April 16, 2009

Communicating with farmers – Getting your message across

By Dr Clive Dalton
Clive addresses a crowd of farmers and MAF staff at a Lands & Survey Angus field-day in 1976.

Farmers constantly need new information
To keep farmers and their staff up to date with new developments, good communication is essential by the many technical people, (consultants, farm advisers, sales and advertising people) who have information to impart.

Measuring efficiency
It’s very difficult to measure the efficiency of communication, without testing the recipients to see how much has been learned and acted upon. What many in the information business know, (but rarely admit or measure), is that communication is generally a very inefficient business.

No formal training
Few technical people who have to address farmers, have had any formal training in the craft of communication, and you would be hard pushed to find out where to go to get any. It’s a case of learning on the job – which may include not much ‘learning’. The result is hours of wasted time and money
Rarely do we ask anyone in our audience after a lecture or talk for an honest assessment – and if we do, they give us what we want to hear!

The good and the bad
Most folk looking back on their school, college or University days would be hard pushed to find more than 5% of those who stood in front of their class, as brilliant communicators. This is a frighteningly waste of peoples’ learning time when you think of it.

How few people do you hear say they were ‘switched on’ to a subject by a brilliant teacher, but how many more quote how they were ‘switched off’ a subject by some awful teacher? Maths would have to be top of the pops for this.

Key points if you have to give a talk
There’s a mountain of books on communication – a few readable and helpful, but most full of jargon and theory, and impossible to finish. The books have a major communication problem!

What follows are a few points, gleaned from many sources and from my personal suffering at the hands of others, as well as guilt over what I may have inflicted on others. They are some issues to think about if you have to give a talk, and if you want your audience to learn something.

What’s your aim?
Get this very clear right at the start. When you walk out the door after the talk, think what have you left behind in the minds of your audience? What did you set out to do?
  • To inform
  • To entertain
  • Provide a bit of both - “Infotainment”
  • Be memorable – will they remember both you and your message?
  • Provide value for money if they have paid!
The chance of success
This is a bit scary, but face the truth! It’s old news but is frequently forgotten. So you can see how your effort has to be allocated.
  • 7% is WHAT you say
  • 33% is HOW you say it
  • 60% is the ENERGY you used in saying it
Clearly, dull people and a dull talk cannot get a message across, no matter how good it is!

Message retention
This is also very scary. It’s amazing how many people sit through a talk, and think all the information will be in their heads after the talk for ever. It probably is, but it cannot be recalled and with age things get worse.
  • You remember only 25% of what you HEAR by the next day.
  • By the next week it would be about 5% if you were lucky.
  • Adding visual messages increases the retention rate.
  • Adding smells will increase it further!
  • Success depends on ‘listening skills’ – which we are not taught.
So the lesson is that you have to do a really good job with visual aids.

How to get it wrong?
These sins are far too common –but the last person to be aware of them is so often the speaker, and nobody tells them afterwards so nothing changes!
  • Too much information – tell them the least your audience needs to know.
  • Too little – no meat in the message.
  • Wrong place – it was impossible to learn in the environment. The speaker was not aware of how bad the conditions were for the audience.
  • Wrong time – nobody could learn at the chosen time of the talk for many reasons.
  • Above their heads – no chance of anyone understanding the message.
  • Boring – dull enough to make everyone beg for it to end.
  • Speaker not aware of the time spent so the meeting over-runs.
  • Poor chairman not doing his/her job – eg keeping speaker and programme to time.
  • Insulting audience’s intelligence.
  • Telling the audience what they already know– so wasting everyone’s time and somebody’s money.
How to get it right?
  • Wear your client’s shoes (gumboots)!
  • Check the venue. Will everyone in your audience be able to see and hear?
  • Check the seating – how comfortable are the seats.
  • Check visual aid equipment – have spares.
  • Check sound equipment – have spares.
  • Get a friend to sneak around the venue once you have started speaking to see everything is going OK.
  • Watch your audience’s behaviour – bad signs are people sleeping, sitting with head in hands, looking at the ground or the ceiling, fidgeting trying to get comfortable, clock watching, exhaling loudly, gasping for fresh air, talking to person in next seat, and walking out! Many speakers never notice these – believe it or not.
  • If the chairman doesn’t get people (who have sat for more than an hour) to stand and stretch, YOU take action and make them stand up. Don’t let them out of the room though!
How do we learn as children?
This is a vitally important issue, as so many people seem to think that when we grow up, we can put up with appallingly bad communication that you would never inflict on an innocent child! As mature beings, we learn the same way as kids do! We all crave for a talk that is:
  • Interesting
  • Relevant
  • Clear & simple
  • Rewarding
  • Entertaining
Who is your audience?
This is closely linked to the question of what is your aim. You are lucky if your audience is made up of people with identical interests, but even then, they will vary because of the points shown below. You can’t do much about this, other than be aware and try to modify your message.
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Leading busy lives – so time is precious.
  • Interest in the subject
  • Educational background
  • Social status
  • Religious & cultural status
  • Tiredness
  • Hungry –low blood sugar
  • In need of a smoke –agitated
  • Comfortable – how long have they sat on hard seats.
Profile of a 16-year-old
As a tutor approaching retirement, I was very aware of being horribly out of date when I had to teach young farm trainees straight from school who were from generation X and Y.

