Hey goal achievers, Kristin here. On a recent Elite Achievement episode, we talked about one of the most important skills we can grow as business owners, goal achievers, and frankly, as humans. That skill is communication. As someone who studied communication in college and earned a Master of Arts in Communication, this topic is near and dear to my heart. Growing our skills as communicators is a journey. And to help us on that journey, I invited a communication expert to my podcast, Meredith Kasheta. Meredith spent over 15 years in sales and strategic communications, and she is an expert at telling stories. She is a published author and speaker that has contributed to various magazines, industry papers, book compilations, and conferences.
Today, Meredith operates Meeting Meredith Creative, an agency that helps businesses grow through website design, content, and strategy. Meredith is passionate about helping others communicate effectively and about her husband, Jason, and their ever-growing pack of rescue dogs.
I was fired up to talk with Meredith and started with something personal first, asking just how many dogs she and Jason are currently helping right now. Meredith laughs and tells me she’s not sure it’s relevant, but the answer is four fluffy and furry dogs. “Quite a few,” she says “and, in a word, crazy.” I’ll use the word passionate.
I ask Meredith to talk more about Meeting Meredith Creative and why she started it.
“Meeting Meredith Creative is really about helping businesses grow their brand through effective communication, content, website design, and strategy,” Meredith shares. “It started a few years ago when I was working for a consulting firm. I was running the communication division there and loving it, but also dealing with what is normal in a consulting firm, which is lots of travel, hours, and on-call responsibilities. I was balancing a health issue that I was dealing with at the time, and it didn’t feel like it was going to be sustainable long-term. So, I looked at what I was doing and what I was loving, which was communication. I wanted to start something on my own and be able to choose the clients that I was working with and helping, and it just grew from there.”
I ask Meredith to share how she defines communication and what she believes makes up the broad range of communication topics.
She jumps in, “Right? It’s not just speaking one on one. We know that there is nonverbal communication. We know that a website can communicate many things through the way it looks and moves and interacts with the visitors. So, communication is not just defined by words back and forth, but really how we connect with other people, in my opinion, and that can be visually, verbally, non-verbally and so on. But what I love about it is that the better we are at communicating, the better we are at connecting.”
I agree with Meredith. Given that communication is so powerful in regards to our ability to connect with others, I’m curious what strategies or ideas she can share to help us become more intentional communicators.
“Okay, so how much time do we have?” Meredith laughs. “I think that the great thing about communication is that when you think about being intentional, there are different reasons to be intentional, right? In our businesses, we want to be clear, and connect with our potential clients. But in our personal lives, it’s just as important because many arguments, misunderstandings or disappointments we have can really be just a lack of communication. Or unclear communication that messes up our expectations. When you think about strategies, you have to first step back and say, ‘What’s the goal?’ And if we’re talking specifically about businesses, then the goal is to have effective communication that translates to a connection with a potential client. To me, that comes down to building trust, clearly communicating what you’re selling or what you’re offering, and being authentic. We think a lot of times that we have to have this super showy website or these great sound bites, but if they don’t match up to the experience that that customer may have with you down the road, it doesn’t build any trust with your brand. It’s about stepping back and saying that ‘When I think about communication strategy in my business, I have to know who I am first and what values we have in the business. So that we can effectively communicate that in our copy, and in the way that we look and act online.’”
I notice Meredith has touched on being authentic and I ask her to share how she helps her clients figure out their authentic self for their authentic message or authentic brand.
“It’s a question that we make into something really big,” Meredith begins. “Like, ‘How do I know how I’m being authentic?’ But it doesn’t have to be as challenging as we think. It goes back to really knowing who you are, especially if you’re the business owner or influence how the brand is portrayed. For example, if you know me and know that I care about rescue dogs, then if I show up in a t-shirt with huskies on it, it doesn’t surprise you because it’s who I am. A brand is a personality: it’s the same thing. If I know in my brand that I really want to provide the best customer service, the best experience, and I want to use a little humor, it ties back to who I am. Then it can translate into how I talk and look to my outside customers. When I work with clients, it always starts with who they are as an individual and a company already.”
I go back to something Meredith mentioned earlier about how when we want to become intentional communicators, it really starts with understanding the goal. And that a lot of our personal communication challenges are usually a lack of understanding or unclear communication. As she has grown in her marriage with Jason, I ask Meredith if she has found that she is better able to embrace arguments or disagreements because of this understanding of communication and the importance of clarity.
