You Said What?! Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston


You Said What?! by Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



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Many professionals make common communication mistakes that detract from their image and hamper the clear delivery of their intended message. Ordinary pitfalls, such as interrupting, reacting without planning what to say or not being aware of your image, may be holding you back professionally. Communications experts Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston identify the 16 worst communication blunders, tell you how to correct or avoid them, answer recurring questions, and offer goal-planning strategies you can incorporate into your daily schedule. Though some of the advice is familiar, Zoller and Preston’s smart and attractive compilation offers precision, brevity and concision. getAbstract recommends their highly useful manual as a ready-reference guidebook for business newcomers and as a welcome reminder for seasoned professionals.


In this summary, you will learn

  • Why you need a communication plan,
  • How to correct the 16 most common communication mistakes, and
  • How to shape the way people perceive you.


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“Communicate Your Message”

Communication gaps – the spaces between what you think you said and what the recipient actually heard – happen constantly. If your words and actions fail to convey your intended message, take that mistake as a warning. Realize that the true expression of your message depends not only on what you say, but also on how you say it and how you present yourself. You will know you are communicating effectively when the other person hears exactly what you mean. Try to avoid these 16 common, big communication mistakes and, if you stumble, here’s how to correct them:

Mistake 1: “Not Being on Your A-Game”

Being your best possible self requires a positive mind-set and a can-do attitude. When things outside your control go wrong, regulate your response. Getting angry in traffic or yelling at a flight attendant never improves anything. Take a breath when something goes awry, work calmly toward a solution and offer to help. Don’t cast blame. Understand other people’s viewpoints and listen to what they say. Plan worst-case scenarios, so events don’t catch you off guard.

“From your words to your nonverbal communication to your brand, every single way in which you communicate can affect your outcome.”

Mistake 2: “Not Beginning with the End in Mind”

When someone says or does something you don’t like, instead of quickly shooting off a negative response, “think before you speak.” Align your response with your long-term goals. Knowing your end goal will help you to plan your conversations to gain your objectives without damaging your relationships with other people. Consider their perspectives and agendas and the timing of your response. Be clear about the context of the statement and the reasons for the other person’s behavior. Frame your response to move toward your ultimate goal.

“We are constantly communicating. We may never speak a word, but we may have said a mouthful.”

Mistake 3: “Not Knowing Your Personal Brand”

Everything you say and do, including the emails you write and the compliments you offer, contributes to your image or personal brand. Support your brand with consistent communication, appearance and attitude. Adapt your brand to fit into your setting, yet remain authentic to yourself. Select your clothing to support the image you’d like to project. Avoid slang and jargon, and stay away from negative chatter and gossip.

Mistake 4: “Not Managing Perceptions”

How you project yourself affects how others interpret your words. To sharpen your self-perception, ask people you trust for objective feedback. Simple adjustments in looks, body language and mannerisms can improve your communication. Take these steps:

“We all have natural communication tendencies that can change based on the situation and the environment.”

  • Make eye contact, use a firm handshake, stand tall with your head up and smile.
  • Focus on your conversational partner, remain positive, ask questions and listen carefully.
  • Contribute in meetings; stay focused, not distracted, disorganized, bored or nervous.
  • Dress appropriately for your firm’s environment, meetings and presentations.
  • Don’t compromise your appearance to be more comfortable.
  • Analyze how you believe others perceive you. Use Joseph Luft and Henry Graham’s “Johari Window,” an analytical matrix: Consider what you know people notice, what they may notice that you don’t know about, what else you don’t know about that could affect your interpersonal communications, and what you wish to keep private.

“Communication is not how and what we say; it is how we are heard.”

Mistake 5: “Not Connecting and Building Relationships”

Personal and professional relationships fuel your success. What other people say about you carries more weight than anything you say about yourself. To establish your “believability, likability and trust,” don’t speak ill of others, including rivals. Talk positively about your work. Follow through; complete every task to the best of your ability. Apologize if you make a mistake or miss a deadline; offer to correct the situation. Use social media to expand and maintain your network and to seek referrals, knowing that no one will recommend you if your work is subpar. To build a strong networking foundation, prepare an elevator speech to explain what you do. Follow up with people after you meet. Connect people with each other. Be helpful when you can.

Mistake 6: “Not Making Appropriate Small Talk”

Small talk is a good vehicle for establishing connections and finding mutual ground. Encourage people to open up without interviewing them or putting them on the spot. Ask open-ended questions, like “How did you get involved in…?” and “What’s next for you?” Bring up topics people find interesting, like hobbies, sports, family and movies. Avoid politics, religion, salaries and gossip. Don’t reveal too many personal details, interrupt, complain or appear distracted.

“It is hard to have a good channel of communication when people perceive you differently from how you perceive yourself.”

Mistake 7: “Meltdown of Communication Through Technology Use”

People can misinterpret emails, which can’t reflect the nuances of in-person communication, including voice inflection, body language and nonverbal cues. Use email for straightforward matters. Always spell-check; careless spelling harms your credibility. Shape a business email like a business letter, with a greeting, a middle and an end. Be concise, since people often won’t read long emails. If the subject is emotional, don’t use email. Call or meet. Texting is not a substitute for a conversation and may seem unprofessional. Don’t text during meetings or conversations.

“Just because you are a good talker does not mean that you are a good small talker.”

