Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Short and sweet

Last Friday I began my holiday baking (first up...rugelach!) while enjoying the annual broadcast of the Ig Nobel Prize Awards on NPR's Science Friday. These two activities signal to me the beginning of the Christmas season! The Igs (as they are known to their aficionados) are given every year by the Annals of Improbable Research, a magazine whose stated goal is to publish "research that makes people LAUGH then THINK." I always learn fun new facts, and get a few good laughs out of Black Friday's hour-long reprise. Last year I blogged about the ceremony's ingenious use of a young girl by the name of Miss Sweetie Poo who calls the speakers out when they wander "in the weeds."

This year I was struck by another element of the Igs that we could do well to incorporate into our thinking--their 24/7 Lectures. When we prepare speeches, comments, or meeting recaps for any kind of presentation, we could benefit from remembering the rules: "Each 24/7 Lecturer explains their topic twice: First, a complete, technical description in 24 seconds. Then, a clear summary that anyone can understand in 7 words" (italics mine).

It sure would take a bit of doing, but what if we set that goal for ourselves? What if we could boil down our main talking points to a succinct 24-second explanation? And then, provide a short, clear summary? I am sure such a thought exercise would clarify our thinking, maybe even direct us to what we can cut out of our presentations that is unnecessary or obfuscatory.

Succinct messaging takes time; well worth it.
7 words!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giving thanks for NaNoWriMo

As Thanksgiving week rolls around I am thinking of the many things I am thankful for this year. Many are the wonderful people I have in my life and experiences I share with them. But there is also something new: this year, for the first time, I am participating in NaNoWriMo and am very thankful to Chris Baty for starting National Novel Writing Month in 1999. It grew from 21 friends who thought being novelists would help them get dates to a non-profit that last year propelled 310,095 writers world-wide to create novels. Of  50,000 words. In a month. Since I am a playwright, my "novel" uses fewer lengthy descriptions, so 50,000 seems like a lot. But I will edit out all the superfluous bits when I am done and hopefully something will take shape!

I have written plays before, but most of them had built-in deadlines. This one has been waiting months - no, years - to be written. And I just could not get it started. Until NaNo. Once you commit to doing the month of writing, you can get online support in the form of pep talks from successful authors, writing prompts, online writing sprints, and most of all, a sense of community. My region, Northern Virginia, has 8,174 members, many of whom have met up at coffee shops and libraries to write, bond and offer encouragement.

Writing is, by nature, a very solitary pursuit. It has been a great comfort this month to see so many fellow Nanites writing on the Forums or on the regional Facebook page about their own frustration at staring at the blank computer screen, or feeling they have run out of things to say, or knowing - absolutely- that everything they have written is rubbish! And to see others rallying round with words of encouragement. "Just keep writing," they say, "Edit later. Get it all out." Of course having a huge number of words to write every single day means that you can't do much editing or self-censoring as you go along. I have found that very liberating!

Support and accountability are things we all need. Creative artists who toil at their computers and live in their imaginations often don't much of either. Sometimes you just need a teensy bit of incentive to get it all out and put it all down. Later you will revise and revise and revise, and share those versions with your writing circle for them to critique. But first you need something to revise!

I have about 6,000 words to go and know I will finish. Might do it next year, as well. Think about joining me. We could be writing buddies! What's the worst thing that can happen? You write 50,000 words; some of then have to be good!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What's cookin'?

"Why do I need a coach to learn how to speak in public? I have been talking almost my whole life." To answer this question I often use a cooking analogy: Early in life you learn what sounds to make, and later what words to use to get what you need. Survival communications. Some people never need to learn more. But if you find yourself pursuing a career where "excellent oral communications" are required, or just want to make yourself heard above life's everyday static, you will need to work harder at it. That's where expert advice comes in, whether it is reading books or articles, watching webinars, or working with a communications coach. Each level of learning brings you closer to development of your own solid speaking technique.

So with cooking. Most of us learn survival cooking skills fairly early in life: scrambled eggs, mac 'n cheese, pb & j. But at some point we need to step up our game--to impress someone, to rescue ourselves from boredom, to cut down on take-out and restaurant costs. And so we read a cookbook and watch some cooking shows. Those of us who really want or need to excel study with the experts.

Every Saturday one of my delights is listening to The Splendid Table, a radio show from American Public Media, hosted by cooking expert and food journalist Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Lynne has a great way of making absolutely every dish she describes on the show sound mouth-wateringly delicious. And "doable." When she broadcasts interviews with guests, she has them break down complicated recipes and explain the culinary process, demystifying cuisine that might seem complicated. Even an elaborate Tourbot soufleé . She also gives a lot of really solid cooking advice to listeners who call in.

Saturday before last a caller said he wanted to become a better cook. He had trouble following recipes, and wanted some hints on other ways to improve. Lynne urged him to step away from the individual recipes, and really understand the underlying technique used in creating the dish. "Don't learn recipes, learn technique," she said. "You are more in control when you know the how and the why of what you are doing."

Back to my analogy: I work with clients to discover techniques that work for each of them. While these are similar, they vary from person to person. Much as cooking will vary according to pans used, oven temperature, quality of ingredients, etc. But when you break everything down and come to an understanding of how things work, you are able to develop a solid technique. Which you can then apply to many different situations. For example, once you have mastered a basic bechamel sauce, you can make dozens of French and Italian sauces. Once you know how to embody and embrace your own authentic presence, you have the ability to speak successfully anywhere, any time!

And doesn't that sound delicious?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Patterns. They are all around us. They are a big part of our everyday lives, as organizing principles, and as signposts to tell us where we fit in. We need to feel part of these patterns. To place ourselves in the now of the framework of our lives and the lives of those around us.