“100%!” Meredith says strongly. “Because if anybody knows us as a couple, they know we’re very different people, and we have very different backgrounds. And that’s one of the best things about our relationship, but it’s also one of the most challenging. I start with certain expectations from my experiences and try to apply that to how he’ll want to resolve a situation or how he’ll think about a situation. As you know, Kristin – you talk about this topic and I fully believe in what you say – we often tell ourselves stories. And those stories are always bad, right? It’s like if Jason didn’t come home and immediately say ‘Hi’ and make dinner, then it’s because he’s mad at me or because he remembers this thing that I remember. And the thing that’s so cool about communication is that when you learn to communicate more and more effectively, you can just cut through all those stories and actually ask the question. And I would say that it’s a journey to learn that, probably for your entire lifetime. So even as simple as how we deal with our emotions in our marriage has changed because we have gone through counseling to try and learn to communicate intentionally. And it’s been incredibly valuable.”
Meredith goes on to describe a tactic she and Jason have learned. “Now, when one of us has something we’re upset about, one of the questions we try to practice is, ‘Hey, I’d love to support you in this. Are you just venting? Or would you like some advice?’ Because often, the first go-to is, ‘Let me tell you how to fix that.’ And of course, we know that sometimes when I want to fix it, he doesn’t want me to. When we think that somebody else wants, or says, or does, or means something, we eliminate the opportunity for clarity from communication. And this is true in our businesses, as well. You and I have talked about this in the past. If I am uncomfortable with my pricing model, then I’m making up reasons why someone will probably need a discount or not see the value, instead of effectively communicating to say, ‘Here’s my price, is that within the budget you had in mind?’ And then being quiet. You have to let them communicate back and forth. And so, I think that’s really what we’ve learned is that it can eliminate a lot of the problems that we create in our own minds when we communicate. It’s simple but incredibly difficult.”
I agree with Meredith 1,000%. I find that I’m really good at creating stories in my personal relationships because there is so much love. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and some days, I’m better at it than others. But I think that also fuels my ability to weave and create these stories. And I’ve been on a journey to unlearn creating stories and actually to engage in dialogue. It can become even more challenging based on how you grew up and what you experienced in a household. I came from an environment where there was a lot of volatility and arguments and yelling. And so, I learned to avoid confrontation and conflict. And I learned the best thing is to be quiet and get away from these situations. As I have grown in my own marriage and as a mother and business owner, that strategy is no longer serving me well. I need to lean in, engage, have the tough conversations, and ask questions. And what I’ve found is that the conversations are usually not as tough as I believe they will be in my mind.
“No, they’re not,” Meredith agrees. “The challenge is that it can make you feel very vulnerable. If I ask, ‘Hey, did you want help with this? Or are you just venting?’ I’m not in a position to then give my opinion because I’m asking you to choose whether or not you want to communicate. If I asked a potential client if our price is within their budget, I’m vulnerable to whatever they say. And that vulnerability grows more and more as it’s more of a personal question. So instead, sometimes it’s super easy to withdraw or to tell stories by ourselves than it is to go and say, ‘Did I upset you?’ Or ‘What was your expectation for today?’ Or ‘How are we going to get through this?’ And to your point, Kristin, it is not necessarily healthy to go sit by ourselves. And yet, I tend to do the same thing – I like to withdraw. We call it disappearing in my house. I’m very good at disappearing when something upsets me. It’s easier, but the problem doesn’t go away. With communication, even though you may be more vulnerable in that moment, and you may have to work through things, you can resolve it, and it goes away. You actually know what the other person is thinking – you actually know what they need and what you need. And then you can move forward or choose to leave the conversation where it is. And that’s the same in business. If somebody says to me, ‘That’s not really within my budget, but I think I could come up to this level,’ or ‘I’m wondering if you could do something else,’ then you can resolve the issue. Whereas if I’m scared to ask you or just trying to avoid it, or I’m trying to undermine my own value because I think you can’t afford it, we just drag it on and on and on with nobody being comfortable to say, ‘I can’t afford this,’ or me asking ‘Is this in alignment with what you need?’ It’s really fascinating. And again, it’s a practice. It’s not a perfect skill. I don’t think it will ever be because we’re human, we have emotions, and even in our business, they feel very personal. But it’s something that can give you such clarity and even emotional freedom.”