Now we are on to generation Z which are very different again. They need more guidance but they certainly know their rights. But I was amazed how few folk I talked to in the farming industry (especially employers who didn’t have teenagers), had thought about these issues. They judged 16-year-olds by what they remember of their youth.
  • Two thirds are from split homes. (Ten years ago this was one third).
  • They come from class sizes at school of at least 30.
  • Their concentration span is very short - max of 3-5 minutes – the time between TV ads. It used to be 5-7 minutes.
  • Low discipline levels in schools. Class disruption is normal.
  • Students want to talk continuously – they have been taught in groups and encouraged to talk so they don’t see a problem.
  • At school, they have been encouraged to work in groups which is good. However, sitting listening for periods of more than a few minutes is very hard for them, so they miss vital information only told to them once.
  • They can learn among noise, which in today’s world is also very good.
  • The love loud throbbing music – especially inside a vehicle or restricted space.
  • Teachers have had little time to help anyone with individual learning problems. Disruptive students get attention (that’s why they are disruptive), but quiet non-achievers in class can easily pass through the system having learned very little.
  • Many have a negative attitude to formal learning which is not their fault.
  • Little or no encouragement received from home for academic learning –in fact there could have been positive discouragement.
  • A large proportion will have no NCEA subjects due to lack of motivation and boredom.
  • Boredom is the main disease of high schools. The school system had betrayed them!
  • Many will have one or two NCEA subjects - generally not in academic subjects. Some may have done sixth form but not got any qualifications.
  • They are active people who like practical subjects.
  • At least twenty percent of them will smoke –and few will want to stop.
  • About 3% will have serious learning problems (ADD), and won’t be able to concentrate. They stop their class mates learning.
  • They all know about drugs and have seen them in primary school.
  • A very high percentage will have used them by secondary school and will be very knowledgeable.
  • So drugs in the workplace are now a normal part of the daily environment.
  • Poor literacy - many have reading age of 8-10 years or worse.
  • Maths ability is good with money, but they cannot do any sum without a calculator, even divide 1000 by 10. Mental arithmetic is beyond them – they are just not taught it.
  • They have fantastic finger dexterity, keyboard, computer and mobile phone skills. They can text without looking at their keyboard and while their phone is hidden in their pocket.
  • They walk around with a phone permanently in their hand, texting and checking for incoming texts with one hand. The other is for work!
  • Ninety percent are males with strong male stereotypes and attitudes to hygiene and pain.
  • Ten to twenty percent will have already had a driving conviction.
  • Twenty percent will be driving cars with no WOF or insurance.
  • Five percent will have hearing impairment from loud music.
  • They are growing rapidly and are always hungry.
  • They are high on testosterone and oestrogens.
  • Most will be sexually active - or they’ll tell you that they are!
  • Few are capable of a hard day’s physical work that a grown up can handle.
What makes communication difficult?
The theory talks about a ‘message’ which is ‘coded’ by a ‘sender’. This then goes to a ‘receiver’ who ‘decodes’ it. The three things that ruin this process are:
  1. Competition for your message from other messages.
  2. Bad coding by the sender and bad decoding by the receiver.
  3. Information overload at both ends.
Competition for the message is a major hazard. We ask why folk who came to our talk have done nothing about the message they took away so enthusiastically? The answer is simple - when they got home, there was at least 5 new issues that had blown up which needed urgent fixing. After that, they’ll have difficulty remembering when they attended your talk, what your message was and even your name. Ask some university students to give the full names all that lecture to them. The answer in communication terms is scary.

So you can see the value of a ‘take-home’ message that doesn’t look like junk mail and that they’ll keep (or their partner will keep) and not file in the bin.

Prioritise your message
This is very important as it stops your wasting your time, and more importantly, their time. Sort out what are your audience’s wants and needs (they may be very different).
Get this order of priority right. If time is short, cut number 3.
  1. Must know?
  2. Should know?
  3. Nice to know?
  4. Questions and discussion
Never, ever, cut out number 4! That should be THE highlight of your talk. If you are running out of time, cut out number 3 and go straight to 4.