But this is a paradox, because when we are inside the pattern, we cannot see where we are. That is why walking through a maze for the first time can be so destabilizing and disorienting. You may end up down a blind alley or at a dead end.  You have to turn around, retrace your steps, go back to where you started--IF you can locate it. Little wonder, then, that books and movies use mazes to symbolize terrifying journeys into the unknown! I think "maze" and see Jack Nicholson in The Shining chasing Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd in the snow. Or I vividly relive the tragedy awaiting Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter inside the Tri-Wizard Tournament Maze in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Every time we get up to speak, we find ourselves in that maze--experiencing the journey, telling our story, turning here and there and following the path to its logical conclusion. BUT we also need to be outside the maze, keeping the larger picture in mind so we can see the pattern. We must know what our endpoint is and how to get there. We have to be sure not to get lost by taking a wrong turn, going down a rhetorical dead end, or ending up somewhere other than where we planned to be, with no idea of how to get back.

Of course when we practice before we speak, we become familiar with the best way to navigate the maze. And we become comfortable ignoring those little nagging voices that urge us to "step off the trail, go this way, it will be a shortcut, what can it hurt?"

But even before we step behind the podium or sit up straight in our conference room chair, even before the practice session begins, we need to keep the pattern in mind. We need to use it as a structural element when developing our thesis and main supporting points. Sometimes we are tempted to go into great detail to tease out an intriguing but non-essential subpoint. Or we tell an entertaining but digressive story. That sort of detour from the speech's overall plan does nothing to further our argument, and can be quite confusing to our audience. So we need to stay on the path in order to reach our goal.

Patterns can be comforting, if you follow the signposts and clues and don't get lost. And mazes can be mastered--with practice and a clear head!

photo credit: odolphie via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Small talk vs. large talk

Autumn at Union College
This  past weekend I was sitting in my son's college dorm room (we were up for our first Family Weekend) when I heard two of his friends pass one another in the hall: "How was it?" "Awesome!" "That's great, dude!" Their tones of voice conveyed that they knew exactly what they were talking about, even though I hadn't a clue. Sounded like a casual conversation between buddies. But it was really a classic example of the glue of private conversation. And it is pretty much the only type of speech that is not public speaking.

Two weekends ago I was giving a talk to Fulbright scholars from abroad who are here in the U.S. for graduate and post-graduate research, teaching, and study. My focus was on public speaking and presenting. The sponsors of the event were concerned that I was spending too little time on "interpersonal communications;" they felt their visiting scholars might be having some cross-cultural communications problems with fellow students and faculty. Of course I had planned to cover this in my session. "Interpersonal communications" was, in fact, one of the bullet points on slide #2. But it was under the heading "Public Speaking" so I guess that threw them off. I am not a fan of PowerPoint, so only essential topics (and a few choice graphics) go up on my slides. And interpersonal communications was definitely on the agenda.

But I saw their point. Most people do not think of quick chats in a professor's office or study group meetings in the food court as public speaking. But they are! So are those quick exchanges with co-workers on your way to a meeting or conference calls with your best client.

Anytime you are not engaged in private conversation you are speaking publicly. You are representing whatever business/party/ethnic group/nationality you bring to the table. Be aware of that. Unless you are connected through kinship, or well-established bonds of trust (which can form relatively quickly when you are all in the same boat, as in a first year dorm), your words matter. Organized thought matters. Articulation and clarity of speech matters. People will judge you on what you say and how you say it. Even in--or maybe especially in--those small group and one-on-one encounters. So do not take these exchanges as casually as two good friends meeting in a dorm hall. Unless you know someone well enough to engage in the relationship-maintaining communication often derided as "small talk"--where non-verbals are so strong the words almost do not matter--you are speaking publicly. Breathe. Think. And speak accordingly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Just calm down

Francisco Goya's "Folly of Fear," National Gallery of Art
I grew up in Northeastern Ohio (in fact went to the same high school as Amber Vinson) and now live in Arlington Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. So I was closely following news reports of events as they unfolded this past week. I was not in any danger, and I was amazed how many people felt they were. This brought to mind a statement I often make to my clients and students: you can't listen when you're in panic mode.

When I say this to them in a training session I am referring to situations when they are "put on the spot" in a meeting or during Q & A following a speech. You know that feeling--when all of a sudden your adrenaline kicks in, your palms sweat, your face flushes and your words stick in your throat. Not only are you rendered inarticulate,  you become functionally hard-of-hearing as well. Fear is a powerful blocker of both incoming and outgoing messages!

All the chatter about Ebola this past week reminded me of that state, that inability to listen because we are in too much of a panic mode to focus on what anyone is really saying. The truth of the matter is, of course, that Americans still have a far greater chance of dying from the flu this season than from Ebola, but that truth was hard to hear. It was being drowned out by the irresponsible media outlets who thrive on manufactured crises to increase their viewership/readership. And once people started to panic, they couldn't hear the voices of reason assuring them those "news" reports were bogus. Because when you stop breathing you stop listening. Think about it: have you ever really heard what someone is saying while holding your breath? I doubt it. You tense up in anticipation of BIG news (good or bad). You enter into a physiological state of altered awareness. Sometimes you hear part of the message, but not all of it, and not with all its nuance. You have doubtless noticed this when you try to deliver a message to someone who is in anticipatory panic mode. Your listener never hears the whole of what you have to say.

Yesterday's news about the quarantine in Dallas should have laid much of this fear to rest. But you know the fear-mongers will be back with another chapter. We must remember that they perform the same function as our inner voices of fear. They both stop us in our tracks when we panic. And they keep us from moving forward. Don't let that happen. Be clear-headed. Listen to what is really being said. See what is really there. And for all of our sakes--breathe!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trust issues

One of my clients occupies a senior management position, is an expert in her field, and really knows her stuff. But she confided in me that she had trouble answering questions in meetings with her peers and those at the top of her organization.