I often talk to my clients about choosing their heart, and I think it applies to what we’re talking about here. We can choose the difficult conversation upfront, which can feel hard. Or, we can avoid that conversation and choose our heart on the back end when the issue has blown up and we’re storytelling. Learning to choose our heart is a really important skill, because anytime we’re building a business or engaging in deep personal relationships, there are going to be difficulties. Just choose your heart on where you choose to engage in that difficulty.
“Exactly. And know that it may not work out the way that you want,” says Meredith. “But you’ve probably grown in that relationship, personal or business. If somebody says to me, ‘That’s not within my budget,’ but they had a great conversation and felt that I communicated really clearly or we were in alignment, there’s a good possibility that down the road, they may come back. And the same is true personally. I’m quiet, and my husband is loud, so when we’re having a conversation that turns into an argument, we’re very different about how we handle it. I had to learn that I can’t control his response, but I can accept that his response may be different than mine. Early on in our relationship, if he was loud, I disappeared for a couple of days. Now it’s like, okay, he’s going to have a different style of communicating. I don’t like it, right? It’s not my favorite. But I know that that’s his communication style and that he can respond that way. And if I accept that, we can come back together a lot sooner. It’s about getting that resolution and clarity. And when you have that clarity, you tend to get closer with the people in your life.”
Earlier in our conversation, Meredith mentioned a powerful question – are you venting, or do you want advice? And I ask if she has some additional clarifying questions that have become helpful in her relationship or in growing her business.
“Personally, one of the other questions that really makes me feel validated, and we’ve put into practice because it is also helpful for Jason is, ‘How can I help you?’ Not, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do’ or ‘Here’s something that I’m going to do to try and fix it.’ Just, ‘What do you really need and how can I help you?’ Recently, we had an issue come up because I was having a super negative day. I had a little black cloud over my head, which is very outside of my normal personality, and Jason was awesome. He dropped everything. He was like, ‘I’m coming to pick you up for lunch.’ And so, we sat there, and I said, ‘I don’t know, I just feel super sad and down. And there’s nothing I can do about it.’ We walked through some of the practical things, but there was nothing majorly wrong. And he said, ‘How can I help you? What can I do? And do you want me to do something?’ And the truth was, I really didn’t know what he could do. So that was frustrating to him because he wanted to help, but he couldn’t. But that’s where you have to accept where the other person is. It’s really nice to know that somebody – instead of doing many things that they think are going to help – instead of assuming that that’s going to help you – will just stop and ask. I know that maybe bringing flowers is going to make me feel a lot better, but maybe to you it’s going on a job together. Understanding that everybody is different and is helped differently and then being willing to ask what I can do is powerful and has helped us personally. And then I think in business, really trying to understand and ask open-ended questions. Especially when you’re talking with a potential client – questions like ‘How long have you been struggling with this challenge?’ ‘What have you tried in the past?’ Definitely understanding why they’re talking to you, whether you’re selling a product or service, and going back to what’s really driving that. Because a lot of times, we can look at the end product and make assumptions about why they are doing it; maybe they want a prettier brand or maybe they want more conversions. When you start to ask open-ended questions and give them space to communicate, you can understand if there are deeper problems they’ve been trying to solve, if they need something that’s going to be user-friendly for them versus something that is over the top. Asking open-ended questions will get you a lot further, but it’s super hard to do. Especially for someone like me, because I like to fill quiet space by talking. It’s really a skill that you have to start practicing; ask the question, any open question is better than not, and then be quiet.”
It’s true, and I remember learning a long time ago that the one who fills that open space loses. However, I was taught a strategy where you silently count backward from five in your mind. And usually, by the time you’re done counting down, the other person has spoken up. I haven’t had to get to a point where I got all the way to one and there was no conversation, but if you do, do it again. We feel so compelled to have every moment accounted for and spoken. Taking a pause and letting people think helps us arrive at the real issues and the real challenges. And that’s where we can become incredibly impactful.