The brain plays tricks
Speakers who make you ‘suffer’ their presentation regularly forget these basic points.
  • Our concentration spans are short – and getting shorter thanks to TV advertising.
  • The brain can cope with many issues at the same time, so our thoughts wander all over the place if what we are hearing is boring or deemed by our brains to be unimportant.
  • The brain works mega times faster than speaker can speak, or read words to us from a slide - which so many insist on doing.
  • The brain filters out things that it may consider unimportant.
  • The brain is lazy and smart (both at the same time) so it looks for the easy path.
  • It’s always interesting and a bit alarming when you ask someone who has been to a talk or presentation what they learned. Most will be struggling to give you a detailed account – but they’ll all add it was a good meeting.
Our brains differ – 7 intelligences
This too is well known and is a major reason for so many folk failing. We have different kinds of brains, and sadly for some, their’s cannot be accommodated in a teaching regime. The only hope is for individuals to do more themselves to cope, as teachers have enough problems!

Be aware of this as a learning strategy for yourself, and recognise it when you need to teach. From the list, find out which one(s) you are, and try to recognise what some other folk may be, especially those you have to communicate with.
  • Mathematical
  • Musical
  • Physical
  • Visual
  • Linguistic
  • Intra personal
  • Extra personal
A very sad tale
I had a 16-year-old farming student who could not pass one written test of the simplest questions – even on the third repeat. In fact, the more repeats he got, the worse he got. Yet on a bus trip of well over an hour, he sang the complete works of the Australian bush balladeer ‘Kevin Bloody Wilson’. His mates assured me he was word perfect! The lad had a musical brain, which I could not handle, as I couldn’t put my lectures to music with three expletives in every line. Sad to say, he was killed in a railway crossing accident when the train hit his tractor.

Six stages of learning
The books tell you this is the way to learn things. It’s also useful to know when you are teaching so that you can make the learning by your listeners easier if they need to remember things. You do things in the following order:
  1. Get set
  2. Get information
  3. Explore
  4. Memorise
  5. Show-U- Know
  6. Reflect
The major problem I found when teaching farming students (16-17-year olds) who had hated school, was that they had never been taught to learn. So they sat during class with arms folded, listening, enjoying the discussion, but assuming that they’d remember all they heard. They didn’t realise that for most of us, learning needs some kind of effort.

I had to make them write some things down and draw diagrams – to do something physical, as they had not learned (or not been taught these skills). The would ask me 'have we got to write this down'?

 As a result, they had nothing to use for 'revision' which they had never ever been shown how to do, and hence failed in any written tests. These students had fantastic practical skills, so their school record showing low achievement was so wrong! The education system had failed them.

Mind maps
I gave up on talking and expecting them to 'make notes'.  At University with many lecturers that's all you did - try to write down everything they said hoping that it would make sense when you re-read them. It rarely did!

Mind maps like the example above were my salvation and the students' too. You can see from the above example that we discussed everything that had to be done to prepare for calving.  We both learned so much from sharing information and experience – without the chore of them having to write many words down. It kept all our brains active, and by turning words into a picture, it was had high recall, which I proved by asking them to draw a mind map to answer questions in exams.

I used to hand out large A3 sheets so that they could keep the finished map to bring out in future years to work on with their staff before calving.  Different jobs could be allocated to different people and nothing slipped through the cracks.

These same students would struggle to write 50–100 words as an answer, but could  fill a whole A4 sheet with detailed information as they had very good recall. Communication had worked. 

For more information on mind maps - Google <‘mind maps Tony Buzan’>

Written words and spoken words
These are so different in terms of communication efficiency. Apparently with texting and emailing, more words are being written today than at any other time in history. But they are very different words to those used by anyone who sets out to write a handout, or god-save us, a manual!

You have to stop yourself writing ‘hard to read’ English in anything you give to a modern audience. Your only chance of getting anything ‘browsed’ is to write it in ‘spoken’ English or journalistic style.
  • You need to become a good browser and the trick is to only read the first sentence of each paragraph. Here are some interesting points that have been around for a while.Humans communicate best with sound.
  • Most visual image fades in 1 second – unless they are spectacular or shocking.
  • Sound memories fade in 4-5 seconds – again unless they are spectacular of shocking.
  • Voice tone gives “emotional impact” that no picture can do.
  • In journalism we strive for “colour” in our written words to try and imitate the spoken word.
  • Monotone is a killer – if the voice is dull, then our brains assume the speaker and the subject is dull too.
  • Ums, Ahs, Eh’s, You-knows, etc can kill listener concentration – listen to yourself on a tape, or view yourself (in private) on video. The shock can be overwhelming!
The handout
Handouts used to be considered important for the take-home message, but we know that most of them end up as junk mail, as there’s so much other material around of very high quality. So class handouts as a ‘nice’ idea but don’t rely on them being effective after your talk.