She is not alone. Many people have difficulty when put "on the spot" around the conference table or in the boardroom. I call it the "hot seat effect" and it is one of the manifestations of being trapped in the Speaker's Bubble (see my explanation of that peculiar place here). I work with clients to climb out of that trap by practicing breathing to stay centered and focused. The insidious thing about the hot seat, though, is how unexpectedly you find yourself on it. You're not standing under lights at a podium in front of a group of thousands, for heaven's sake; you're doing something fairly routine. Sitting in a chair. Having a meeting. But when the stakes are high (i.e. Very Important People listening to your every word), the heat is on.

The way to turn it off is to slow your heart rate by breathing fully and deeply. By doing so, you re-energize while you decrease your level of nervousness. The added bonus is that you regain your focus, and with it, your confident posture and vocal tone. You have the tools to climb the mountain.

My client, however, was worried that, though she could regain her composure, she had lost her way. Her destination seemed oddly distant on her mental map. She "went off on a tangent" while answering questions. She did give definite answers, eventually. But she feared her roundabout way of arriving at them would diminish her in others' eyes. Her misgivings were well-founded: confusing or long-winded answers can make those around you question your authority.

I have worked with her for a while now, and knew exactly what the trouble was. I prescribed a simple mental shift: she needs to trust herself. Trust her knowledge. Trust her clear, simple answer. Because the people she is speaking to trust her. They regard her as the expert in her field. So her desire to explain her answers, to make a strong case for them, is simply unnecessary. Her straightforward opinion is all that is needed. I reiterated: "Trust yourself. Your peers respect your judgement, your expert opinion, your guidance. If they need you to back up your pronouncements, they will ask. . . "  But I doubt it. When she trusts herself and gives a clear answer, they will be more than satisfied.

Trust yourself: simple to say; hard to do. Get started!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Check out the actors' playbook

The NYC cast of Becoming Calvin--September 21, 2014
This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing my play Becoming Calvin performed in a staged reading by some very talented actors in New York. We were not quite on Broadway, but almost, in a lovely church space just off of Times Square. Some of the actors have been with this play from its very first readings, and performed in its 2012 run in Washington, D.C.  But others, mostly NYC-based actors, heard the script aloud for the first time on Friday night. I reprised my 2012 role as director, and worked through each scene briefly. By Sunday afternoon the cast was ready to present it. They were already starting to inhabit their characters, and the play came alive. As a playwright, it was quite a gift to see and hear the script work while being read by new voices!

When I wasn't in rehearsal (which was most of the weekend) I had chance to catch up with friends who have interesting jobs in New York working with some Very Important People. One of my them was telling me about a boss who had a reputation for being a poor public speaker. This boss speaks a lot, in very high profile situations. "What makes her so appalling?" I asked. It seems she reads what has been prepared (in her case, by a speechwriter), then, feeling her point has not been made sufficiently, goes on to extemporaneously restate everything she has said in the speech. So of course her speeches usually run twice as long as they should. And her audience is always either bored or confused! Certainly not the desired outcome.

In my speaker-training business, I hear variations on this complaint all the time. Often I am brought in to address this issue, to help clients climb out of this trap. I advise them to follow my actors' example and trust the text. Actors learn very early on that their job is to interpret the work of the writer, to clarify it, share the underlying meaning with the audience. They never, for example, would stop a scene to explain to the audience what just happened. Their job is to embody the playwright's vision so clearly that the audience experiences it, too. The only way they can do this is to start with the assumption that the text is their primary tool. 

Speakers need to take a page from my actors' playbook and trust the text. Even if a speaker prefers to be less scripted, looser, more like a stand-up comedian, preparation is key (see my post Giving Thanks for Sarah Silverman). Comedians have a rhythm to their sets, have rehearsed, have chosen what to do when. They gifted ones make it seem "spontaneous"--just liked gifted actors--but very little has been left to chance.

If you are going to be speaking, the time to revise a text or script (to simplify it, or put it in your own words) is not at the moment of performance or presentation. That is work done well before you share your message with the audience. You need to make sure your text says what you want it to, yes, but before you step up to deliver it. Then, trust your text, let its message filter though you, and let the audience be a part of that experience. Otherwise, why are you there? You'd be better off just passing out a copy of your speech and freeing your captives.

Monday, September 8, 2014

One step and before you know it...

Students on the march; Union College Class of 2018!
I have just come back from my final first-year college-drop-off and I am experiencing mixed emotions. There is a feeling of accomplishment (not to mention relief!) at seeing your child set off on the road to independence, and yet. . . . As the Dean of Students said to the Class of 2018 when he welcomed them (just before we were instructed to say final good byes), "you might see your parents shedding a few tears, but it's not for you; it's because they are wondering where the time went!"

Fortunately, I can dive into work this week. I am lucky to have work that I love: coaching my clients gives me the opportunity to be always learning, thinking about something I have never thought about before, or looking at the world from an entirely new perspective. My clients are smart people; they talk about complicated, interesting things.

My job is to help them talk about these complex things in a way that helps others understand. Helps their listeners not just kinda sorta "get it,'' but understand it so well that true communication can happen, decisions can be made, problems can be solved, action can be taken.

As I reflect on the process I use to guide them, it strikes me as similar to helping my son learn how to walk. His first tentative step led to a surer one; it soon became a run. After that it seemed no time at all till he had become a sure-footed midfielder, then a fast base-runner. Yesterday he marched off to college. Everything started with that first, wobbly step.

My clients have mastered the steps necessary to rise to where they are. But they are all self-aware people who want to improve their communications, work for clarity, find that perfect metaphor or example to drive their meaning home. And they know, no matter how expert they are--or maybe in fact because they are so expert--they sometimes have to go back to basics to get started on the right foot.

