Business Standard

Shyamal Majumdar: Smile through your emails

A new version of an acclaimed self-help book tells us how leaders should connect with people in the digital age

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The grandfather of all self-help books has just been given a digital makeover. Seventy-five years after wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People, his associates have added “in the Digital Age” to the title to make it relevant to the and generation. It’s easy to dismiss the book as a clever marketing exercise to give a fresh lease of life to its sagging sales, but that would be a mistake.

For, Carnegie couldn’t have imagined how the path to meaningful collaboration with your target group would become an autobahn of emails and tweets. Hence, the authors have done away with a lot of Carnegie’s advice in order to make it suitable for an age in which social networking rather than a handshake might be the more common way to make contacts. But the core of Carnegie’s advice on how to communicate, lead and work efficiently has been retained since it remains priceless across ages. That’s the biggest takeaway from the book (priced at Rs 599) that has just been released in India.

Take, for example, the insight on why leaders should connect with the core desires of colleagues in an organisation — whether in the Stone Age or the digital age. For proof, read on: was trying to get a calf into the barn. It was going rather poorly. He pushed and the calf pulled. He pulled and the calf pushed.

Meanwhile, his housemaid noticed his predicament, and though she couldn’t write brilliant essays or books, she possessed an insight she thought might solve the problem. She walked over to the calf and put her finger in its mouth. While the calf suckled, she gently led it into the barn.

What did the maid know that the luminous philosopher had forgotten? She knew that one of the calf’s core desires was food. Once she tapped into that desire, the calf willingly followed. Emerson merely thought about what he desired — the calf in the barn so that he could retire for the day. But the calf, happily grazing in a green pasture, had little interest in going into a dark, confined barn that curtailed his dining options. That is, until the housemaid offered her finger and reminded the calf that some warm milk was on its way.

This is an excellent metaphor because it reminds us of a key insight that leaders often overlook when trying to influence others. Influencing others is not a matter of outsmarting or coercing them, it is a matter of discerning what they truly want and offering it to them in a mutually-beneficial package.

You may as well ask how this insight is relevant to leaders in the digital age. The answer is obvious: too many individuals and organisations invest more resources in campaigning than in connecting with their target group. If your interpersonal communication is a monologue, your target-group’s ears will close and their eyes will look elsewhere for something or someone more engaging. Unfortunately, too many corporate emails, company tweets and blog entries are monologues meant to broadcast opinions. At a time when more and more of our communication takes place across wires and screens, anybody who communicates in the spirit of a dialogue has a significant advantage in grabbing eyeballs.

One sure way of starting a dialogue, says the book, is to smile. For, research has shown smiling gets you an average of one extra friend, which is pretty good considering that people only have about six close friends on average. That means, if you smile, you are less likely to be on the periphery of the online world.

For the past decade, since email and texting have supplanted oral communication, we have been seduced by the notion that we live in an emotional desert. Nothing can be more untrue. In many ways, texts and emails of today are like the telegraph messages of the old days that had their own share of troubles. A reporter once telegraphed actor Cary Grant about his age: “How old Cary Grant?” the message read. The actor replied, “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”

Clearly, the human proclivity towards misunderstanding is high. Throw in technology and it becomes all the more inevitable. So how would you overcome the obstacles to exhibiting friendliness across the digital space? It may be simpler than you think.

Outside of emoticons and emojis, there is only one medium through which you can convey a digital smile — your voice, whether written or spoken. How you write an email, the tone you use and the words you choose are critical tools of friendliness. Smile through your written words and you convey to others that their well-being is important to you. You and your message will have the best chance of being received. Frown through your words and others will often frown on the message and the messenger.

Now, step back and think a little: how many of you generously begin your email with “Dear Mr…” while writing an email to your superiors and forget the word “Dear” when writing to your juniors? It’s a simple thing, but can make a huge difference to how you are perceived by your colleagues.

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