“It’s so interesting,” Meredith adds. “We see this on websites a lot. We want to validate our value. When we’re starting with a new client, we’re looking to assess the sort of overall strategy. And oftentimes you’ll see a website, where it says, here are some of the reasons that we are great, some of the awards we’ve won, some of our past clients – and all of that information is really powerful. But it’s not really why they came to the website to begin with. And so, I relate that to, again, being authentic online to your true experience. If someone were to walk into your office, and you immediately directed them to your wall of accomplishments, and then you introduced them to three or four of your clients that had great things to say about you, all before you even asked them why they were there, it would be awkward. That’s the same type of experience that we can create online without even knowing it. Jason has his own business, and he’s exceptional at this. We’ve been together a long time now, but when we first got together, I never really understood him on a sales call. He never said anything about himself. His first question is always, ‘Well, I think the best way to handle this is to ask what questions I can answer for you.’ And then he stops talking. And I’m thinking, ‘Don’t you want to tell them the price and time and this and that?’ And it really made sense why he does very well in those conversations because he’s understanding first why they contacted him. And that has to translate to our verbal conversations, our phone conversations, and then also the online experience that we create on our website.”
I think we can all recall experiences we’ve had with individuals in sales or individuals that are trying to influence us to use their services. And I’m often sitting there waiting for that person to ask me questions. You get on the phone and it is a bombardment. Thankfully, given the career that I had prior to launching my business, I learned the power of having those fact finding conversations and that initial interaction with a potential client or customer being one where you seek to understand where they are. You ask a lot of questions about their past experiences and what they’re looking for. And I’ve adopted that same mentality to my own practice, and it has served me incredibly well. And I found out that a lot of times, the information you think people need to know to make a decision is actually not the information they need to know to make a decision.
“You are so right,” Meredith confirms. “And again, it goes back to what we talked about before. We’re bringing what we would need to potentially make a decision to the conversation and thinking, well, if I tell them A through Z, they’ll have everything they need to make a decision. And maybe they already found that out online, or they don’t really care about that. And all they want to know is that you’re going to be a good partner or a good person to hear what it is that they’re looking for. Taking that assumption of what they need away and actually just asking them is probably one of the most valuable things you can do. I know, for example, I’m very cheap. In the past, I was a budget shopper. I was going to get whatever was the least expensive option and find a coupon or code. But the reality is that I’ve learned that low costs don’t always equate to the best experience. When I think about cost now, I still use it as a factor. But it’s different than it was for me ten years ago. And I see that today, because I assume that people want to have the best price. But even the last few conversations I’ve had this week with clients, they’ve told us that we’re not the lowest price but that we were either the most creative or paid the most attention to what they were looking for – things that added a different sense of value for them. And so, they want to move forward instead of just going with the lowest price. The most important thing you can do in your business is understand first, what are your clients’ problems? Why are they talking to you? What questions can you answer for them? Because if it is something like price, schedule, or timeline, they’ll ask.”
I recommend we consider multiple factors when we make a decision regarding hiring or engaging with a service – cost and investment is absolutely one of them. And for some people, that might be the primary. But for others, I think it’s important to also explore what result you are looking to achieve by hiring this individual or partnering with this individual? And is this partnership going to be the one that gets you that result? Because we can throw a lot of money at the wrong hire and the wrong partners. And then the other one is energy. If the individual you were talking to is the least expensive copywriter, but you will dread that phone call, it’s probably not a good investment. So, three categories – cost, results, and energy – are really important for us to factor into our decision-making process.
“Totally,” Meredith agrees. “And I always remind people, don’t underestimate that you can bring that same intentionality in your energy and in asking people for other forms of your communication. We have some lead services that we use, in addition to other sources. And I can’t tell you how many times someone has said that our email response to their question was more personable than anybody else’s. Now, what does that mean? It means that I care about people a lot. That’s part of our value, we want to provide the best customer service, and we want to build a relationship. So, when I see that someone says, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a new website for a business that I’m launching this spring,’ my first response is ‘Congratulations on opening your first business! That’s an amazing step.’ Something to that sense because that’s what I would say to them if I was on the phone. You can do those simple little communication things that are authentic to who you are in email or in text, or any form of communication. And believe me, it stands out.”
I get questions from clients around email best practices, and I ask Meredith to share her opinion on business communications. Are there rules we should be following in email communications?