We work on breaking down elaborate, possibly perplexing, explanations, uncluttering overly detailed power points. Saying more with far fewer words (and conveniently allowing more time for Q & A!). It is wonderful to hear about their successful outcomes. But I know beforehand they will succeed, because I can see how committed they are to the process of developing their content and delivery. They really dig in and explore as we search for creative, original (less pro forma, less expected) ways to make their messages soar. The "fixes" might seem minor to others, but for the author-presenters, even subtle perspective shifts and small tweaks can add up to a big improvement. 

And when the times comes to deliver, they're off and running--enjoying the experience as much as a child running on a beach on a warm summer day. Or a college student marching toward his future!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Perchance to dream and so much more

I am preparing to send my youngest off to college in the next few days. As I help him buy, sort and pack, I am trying to decide what essential tips for collegiate (and lifelong) success to share. Of course, I won't spring anything on him that I haven't told him before. He will have far too many "new" things to process for me to add one more. But of all the motherly wisdom I have shared over the years, what should I put at the top of my list?

I think it will be "Get Some Sleep." He has certainly been doing that already (a lot!) this summer, so it shouldn't be too hard. Or will it? I remember, dimly, the excitement of those first weeks of living away from home for the first time, and wanting to be everywhere doing everything with everyone, even into the wee hours. Such a widespread feeling has its own acronym now: FOMO, for Fear Of Missing Out.

But sleep is a neccesary restorative--a time to dream, as well as a time to consolidate memories. And a recent article published in Scientific American cites fascinating new research (originally published July 16 in Psychological Science) that indicates lack of sleep is associated with false memories: "when researchers compared the memory of people who'd had a good night's sleep with the memory of those who hadn't slept at all, they found that, under certain conditions, sleep-deprived individuals mix fact with imagination, embellish events and even "remember" things that never actually happened."

Throughout high school I encouraged my son to get a good night's sleep as a relatively easy strategy for doing well on upcoming tests. But now, as he heads off on his own adventure, I think the clear-headedness that comes only from being fully rested will benefit more than just his academic life. With new friendships being built, bonds of trust being tested, and his own evolving idea of "self"  called into question, he will need sound judgment. His reasoning will need to be based on accurate information--true, accurate memories, not false ones.

It's not just college students who could use that reminder! As we bid a fond adieu to the relaxing days of summer, let's all take some of its equilibrium with us as we gear up for the "fall frenzy." The days are getting shorter, after all. Why not take nature's cue and turn in a bit earlier?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Canned vs. prepared?

During the Q & A following a presentation I gave last week, I was asked a question that I always have trouble answering with a straight face. "How can I avoid sounding "canned?" And when I ask what that means, I am told "I don't want to be over-rehearsed, then I will seem stale." This, of course, is after I have spent an hour or more sharing my tips and techniques for dynamic speaking. An hour in which my audience has heard me say, repeatedly, that two things they must do to be better speakers and presenters are Prepare and Practice.

It only makes sense that you need to figure out what you are going to say, and also practice how you are going to say it, right? As an actor, I am used to doing a lot of practicing (we call it rehearsal). And most actors will tell you they never have sufficient time for rehearsal. Our process is a lot more in-depth than what speakers go through, of course. Speakers are delivering speeches that they have likely written, in their own voices. Actors use the playwright's words and speak in the character's voice. But in the beginning, the actor's relationship to his script is very similar to the speaker's relationship to her text. Know what you are saying, what your intention is, be aware of subtext is (i.e message beneath your words/between the lines), be sure you can pronounce all the words/names, etc. Then practice enough so you don't have to read or stay glued to your text. And when you have internalized the message, you are ready to increase the dynamism of delivery with more energy, more vocal variety, better pacing. The more you know your text, the more expressively you can convey your meaning. And the more expressively you do that, the more vibrant you will be. Fresh, never "stale." So you can see why it is hard for me not to laugh when someone who needs to do a speech tells me he is afraid of being over-prepared and sounding "canned."

The fact is there is no such thing as being too prepared. 

Every time you speak in public, in a formal speech setting or around the boardroom table, you have an opportunity to prove your expertise, underscore your credibility, convey your dynamic leadership. Why would anyone leave that up to chance? "winging it," "speaking off the cuff" and other techniques that rely on the inspiration of the moment may work for you some of the time (I have observed, unscientifically, that this figure hovers around 25%).  Why chance it the rest of the time? 

Think about it: the last time someone really knew her stuff, did you think she was "canned?" Or prepared to perfection?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

You can't play the game if you don't know the rules

Some things never change. No matter how often parents, coaches, teachers, and consultants (those tasked with helping you learn or master a skill)  swear to the contrary, some people will always insist that they don't need to play by the rules. Recently I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing yet another example of this. There was a speaker. And she may have thought it was fine to speak "from the heart," or "off the cuff." But I watched as her audience coughed, squirmed, and pulled out their cellphones. She was oblivious. And she completely lost them. This caused a communications snafu that was entirely avoidable. Fortunately, in this instance, the damage inflicted will not be lasting, nor is it very serious. But damage was done, nonetheless, to the speaker's credibility, which may affect her leadership standing going forward.

Understanding how to communicate to an audience is not rocket science. Yet I am constantly baffled by otherwise intelligent people who seem to have absolutely zero clue about how to be good speakers. Which is surprising, because it is not a complicated process. The rules for effective speaking are easier to master than the rules of baseball. You need to know your subject matter, know your audience, and know how best to get your message across to them.