A good idea is to hand them out during the session, so keen folk who are trying to take notes can just highlight key parts as you go through.

The take-home CD, video or DVD
This is the latest idea, but again how many folk have time to sit and watch them – even if they know how to work the player! There used to be a figure when video recorders came out that at most, only 9% of recorded videos were ever watched. Thing won’t have changed.

The ‘slide’
Once upon a time we had projectors and 35mm slides. These were made from the colour pictures we took, but we also made stencilled words into 35 mm slides.

Then came the Overhead Projector (OHP) with a pack of multi-coloured pens, all of which we used, even if some like the brown and yellow could not be seen!

Then came the laptop computer and the digital projector with 'Microsoft Power Point'.  This is my view is death to communication!

The technology is not to blame for poor communication – it’s the way it’s been used which is the problem. What has happened, and is still going on because it’s easier with computer software, is that speakers are still producing ‘slides’ and abusing them rather than using them in their talks. Here’s what happens:
  • The slide has too much information. The rule is to have a maximum of five lines and five words per line.
  • The speaker reads the words on the slide out aloud to the audience – who can also read – and a hundred times faster than the speaker can read.
  • The speaker is simply using the slide as a memory jogger. This is now a worse problem as Power Point makes the production of slide so easy. People are typing out their talk in Power Point which we then have to endure.
  • Power Point also allows you to use fancy gimmicks, which fortunately many folk have not learned to use yet! Others go crazy with them which distracts from the message.
  • These slides go on forever and the meeting over runs, so there’s no time for discussion or questions. How often has the last speaker been asked to cut down their time because the chairman has failed in his/her duty!
  • Speakers should NEVER be allowed to over-run by chairmen.
Back to the board – why not?
Consider going back to basics. There was nothing wrong with the old blackboard (apart from chalk dust and finger nail scratchings), and the whiteboard (apart from pens that don’t work and permanent markers) provided that, it was in the hands of a skilled operator.

The big advantages are:
  • When you use a whiteboard really well, you cannot help being active. It’s hard for people to fall asleep or their minds wander off, when the speaker is leaping around and you are watching for the words or pictures to emerge.
  • You are actively combining words (from your mouth) with pictures (from your pen).
  • Rubbing out words provides action in anticipation for new ones, and gives a sense of progress through your talk.
  • It’s a good idea to write a sort of ‘menu’ for the talk down the side of the board before you start, and wipe bits off when finished. It makes the audience feel they are progressing towards the end – always an attractive destination in a talk.
Points for success
  • Double check the pens – always keep plenty of new ones and don’t lend them to anyone.
  • Check the caps have been tight, and get into the habit of always putting the cap back on while speaking.
  • Avoid green, and only use red for emphasis.
  • Check no ‘smartass’ has slipped a permanent marker into the set of pens. If you need to remove it, go over it with a proper whiteboard pen and rub the lines off straight away.
  • Make sure there is a cleaning cloth or duster.
  • Don’t stand in the one position all the time, as some in the audience may not be able to see. Check this out before and during your talk and make people move (nicely) if you find it easier to operate from one spot to avoid blocking their view.
  • Use mind map (see above).
  • The brain likes colour too – but don’t overdo it. Use colour to underline and highlight key words in your mind map.
Final thoughts
All you have is this – in any order:
  • Be simple
  • Be clear
  • Be brief
  • Be entertaining & be memorable
Fast track to improvement
If you want to improve your presentations real fast - just arrange to have your talk videoed. But view it in private first, as you can be devastated with the result. You will see things that you cannot believe you did!

At the end - for goodness sake END!
Some folk find ending very hard - they seems to get a pain when they have to sum up- so keep on to avoid it. Don't be fooled (if you are chairman) by  words like ‘finally’, or ‘to summarise’ or ‘to sum up’ which lifts the listeners’ heart, and then the speaker’s brain seems to find another thread.

The trick I find that works every time is the chairman - to dive in when they are drawing breath between sentences and say in a really loud voice over the microphone - 'And FINALLY'! They are so shocked, and the audiences laughter so spontaneous,  that they say - 'Well I'll stop there Mr Chairman"!

Yorkshire advice
Yorkshire folk are noted for their thrift with money, time and words. They have this advice for public speakers which is well worth remembering:
1. Stand up
2. Speak up
3. Then SHUT UP!


  1. Wow, great what a great summary of communication ideas and tips! Thanks!

  2. Brilliant communication tips - but what about older farmers - most in the UK are over the age of 55 - could be have a post about how to handle them?