Mistake 8: “Not Managing Your Social Networking”

Social media boost your brand, but they can fuel your downfall if the wrong people see an unseemly post or picture. Whatever you put online stays there forever. As a recruiter for a Fortune 500 company commented, “I can’t believe how many college students put inappropriate photos of themselves online. Do they not realize that recruiters look up everything?” To capitalize on the power of social media, know what each site does best. LinkedIn is for business networking. Keep your profile current and professional. Join groups that relate to your position and industry. Post infrequently to share material others in your field will find helpful. To use Facebook, maintain one personal page and one professional page. Use privacy settings to ensure that the appropriate audience views your content. Once you put something online, people will find it. Never post negative comments about work. Don’t overpost; three posts a day is the limit. YouTube is the perfect vehicle for do-it-yourself videos and demos. And, used correctly, Twitter can build your reputation. Posting timely comments and clever insights can position you as a “thought leader.” Twitter also can expand your networks and display your personal brand.

Mistake 9: “Lack of Awareness of Communication Stallers and Stoppers”

You never want to be that person others don’t want to work with, so avoid behaviors that discourage teamwork, including offering knee-jerk negative responses to other people’s ideas, using poor grammar, interrupting, giving unsolicited advice, speaking too long, and appearing distracted by not making eye contact or by using your devices when you’re in a conversation.

“We react to others because we have a preconceived idea of what they want based on previous experience and assumptions.”

Mistake 10: “Making Assumptions”

People absorb and evaluate incoming information based on their prior experiences. However, in a business context, making assumptions or drawing conclusions that may be wrong can create problems. Note how your assumptions influence your communication. Understand which experiences or emotions drive you to react certain ways. Share the reasons for your viewpoints. Keep your mind open to alternative solutions and outcomes.

“Building rapport is the ultimate goal of communication, and an email can ruin that rapport with the click of a mouse.”

Mistake 11: “Not Focusing on the Details”

Create a tracking system to take notes, write down appointments and meet deadlines. Follow up when you say you will. Write personalized thank you notes. Be aware that small errors can have big consequences. If you misspell a client’s last name, he or she will assume your work is sloppy.

Mistake 12: “Not Giving and Receiving Precise Feedback”

Make an advance plan when you must give constructive criticism to avoid the awkwardness that can plague a feedback session. Address the behavior – not the person – and be specific. Instead of saying, “Try harder,” provide details like, “When checking in with clients, smile and make eye contact.” Frame your feedback to fit the recipient’s communication style. Show how the staffer will benefit from following your suggestions. Create a timeline for change. Don’t count on others to provide steady feedback on your performance. Meet with your supervisor regularly, especially after a project that involves you. Ask three “delving questions” to gain more specific critiques. Seek advice on your next professional growth steps. Set follow-up times to check your progress.

“Thought and planning are the keys to making a difference in your communication style and approach.”

Mistake 13: “Not Adapting to Different Communication Styles”

Each person has a unique communication style. Some people are talkers; others prefer to listen. Some people are task-oriented; others focus on relationships. Understand how people communicate, and modify your style to align with them. For example, if Joe is a high-energy multitasker who thrives on tight deadlines, give him the bottom-line data, be brief and enlist his help instead of asking for his time. If Sally is a people person who loves to collaborate, enjoys her co-workers and wants everyone to like her, bring out her best side by keeping her in the loop, asking for her ideas and communicating face-to-face.

“People work at different speeds and in different ways.”

Mistake 14: “Not Reacting Professionally”

Even if you regret having overreacted in a tense situation, when something similar occurs, you may respond the same way again. This is a destructive cycle. To avoid such patterns, identify your triggers – situations that cause you to react emotionally. Pause before you respond to a trigger to break your negative behavior pattern. Learn other people’s triggers so you can avoid a destructive dynamic. If you can’t sidestep this pitfall, consider working with an executive coach.

Mistake 15: “Bloopers and Blunders: Saying and Doing the Wrong Thing”

You never know when a negative interaction with a supposed stranger may come back to haunt you. Cutting someone off while driving and then facing that person across the conference table later in the day can be awkward. Be aware of your behavior in daily situations, such as waiting in line or navigating airport terminals. Be polite to service people, even when things don’t go your way. Remember your purpose at networking events: Make connections; don’t just eat and drink.

“The more respect you give to other people, the more respect you will receive.”

And the Last Mistake Is: “Not Communicating Value”

Every action communicates your value and reinforces your personal brand. Certain behaviors boost your value:

“Think before you speak. This is such a basic concept, yet it is so hard to put into practice.”

  • Support other people in reaching their goals and developing their careers.
  • Heed the details in your interactions.
  • Do more than you have to do to solve a problem.
  • Act as you say you will.
  • Make personal contact – like a phone call – instead of sending an email.
  • “Be consistent, listen, learn and genuinely care.”

“Your Action Plan for Continued Success”

Communication failures strike even the most intelligent, talented people, but you can fix them. Commit to putting these practices into action by following a five-step strategy:

“If you don’t think you have a brand, you’re wrong.”

  1. Choose one to three communication goals that concern you most, for example, making better sales calls, improving your relationship with a co-worker and not making “inappropriate comments at meetings.”
  2. Identify key people involved with attaining each goal and jot down any “hot buttons” in your actions that might affect their perceptions of you.
  3. Keeping those hot buttons in mind, go through the advice about the 16 common communication mistakes, and highlight (using a different color for each category) behaviors you want to start doing, those you want to do more consistently and those you want to stop doing.
  4. Select one behavior of each color from each mistake-prone area and create a personal improvement checklist or “behavior action plan.”
  5. Each week, check your list to see how you’re doing and make adjustments as needed.


About the Author

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Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston, co-leaders of the Image Dynamics protocol and leadership consultancy, are frequent public speakers.


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