All of this varies depending on the specifics of your situation, of course, but a couple of standard rules always apply, whether you are giving "a few remarks" at an event or making a formal speech:
  • Always structure your comments, to include a beginning (intro), middle (main points--no more than four, but three is preferred!), and end (wrap-up). You may be a non-linear thinker, but unless your audience is made up wholly of mind-readers, you'd do well to stick to the formula that passes for the lingua franca of organized speech.
  • Always plan ahead, so you have organized your thoughts (see above).
  • Always stick to your preparation. The biggest consequence of people going "off script" is that they dig themselves into verbal holes they then need to spend valuable time getting out of. And they lose the attention of their audience--resulting in a hit to their credibility. As I saw so clearly in this most recent instance.
Don't be the speaker who squanders the goodwill of your listeners by performing a "brain dump" that is confusing and hard to follow. Plan ahead. Stick to your game plan. Get to the point--then get off the field.

As Tommy Lasorda said, “There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.” Be the one who makes it happen.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

And you thought beginning was hard...

Every summer I take a respite from coaching and consulting and go back to camp. Well, not camp, really: it's Discover the World of Communications, a summer program at American University. Sarah Menke-Fish, visionary Professor of Communications, created this program for driven, directed high school students 15 years ago. And I have been lucky to be a part of the DWC family for nine years now.

The past two weeks I have been working with DWCers in my Speaking for Impact class. They are smart kids, from some of the area's best schools, so it isn't Intro to Public Speaking. Most have made many speeches, and know they will make more in the careers they hope to have. However, I am struck by how often I need to point out that their speeches don't really have endings. And that's not just generational; many of my older clients have difficulty ending their speeches and presentations as well. (A good example of "what not to do" can be found at the end of Ellen DeGeneres' funny yet poignant 2009 Tulane commencement speech. But be warned: she is a comedian with impeccable timing. A less gifted person would never get by with a conclusion that concludes the conclusion.)

Just as you need a "hook" to engage the listeners, to get them interested in your topic or to pique their curiosity about how you will handle your subject matter, you also need a "coda" at the end to wrap everything up. Common methods for doing this include referring to the story you used in your hook, answering the pointed question you asked in the beginning, or citing the intriguing quotation you opened with. Other "codas" can be structured using rhetorical devices. I had a student this week end her "Don't Text While Driving" speech with a wonderful use of repetition: three sentences that started with "Be the one who...." It's a classic technique, but it works.

Ending your speech definitively may seem like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how many speakers sputter to a close, as if they have run out of steam (or time). They don't end with a strong finish and that is too bad. Your closing is another opportunity to make your point. Even if you have lost your listeners somewhere along the way, your message will be remembered if it is reinforced by the last words your audience hears. Make them count! 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Madeleine and Audra

Madeleine Albright shows off her Wellesley Blue sneakers
"Be yourself."

You have heard it before. Everyone has said it--from your mother sending you out the door on your first day of school, to your BFF giving you a pep talk before that big job interview. But when this is the advice offered to women leaders from Madeleine Albright, you somehow hear it in a new way. And it doesn't seem trite at  all.

I was at Wellesley for my college reunion, and Madeleine (Class of '59) was speaking in conjunction with the opening of Read My Pins, an exhibit at the Davis Art Museum. Following a fascinating talk that combined stories detailing how she used her pins to convey diplomatic messages, the floor was opened up for questions. A few questions arose about how best to be a woman leader in a world that still applies a double standard. Her response? "It is annoying when men do that but that's just the way it is. Be confident in what you are doing, and don't take such criticism personally." You can best do that when you are Being Yourself. By that I think she meant that in a leadership role you need to know your strengths and play to them. Trust your instincts and your homework. Do not feel the need to become someone else's idea of what a leader should be. And I would extrapolate even further (to summarize a point I have read in other books on women's leadership) that you are a leader because you are a leader. No need to second-guess. Be bold. Be confident! I was lucky to see many examples this weekend of classmates who were the embodiment of just that kind of leadership. They we enjoying themselves immensely, being themselves.

And then I came home and watched the Tony Awards. I watched Broadway stars, people who role-play for their living, celebrating their community. The surprise of the evening was, for me, the way the stunningly talented Audra McDonald was so overcome with emotion at winning her record-breaking sixth Tony that she cried throughout her acceptance speech. McDonald's profession depends on her self-knowledge and self-possession, yet she felt free to be undeniably herself.

In moments of heightened emotion (or heightened stress) we can give ourselves this gift. If we do not stand outside ourselves, worrying about how others will judge us, we can act on what our preparation and our inner guide tell us we must do. Great leaders know that being authentic, even when it means being vulnerable, is a mark of strength. Great actors do, too!

Monday, June 2, 2014

A speech that stuck

Nora Ephron speaking at Wellesley College

Now that it's June we can all breathe a sigh of relief. We begin an 11-month respite from snarky commentary about Commencement speakers and their speeches, from newspaper columns and blog posts that say, "no one remembers their Commencement speaker, let alone the speech." To those of us who study best speech practices and train others to speak, those comments sound like sour grapes (from people who were not invited to speak) or laziness (from those who were but do not want to put in the time to fully prepare).

I remember the speech delivered at my own Commencement very well--and it was a long time ago! But that is probably because it was written by one of the smartest women ever to put two words together, delivered with an energy that held us spellbound. I was lucky enough to be addressed at my graduation from Wellesley College by our illustrious alumna Nora Ephron. She had a very clear message to us graduates: "Be fearless. Don't waste your time being nice. And don't be a lady!" I seem to recall a collective gasp from the parents seated behind us when she made this last point, but I recall (though perhaps imperfectly) that my classmates and I burst into applause.

I am not going to tell you here how this "advice to the graduates" shaped my life. I use it simply to illustrate that people do actually remember their Commencement speeches. Even decades later.

Nine days ago my family and I attended the graduation of our daughter from Bowdoin College. We heard many speeches over the course of graduation weekend. A few of them were memorable. But there was one that was universally lauded; it meant something to everyone who heard it, from grandparents to younger siblings. "Failure in Perspective" was given by a member of the Class of 2014, Kate Kearns. If you want to view this excellent speech you can find it here.

