” or out-of-synch…to, as we learned way back in kindergarten, recognize what doesn’t fit. Said another way, it’s often a quicker task to figure out what’s wrong with something than it is to figure out how to improve upon it. Then, too, unless we have had the advantage of being coached, say in sports, by someone who is really a terrific coach, how do we learn the art of good coaching?
Because most of us haven’t been taught the fine art of effective coaching, we often bring bad habits with us when we embark on commenting and providing direction to our creative agencies. One of the most common bad habits we’ve observed is something that sounds like coaching, but in reality runs counter to it: couching. You’ve seen the definition of couching above; but even without that particular definition, most of us are familiar with the concept. It normally involves trying to make one’s point but in a carefully (even delicately) worded way—a kind of circumlocution, or talking around something so as not to be perceived as being too blunt or, worse yet, too offensively direct.
Couching may be required in the world of international diplomacy; but we ‘ve found that it’s inherently counter-productive in the world of creative communications development. What’s very productive instead is coaching…because, when done well, it not only makes crystal clear what the client-marketer needs to see to make something better, but it does so in a motivating way. By making things crystal clear, effective coaches avoid the wasted time that so often occurs when the creative teams don’t readily understand precisely the direction they are being given. In addition, by coaching in a motivating way, clients spur their agencies on to an even higher level of performance - per the definition of coaching above.
For this week’s Boats & Helicopters, we thought we would offer a sampling of some of the most common couching comments and questions that we’ve heard clients make - a kind of “Not-To-Do” list.
BOATS & HELICOPTERS—Common Couching Comments
1. “Thanks for coming in today and for bringing this creative work.” It’s amazing how often we clients start our commenting with a line like this—a most perfunctory statement. On occasion, it is genuinely meant; but more often than not, we’ve observed that clients who will eventually get to their negative reactions to the work open with something like this to “soften the coming blow.” Honestly, it’s always appropriate to be polite, but typically better placed before anyone presents anything.
2. “Great. Just great. Having said that….” Again, how many times do we automatically label something “great,” when in fact our ensuing comments and direction will make perfectly clear that the work is far from great? And we so routinely toss the “G-word” around because, well, it makes people feel good. (Naturally, if the work really is GREAT, then by all means saying so up front is right on.)
3. “You’ve given us quite an interesting range of options here.” Yet another couched intro that, more times than not, will likely be followed with a string of issues or dislikes. That word “interesting”—it normally has such a positive connotation, doesn’t it? Except when guys are talking about potential girls to date or when clients are talking about potential creative ideas to choose!
4. “Do you think we’re on strategy here with this work?” Posed as an innocent question, an opener like this is the ultimate “couch.” Experienced agency types see right through the charade. They know at once that the client is not asking for information or an opinion but is really aiming to soften an explosive comment: namely, the client thinks the work is off strategy. If the work is genuinely off strategy, everyone is much better served by a direct client statement to that effect—something along the lines of “Guys, I think we’re off strategy here in these ways….”
5. “Well, there is definitely a lot here to think about. What’s your recommendation?” Okay, many of us client-marketers have been trained to ask agency teammates for their recommendation. The key is knowing when to ask such a question. Usually, the agency’s recommendation is most productive when there is already more than one creative option that has tested out well, when it is really tough to discern the best choice from among a number of qualified, really good ones. On the other hand, when a client asks the question very early in the creative process, it is often a “couch” to hold one’s cards close to the vest while “peeking” into the agency’s hand to see if there will be alignment. In short, clients sometimes use such a ploy to avoid committing their own opinions first. But what if the agency recommends an approach that is among one of the first that the client has ruled out? Typically, a lot of defending and time-wasting. Much more productive for the client to say first which approaches look most promising to pursue.
6. “I think I’d like you to tweak this idea some.” It’s hard to find anyone who can precisely explain what “to tweak” involves. It’s one of those nice, soft words that suggest only a minor change or two, but again, clients too often use it as a “couch” to minimize their hard direction—namely, that a fair amount of additional work is needed. By the way, when the client fails to specify exactly what tweaking is to be done, invariably the work will look much the same at the next presentation. Talk about non-productive.
As we said, these are among some of the most common “couching comments” we’ve come across. By themselves, they are relatively harmless; but in the creative development process, they can sure inhibit productivity. For better communications, it’s better to coach than to couch.
Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney
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