What shark cage diving taught me about communication

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on October 06th, 2016

dreamstime_xs_38753909A couple of years ago, I found myself in South Africa meeting with one of our travel clients, Londolozi – a five-star safari lodge. Like most professionals that I know who are fortunate enough to travel for business, I took the opportunity to add some time onto the trip to see some of the beautiful country of South Africa. What an incredible place. I loved every minute of my time there and am looking forward to the day when I can go back.

One of the activities I did was cage diving with great white sharks off the coast of Gansbaai, which is about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I have been thinking a great deal about that experience and what I learned that day.

Below are the top three communications lessons I learned from cage diving with great whites.

Prepare for What Could Go Wrong

When I decided to go cage diving with great whites, I did a huge amount of research. I read reviews of all of the tour providers, I read travel pieces about the activity, I talked to people who had done it – and one of the things I was looking for was what could go wrong. For this activity, it came down to two things that could spoil the adventure: 1) weather and 2) sea sickness (the threat of a shark bite is handled in the next point – “listen to the experts”).

I had no control over the weather, so I scheduled my cage dive early enough in my trip so that if the weather was bad, I could rebook it. And I did everything possible to keep from getting seasick. Even though I used to live on a boat and on a floating home, have sailed, boated, cruised, swam, waterskied and wake boarded all my life – I didn’t want to be seasick and miss out on this experience. I tool Gravol, I had ginger pieces with me, I had acupuncture bands to wear – and that worked for me. Several people on our boat were too seasick to do more than lay on the deck and groan – and I was so glad I had prepared for the “what could go wrong” scenario. And that’s what we need to think about as communicators – to make sure that we are prepared for what could happen. Putting solutions in place before the fact might seem like a lot of work for something that might never occur, but when it does – it makes a huge difference in managing the situation.

Learn as Much as You Can From the Experts

I did a huge amount of research in choosing the right great white shark cage diving tour operator. I wanted one that respected the environment, the ecosystem and the sharks. I also wanted the people running the tour to be experts on our safety. The boat’s captain gave an overview of how to keep safe both in and out of the water, we were informed about how we would find sharks and how to respect them and the environment – and each crewmember was clearly an expert on dealing with the guests’ fears, concerns and stupidity. No one got to show off, act out or do anything that didn’t comply with the rules.

However, beyond that, on the way out to sea and back in, I sat with several of the crewmembers. I took the opportunity to ask them some questions and the information they shared with me was exceptional. I asked them what I should be looking for, what they thought was the most interesting part of this encounter, and what they wished they could tell everyone who took this tour. Their responses were incredible – personal, inspiring, thoughtful, educational – and a few frightening ones! They had done hundreds, if not thousands, of these trips. They knew many of the sharks by sight and told me about their characteristics, their history and their behaviours. It was clear how much the crew respected and cared about the sharks – and appreciated being able to do this each day. And they seemed excited that I was curious enough to seek them out and ask questions – they kept calling me over to show me things.

As communicators, we often turn to subject matter experts to provide information for news releases, media pitches, statements, content creation and more. Rather than just getting the information you need for whatever you are working on, take a moment and actively listen to what the expert is passionate about, ask what they think people should know, and ask them what they feel is the key element regarding the topic. It is amazing how much more engaging your content will be when you do this.

Think About the Situation From a Different Perspective

Don’t get me wrong… I was incredibly happy that there was a cage in between me and the seven great white sharks we saw that day. But being in the water with those magnificent, elegant and incredibly powerful creatures made me think about the reports of shark attacks – which, for the most part, are quite rare and not often fatal. In fact, in 2015, more people died taking selfies of themselves than by shark attacks.

For the most part, when a shark bites a human being, it has either misidentified the person as food – such as a seal – or it is in investigative mode, trying to figure out what the person is: foe, food or a non-threat. If you view the shark from that perspective, they aren’t the monster human stalkers that they are often made out to be. They aren’t motivated by the need to kill.

As communicators, we often need to reach out during times of transition, organizational change, or in response to an issue or a crisis. It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing critics or those who are pushing back in a negative light. And that can impact the tone and style of what, when and how you communicate. Taking a step back and trying to understand what the barriers are – and why they exist – is an effective step forward in creating authentic, useful communication strategies, tools or tactics. Our role as communicators is to understand the intended audience, community or group, so that we can find the best way to authentically and respectfully communicate with them.

There have been times when it has fallen to me to explain to a client what, how and why people are not embracing change – that they feel disconnected from the leadership and their decisions or that they aren’t happy with decisions being made at an organizational level – and to effectively do that, it is crucial that I understand the perspective of the stakeholder in question. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree, but I have to be able to understand why the individual, team, department, company or group feels that way and be able to clearly share that with our client and provide recommendations on how we can bridge the gap. Shifting perspective is an important tool in doing this.

Cage diving with great whites was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. And it gave me another lesson – more of a life lesson, I think. Do what scares you. I was pretty nervous about getting into the water with the sharks, and even though my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, I did it anyway. I am so happy that I did. I have taken that lesson forward too and it’s made a huge difference in how l live my life.

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Comments: 2 Responses so far

  1. Thank you for sharing this inspiring piece. I love hearing about your adventures and how they shape you into the person you are. I like how you pointed out that sharks are not what we see in the movies. Sharks are quickly disappearing from the oceans at the hands of humans. Having also had a chance to cage dive with sharks (Sandbar and Galapagos), I can honestly say being so close to these majestic creatures is something I’ll never forget and an experience I recommend to everyone.

    Elisabeth — October 6th, 2016, 9:07 am
  2. Thank you for the comment. I hope to learn more communications lessons from sharks soon!

    Ruth Atherley — October 7th, 2016, 6:40 am

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