Kate's message of learning from failure is not that unusual. We hear it everywhere these days. In start-up circles the mantra "fail fast" seems to be on everyone's lips. But Kate is not invoking this as a "success strategy." She reaches deeper than that. By involving us in the story of her personal journey to embrace the lessons of failure, Kate touches on our fundamental reluctance to admit to anything less than success. But we must fail, if we are to grow and keep growing. So Kate turns the glib mantra into deeply held article of faith. Everyone I spoke to after the ceremony felt they could relate to the story Kate shared. She was vulnerable, honest and funny. As a listener you believed and trusted her. And took her words to heart.

When I advise my clients on content development, I tell them they need to include the element of story in their speeches if they want them to "stick." Of all the speeches that weekend, the one that stuck with us most did not just incorporate story, it grew organically from that story. A personal story that was also universal.

Nora would have approved.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Weaponize your voice

Use your voice as your secret weapon. That's the advice I give my clients. And if you have ever had the experience of feeling like your words were going nowhere, that you were speaking into a void, that you just were never going to be heard, such a strategy is something you should consider.

Many experts, coaches, and consultants (myself included) will tell you that judgments about you hinge as much on how you sound as how you look. That sounding like a leader is every bit as important as looking like one (see Romney, Willard Mitt). But most people will concentrate on crafting their content, their position statements, their speeches or talking points, and not think twice about what their tone conveys. About what they sound like, and what that signifies to the listener. Unless you are trying to overcome the handicap of not fitting the traditional leadership image (see Clinton, Hillary Rodham ) the tone of your voice might remain a subtle, subconscious influencer.

But it shouldn't, because its power cannot be discounted. The "power of voice" is a phrase I have heard at many meetings, conferences, symposia. In this phrase "voice" is used metaphorically, in the context of motivation. "Reclaiming their voice" is shorthand for empowering women or members of minorities to stand up and speak out.

I use the phrase, "unleash the power of your voice" with my clients in a much more direct way: use your rich, fully-realized sound to connect with anyone and everyone in your space. When your "instrument" (your breathe, voice, resonators) is working efficiently and well, it sends your sound vibrations out to the farthest corners of the room. You reach everyone. And touch them--literally--with those waves of sound. The more overtones and undertones you have (think of a rich chord played on the organ), the more your sound touches people.

If you are a fan of live music of any kind you already now this. Why would we rather hear our favorite musicians play at a live event? On recordings they are closer to perfection than in their performances. But the cost of that mediated perfection is the immediacy of sharing the space with the musicians, of sharing their energy, of feeling their vibrations run through us in a thrilling physical sensation.

I saw a brilliant illustration of this recently on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyessy. In the April 6th episode, "Hiding in the Light," host and astrophysicst Neil deGrasse Tyson  explains the spectral code of light, juxtaposing the way light waves travel with the way sounds waves do. We listen to the great organ in Benedikbeuern Abbey play "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana as we watch visible sound waves pulse and expand throughout the space.

That is what your voice can do, if you learn to "play" it. Your sound waves, your voice, your message can reach out and touch each and every one of your listeners. When your sound grabs them that way, people will listen!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I'm no marathoner. Or am I?

(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
I live-streamed the Boston Marathon for a bit late yesterday morning. I wanted to recapture the excitement of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel at mile 13 of the race. The 118th Boston Marathon started earlier than I recalled; when I cheered for those first runners coming down Route 135 it was definitely not before noon! So I tuned in too late to see coverage of the Scream Tunnel. But I did catch the last five miles of the elite first heat of women. I saw Rita Jeptoo make her move and break away from the others, and saw the joy in her face when she crossed the finish line. But the final miles of the men's race were really exciting: I tensed as Meb Keflezigh's race-long lead diminished, then cheered as it widened again. I watched in amazement as he almost sprinted has way up Boylston Street to an astonishing victory.  It was an incredible day for Boston, for athletes, and for those of us who watched. As Nicholas Thompson blogged at The New Yorker,  these two top-finishers demonstrated very different ways to win a race.

I am not a marathoner, and have never, ever had that urge. I used to go for short runs, and may do so again, but the endurance test of a long-distance run is something I can't imagine doing. I am in awe of those athletes who do it, who can keep up the pace for 26.2 miles. And particularly someone like Meb who was no longer ranked at the tippy-top, who had lost his Nike sponsorship and who was thought to be over the hill, a has-been, at 38.

So I thought I had little in common with Meb, Rita, and my husband's classmate Joanie Benoit Samuleson. But this morning I was on a call with Belinda Pruyne, business coach extraordinaire at Business Innovation Group.  And Belinda said, "the people who find success are those who go the extra mile, who aren't afraid to do the work needed to separate themselves from the pack." Belinda has a lot of good advice for how to separate yourself, beginning with knowing and acting upon your non-negotiable core values.

Now, as you may know, I do a few different things in my work world, and I do them in a pretty unique way. I like to think of my approach as "muscular creativity"--making connections others don't/can't/won't see. And working at it; putting in the time to tease things out and put them back together. Working to help others communicate more effectively. Applying those same techniques to get my message across. So maybe I do have more in common with those runners than I thought. Maybe I am a marathoner, metaphorically, and don't even know it. Maybe you are, too!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Weaving the safety net of trust
Photo of Nik Wallenda by dpape on Flickr
Walking the tightrope without a net. That's what it feels like for so many of us who work alone or in small businesses. There is just so much we have to do before we can settle down to getting the job done. We need to pitch, present, propose, negotiate. Finally, when we succeed at these, we get to do what we actually love. It is "the thing itself" that interests us. And our vision of it is strong enough keep pushing us along that tightrope.

