This is a slightly different conversation book to those I reviewed previously (see list below). The first two focused on starting a conversation in a networking situation. The third focused on conversations between leaders and their people. This book – published in 2020 – is also focused on internal conversations at work. Normal, everyday work topics. It concentrates on making the first minute of a conversation with a colleague (or client) effective. The few simple techniques are powerful and help everyone have concise work conversations. Conversation skills book review 4: The First Minute (How to start conversations that get results) by Chris Fenning.
It is a short book (114 pages) explaining just a couple of important techniques. The techniques were developed after 20,000 conversations in business and technical jobs. There are lots of diagrams, examples and activities to help you understand, practice and master how you start your conversations. As such, it addresses two critical elements of good communication – being concise and clear. The techniques should boost your confidence in your communication skills, save you time and improve collaboration. The principles can also be applied to writing (especially emails), consulting, influencing, selling, assertiveness and project management skills.
The author explains the core principles early:
- Prepare your audience to receive your message
- Get to the point quickly
- Focus on actions and solutions (not problems)
His two-step process is:
- Frame the conversation in 15 seconds or less (this provides context, makes intentions clear and provides a clear headline)
- Create a structured summary of the entire message you need to deliver. State the goal and define the problem that stands in the way. Then focus the conversation on the solution.
And the benefits are stated as shorter, better conversations; reduced rambling and risk of mistakes; and leading your audience towards the solution you need.
Framing = Context + Intent + Key message (in no more than three sentences)
Context is the project/issue, the process/system/tool you will talk about, the name of client and objective/task you wish to talk about. He advises you to never assume the other person knows what you are talking about.
Intent helps your audience’s brain work out what to do with your message. Our brains process and store information in different ways depending on the purpose. We only have about 20 seconds of recall in our working memory. Examples of intent include: obtain help, request action, need a decision and keep informed. The author also provides opening statements if you just want to chat.
Key message is the most important piece of information your audience needs to know. It avoids people asking “Why are you telling me this?”. The US Military equivalent is “Bottom Line Up Front” (BLUF). He suggests using the “So what?” test to help you.
He argues that we should keep separate topics separate – so you may need to have an initial conversation frame before talking about those different topics. This is achieved by providing a summary context, multiple intents and multiple key messages.
A structured summary comes after framing and fills the remaining 45 seconds of the first minute. “A structured summary is the missing link between knowing that you should be concise and knowing how to be concise”. Being able to summarise a topic is a key skill when communicating to leaders.
Summary = Goal to Problem to Solution
He highlights common mistakes such as: diving into detail too quickly, going off on tangents and dwelling on the past instead of next steps. He suggests that nearly every work conversation is, at its heart, about solving a problem. He notes the difference between asking someone to do extra work to fix a problem and asking them for insight and advice.
He goes on to demonstrate that no problem is too difficult to be summarised. And explores reasons why there are overly complex descriptions at work. And warns against mixing up the causes of problems with the actual problem you need to solve. He reminds us that solutions are forward-looking and positive conversations.
I couldn’t help wondering whether Generative-AI might help people summarise things.
Time check and validation checkpoint
The other things to check in the first minute to ensure you start a conversation well
- Time check – manage expectations for how much time you need
- Validation check – establish whether the other person can talk now (and do they have the ability and availability to help you?)
Time check before framing and validation check after summary before the conversation
First minute = Time check + Framing (Context + Intent + Key message) + Summary (Goal + Problem + Solution) + validation check
The author then looks at applying the technique in different situations – emails (especially when forwarding an email chain), instant messaging, meeting invitations, first minute in meetings, agendas, presentations, status updates, interviews and escalating.
- Conversations and emails with your teams, peers and managers account for over 80% of your communication at work
- A study by Siemens Enterprise Communication found that a business with 100 employees spends, on average 17 hours a week clarifying communications
- The three components of framing are: context, intent and key message
- Poor communication skills are one of the top reasons why people don’t get promoted
- Over 50% of our time at work is spent communicating either verbally or through writing
- Research shows that a poor first impression can be reversed by a consistent strong performance – it takes eight good impressions to overturn a bad one
- Most professionals have 14 to 18 years of schooling and yet don’t get a single lesson on how to start conversations about work topics
- 39% of those responding to a study by Adobe used email as the primary method to ask coworkers a question and 57% used it as the main way to provide a status update
- What is the first minute?
- Structured summaries
- Time check and validation checkpoint
- Applying the techniques in different situations
Related posts on conversation skills
Conversation skills book review (kimtasso.com) May 2023 £Conversational intelligence – How great leaders build trust and get extraordinary results” by Judith E Glaser