Meredith explains that it depends on who you’re communicating with. “There are a couple of factors. So, if you’re in a legal or medical field, there are responsibilities that you have. You’re protecting information. You may be able to share or not share things in the financial world – you may have to encrypt your emails. But if you want to talk about just how we communicate, I think it depends on who you are as a brand. If I have a lot of copy on my website that’s funny, or that uses humor and a sense of connection, then you’re going to see that in my emails. It means that I may not address it with ‘Dear Mr. So and So.’ You may get a meme. It doesn’t mean, because this wouldn’t align with our brand, that I’m going to use any sort of foul or derogatory language, etc. The parameters that you put on your email should match the parameters that you put on your professional brand. If you use a lot of jargon, you’re going to do that. As far as content, your email should have a purpose when you send it out. And it should give the reader information that they’ve asked for in a concise and clear manner, or it should lead them to a resource or something like that. When you think about drafting an email, use the tone, voice, and style you’ve already created for your brand. That is part of what we work with businesses on. If they don’t have those things established, emails can look like many different things depending on who is writing it on your team. If you don’t have standards, then it will default to the type of person and the personality of who is responding. So, something that’s really important is knowing what the standard is so that everybody knows, ‘Hey, we use a little bit of humor, it’s okay to use a meme. It’s not okay to use vulgarity, and we keep it to 500 words or less, etc.’ Those sorts of things can be really helpful. And then, when writing an email, start with the purpose and then go from there. It doesn’t need to be overly long, just like your website doesn’t need to be overly long. You don’t need to give them five different links for different things unless you’re sending something like work examples. Because when we overload with information, which we tend to do, it’s overwhelming and it gets discarded.”
I think that’s connecting us right back to where we started, which is the power of being authentic, the clarity of knowing who you are and who you serve, and your brand. I ask Meredith how she helps small business owners identify their brand specifically.
“Normally with a brand strategy,” she says. “If we were to work with a company that’s looking at it from the entire perspective, or starting from scratch, we start with the owner and a key team member or two. And then we sit down and say, okay, ‘What does your brand look like? What’s the personality?’ What are the values that go back to who they are and why they started the company? And then that gets moved down the line into the copy and brand voice and tone, and then into the design, the way they look at what imagery they’re using. If you think about a website, you normally have your design, the experience. Then you have the imagery, whether that’s videos or images, and the content, your copy, and what you’re actually saying. And all three of those have to be representative of who you are.”
We’ve talked about the power of communicating and business. We’ve talked about the power of communicating and your personal relationships. We’ve talked about how communication can help resolve issues. And I wrap up by asking Meredith what one thing she recommends we do to start becoming better communicators.
“Oh, that’s a great question,” she begins. “I think if you just wanted to start with something today, the first thing would be to practice thinking before you speak. We tend to respond to something quickly. And even when we try to implement a new practice, if we respond too quickly, we can’t do it. So, when you start to really listen well, and listen to what the person asked, you understand what they’re trying to achieve. Then take a second and respond, knowing that you actually want to answer their question, or help resolve an issue. From there, I think when someone talks, one of the biggest things that we can learn to do is validate what they’re saying before responding. Because sometimes people are sharing a problem or sharing a concern. And just responding with a simple, ‘That must be frustrating,’ or ‘I understand what you’re saying’ is important. By starting to validate and repeat back, you’re helping them know that you are interested in what they’re saying, rather than just waiting to be able to respond.”
I think a lot of us communicate with the desire to simply respond, and Meredith agrees. “That’s why customers really connect with you when you let them talk,” she says. “Because people love to talk, people love to share their experiences, or what they’re doing and what they have done. And so just giving space for that is really important. Now, obviously, you have some relationships where there is a give and take more, then it is one-sided. That’s not what I would consider a healthy personal relationship. But when you give people space to talk and truly be heard, you can create a much deeper connection.”
As she is thinking about 2021 and her business, I ask Meredith what projects or goals she is excited about achieving this year.
“Oh, I love a goal question,” she responds. “I’m looking to connect with business owners who want to grow and understand the value of looking at their business holistically, not just one element. When we align with business owners interested in understanding how to develop their authentic voice and turn that into their online brand, I think we can serve those clients really well. So, it’s about finding more of our ideal clients, and then also growing our skillset and our team to be able to serve them in a way that helps them grow exponentially.”
As we wrap up our conversation, I’m taking away from this discussion that we’re all bringing our personal experiences and biases to our conversations. And as we strive to become better communicators, it’s so important to pause, listen, seek to understand, and then communicate with that authentic voice. And that’s going to help create a lot of alignment and understanding.
With that goal achievers, keep celebrating your weekly wins, learning from your lessons, and identifying your priorities. So, you can consistently pursue progress in the direction of your goals.