But we will never make that vision a reality if we can't communicate.

As you doubtless already know, the first step for successful communication is listening to what prospective clients want. Completely. Give them your undivided attention. But don't forget the next step: tell them what you understood them to say. This eliminates initial misunderstandings that could set you off on the wrong path. And from a relationship-building standpoint, this step is crucial. People need to be heard. If they are considering hiring you, they want to know that you will listen to what they are telling you. And to be sure that what you heard is actually what they said.

So you have heard what they want. Good. But what happens when your expertise tells you that what they want isn't really what they need? This can be tricky, but again, you have to articulate what it is they have told you, then share how your solution will solve the problem. It may be a slightly different way than they had expected, but if you approach it as a joint effort, rather than telegraphing "I am the expert so I know better," you will get down to work much sooner. This is something like the "pivot" tactic used in political communication. And this technique is known in improv world as "yes . . . and" (as opposed to "no . . . but," a counter-productive blocking tactic). Even if you absolutely know from the start that what the clients want will never solve their problem, you need to hear them out. Your willingness (or lack thereof) to engage on this level will tell them a lot about how you will communicate going forward.

In our wildest dreams we will all be as successful as (insert name of favorite industry leader here). With that stellar reputation for excellence we will be given free rein. But until then we are in the position of asking our clients to trust us, to have faith that ultimately we will give them what they really need. So we have to work to establish a bond of trust. And hold onto it. Trust is never a given. It is a gift, an important connection that we need to reinforce with every interaction. It is our safety net. So never, ever stop listening!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Expertise or Expert-ese?

Last week I went to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to attend a briefing, which is not a thing I typically do.  But there was a bill under discussion that I am particularly interested in. And the panelists included activists and advocates, some of whom I had heard speak before, and others I knew by reputation. I was pretty sure it would be a lively--and provocative--gathering.

The panelists spoke about strategies for getting the word out about this legislation and for helping the Senate and House co-sponsors get more support, as well as why this particular piece of legislation really needed to be passed soon--like yesterday! There was an palpable excitement, an electricity that permeated the room as they delivered their prepared remarks with conviction and purpose.

They knew their audience, and they spoke their language. Except the economist. She was there to make the economic case for passing this bill, and had provided a series of graphs in the briefing packet. Her presentation consisted of going through each of them and . . . well, just reading the data. Thud. The room deflated, like a balloon that had suddenly lost its air. OK, I thought, maybe she is kind of economist that does research and presents data without drawing conclusions. In a disciplined, matter-of-fact way. But why would you include someone like that on your panel when every minute counts? In those situations, it is best to seek out speakers who maximize their time supporting the message and engaging the audience.

In the follow-up Q & A period some other experts were on hand in the audience. Representatives from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) got up to share their analysis of the issues addressed by the bill. CRS is a really cool branch of Library of Congress that does all sorts of research for members of Congress to help with the legislative process. I wish I could say their presentation was all very interesting, but it was not. I could feel the eyes glazing over, the heads nodding. Phones all around the room were suddenly being checked. I am sure the CRS experts' findings were extremely important, and would have been helpful to all of us trying advance this bill. But we couldn't follow them! It felt like that time I walked into English 355 by mistake Freshman year, and heard all sorts of undoubtedly English language words used in combinations I could not make sense of. Not knowing the context, I was lost. Some people call this "insider language." Others call it "jargon." Whatever you call it, it is bound to frustrate people if they can't understand. Even (or maybe, especially) people who are already on your side.

Organizers of panels everywhere need to ask themselves, are the experts I am using more likely to confuse my audience than not? Are they there to obfuscate or clarify? If I want them to clarify, it is imperative I make sure they do. I must remind them to forgo "expert-ese" and speak the common language.

Monday, March 24, 2014

When "Those Who Should Know Better" don't
(Photo: Isaac Brekken, AP)
In my communications consulting practice, I meet a lot of leaders. They often ask me to work with their junior staff--to make sure they have the requisite skills for their jobs. And sometimes when I do work with the junior staff, they tell me that the Big Bosses are the ones who really need my help. Alas, those leaders are not likely to seek it, even if it is glaringly clear to others that many institutional problems could be solved if they improved their communication. 

On my more charitable days I attribute this to the packed schedule that comes with the territory. Maybe these leaders do not have enough time to invest in polishing their skills; they are busy taking care of everything and everyone else. But quite possibly the reality is harsher: they are on top, so they do not worry about improving. After all, they have achieved career success with the skills they have, so why change now?   

The fact is, if you are a leader, you are the public face of the organization. And as you ascend the leadership ladder, you wear that face more and more. The speaking and presenting skills you used when you spoke to fellow managers at the annual regional conference are not the ones you need when you are presenting on a larger stage. Crisis communications experts are called in when there are specific fires to put out, disasters to avert, etc. But learning how to be keep improving day-to-day communications? Listening to support staff as well as board members? Presenting a clear vision to other stake-holders? Speaking confidently and honestly to the media? These skills fall through the cracks. Whether it is because no one will tell the leader she/he needs to work on them, or because of the leader's insecurity (or ego!) they are not prioritized.  That's a mistake.

For awhile now I have collected video clips of Speeches Gone Bad to share with my public speaking students. I use these as examples of what not to do. Most of these have appeared on YouTube. They are speeches made by people in the public eye--celebrities, politicians, etc. Now I know (you do, too) that there are leaders in business, law, finance, academia, etc., who make these same sorts of speeches. Who damage their own "brand" (and that of the entities they are leading) because they are poor communicators. I would be happy to share those videos, if I did not fear the lawsuits that would result. So, we will have to make do with clips of public figures.

