Communication doesn’t have to be loud; it can be quiet, too

Published: July 22, 2016

“Some communicators perform best off the cuff in a crowd; but, as businesses are learning, it’s often the quiet ones who draw the most attention. ”

Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet has been recast in a new edition that talks specifically to introverted children and adolescents: Quiet Power. Whereas the original book focused on the workplace, this iteration acknowledges that a sympathetic understanding of “self” needs to arrive much earlier. By celebrating “quiet” traits like solo reflection and deep thought she hopes to correct an overemphasis on sociability and group think, supporting children to grow up quietly powerful.

I’ve been figuring out how the “quiet” framework might apply to communications.

Quiet people
We tend to associate extroverts with good communication. They’re comfortable thinking out loud and on their feet; they thrive off conversation and fearlessly state an opinion. Many of the world’s best spokespeople are drawn from this personality pool and it’s easy to see why.

But, despite their undeniable charisma, Susan Cain asks us not to prize lively talkers over those who speak only when they have something important to say. Those with ‘quiet’ qualities are famously good listeners, attentive to people’s thoughts and moods, patient in their understanding and analysis, and possessed of an innate caution.

These individuals are well-suited to a thought leadership approach, which is evidence-led and contributes to the long-term positioning of a company. They are more likely to let colleagues run with their ideas (where extroverted leaders might be more dominant and unwittingly prevent those ideas from coming to the fore), and to carefully reflect on different options before making a call.

Quiet brands
The distinction also applies to brand management.
A loud and showy brand like Ryanair bursts onto the page or screen in the same way that an extrovert enters a party. They head for a big group of people and launch straight into a story designed to thrill and entertain. Ryanair’s strikingly yellow brand signals confidence and optimism. It sends a straightforward marketing message – ‘we offer significant discounts as long as you follow our rules’ – which it sticks to each and every time a tabloid cries foul over a lack of customer service. Additional quirks, like plane announcements inviting passengers to clap and a front-man known for his outrageous comments, are all part of Ryanair’s extroverted personality.

Other brands are more introverted. Partner at McKinsey from 1950 to 1967, Martin Bower insisted on a “no pure marketing” approach. He preferred to build the client list the old-fashioned way, taking prospects out for lunch and relying on word of mouth. The firm has stuck to this method while developing a substantial thought leadership presence, publishing in 1981 In Search of Excellence and today numerous papers on women at work, leadership and long-term capitalism. With this insight, McKinsey has become a valued source to journalists around the world.

People have talent for different styles of communication. The inveterate talker may want to be out in the world, selling, when a reflective thinker would rather dig into some research. Brands behave in the same way. But as Susan Cain’s philosophy gains traction, it seems more and more businesses are beginning to agree with her. “Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.”

Jessie Nicholls, Senior Consultant

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