I will be posting some of my favorites on my website. The first is Michael Bey's famous meltdown at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Come back and visit this page often. Share it with your friends and colleagues, even your bosses. If they see the gaffes even Those Who Should Know Better make, maybe they will be more willing to seek out expert help. And just for fun--some weeks I will post examples of Speeches Well Done: presentations any coach would be proud of!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Learning when you least expect it

Julianna Margulies stars in The Good Wife
As regular readers of this blog know, when I am not professionally engaged coaching clients to be better speakers and more authentic leaders, I am busily immersed in my other professional world--theatre. I teach acting, and I direct, write, and produce plays. And so when I engage in popular entertainment it is with a critical eye. Often, I am rewarded by seeing artistically sound, even transcendent, performances, like those in films nominated for this year's crop of awards. I blogged about some of these earlier in the year.

I enjoy watching good television. My favorite TV drama, The Good Wife, was on last night. I love this series because it has several leading female characters and features a strong woman at the center of the story--a woman who is successful, conflicted, experiences self-doubt, a sexual being who is also a caring mother--in short, a well-drawn, fully developed adult female character. This is fairly rare on network TV drama, so I relish every episode as more of Alicia Florrick's story unfolds. The talented Julianna Margulies has been bringing this character to life for five seasons.

Last night as I was relaxing watching this show I felt my worlds collide. The episode begins with Alicia anxiously pacing in a hotel room as her colleague Cary quickly skims a text. She is obviously awaiting his judgment. He delivers it: it's too dry, feels too labored. Even if she has spent two weeks on it, she needs to rewrite it before tomorrow. "They don't want facts and figures" he advises, "they want to hear your story." Alicia is preparing to give a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. 

As the story progresses, the stakes are raised higher and higher; much depends on Alicia getting this speech right. But it is hard for her to tell her story. As a plot device this is terrific, and allows for flashbacks that flesh out a current, very conflicted relationship. But I was thrilled to see, on primetime TV, advice that I give my clients all the time: no one wants your bullet points; no one wants to hear you recite your resume; people come to learn from your story. Of course, you must have something to offer besides your personal story (to answer the unasked question "What's in it for me?"), or you would not be giving the keynote. But you have been invited, precisely because the event organizers want you to share your conclusion in your own words, to filter the results through the lens of your experience. Otherwise they would have asked someone else, or been content to read a report on your findings, rather than ask you to share with them.  

But it is often hard to tell your story. We watch Alicia as she struggles. She is afraid of seeming too vulnerable. We see only a very small segment of her speech (I know I am in the minority, but I wanted to see it in its entirety). We cut to the speech in progress, and it is clear she has opened with a lighthearted story, but not a joke (also echoing my advice to never rely on a joke in a speech. See here, here, and here). And though there is some laughter as she begins her second paragraph, it is a laugh of recognition. It is a laugh of connection, of shared experience. They are with her! But Alicia loses confidence halfway through, when her audience starts to leave en masse. The reason they are leaving has nothing to do with her speech, but she doesn't know that, and we see her shaken. This moment offers a brilliant illustration of why I tell my speakers not to "judge" their performance by audience reaction--because the outside world can (and often does) come crashing into the world of your speech. 

After her speech, though Alicia thinks she "bombed," we are led to believe that she managed to regain her composure, and shared her story honestly, with humility, and humor. Because in the end, she did impress her target audience. She had an objective, and she fulfilled it.

My objective last night was to be entertained for an hour by good performances and good writing. The rest was a bonus!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reading is to writing as listening is to . . .

  Tom Platt/Iconica for Getty Images
Teachers (and parents) tell their kids that one of the best ways to improve their writing is to read more. I was reminded of this last week when my social media filled with posts detailing friends' plans to participate in Read Across America Day.

In a very similar way, we can learn about speaking by listening. The most recent TED Radio Hour on NPR featured an interview with Julian Treasure, a sound expert who says we are "losing our listening." As someone who preaches that you can't be a good speaker unless you are a better listener, I was intrigued enough by his interview with host Guy Raz to watch Treasure's original TED Talk. In it, he describes the ways we have trained our ears for listening: how we recognize our names amid the din of a noisy party, for example, or tune out continuous "background" sound. But, he adds, our listening is also affected by many filters we subconsciously impose on what we hear: culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, intentions.

All in all, listening is a tricky business. And we need to practice doing it more mindfully. Fortunately, Treasure shares some clever exercises for improving our listening--indeed, the title of his TED talk is "5 Ways to Listen Better." He ends by making a plea for teaching listening to children. Because unless we collectively break this habit of shutting out sound, we are headed toward a totally dysfunctional, disconnected future where we block out the incessant, exhausting noise of everyday life by isolating ourselves under headphones. We need to learn how to listen, because listening is essential to human connection. "Conscious listening always creates understanding," Treasure observes.

Likewise, if we want to be understood when we speak, we must become better listeners first. We need to reconnect with each other in conversation--and stop performing dueling monologues. I often advise my clients that one way to improve as public speakers (i.e., when they engage in any speech not specifically "private") is to become better public listeners. This means being less impatient as listeners, exercising critical thinking skills, and not responding reflexively to contextual filters (see above). Then they can achieve a far better connection with the speaker and her/his message. And learn how to recreate that same connection when they are speaking. Only in that mental space is the act of true communication possible.

"Every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully. Connected in space and in time to the physical world around us. Connected to each other." Treasure is right. And why would we want to live any other way?

Monday, March 3, 2014

If you can read me you may be too close

Olimpia Zagnoli for the New York Times

Clients reach out to me for many reasons. But when we boil it down, most of them have the same goal: they want to connect more effectively with their listeners. Whether they are prepping to speak at a high-stakes meeting, in an interview, or for a keynote, They want to make sure the audience really hears their message.

Some of them ask how they can improve their ability to "read" the audience. I say that is a very complicated thing to do, and not the best use of their (usually very limited) prep time. And here's why: I know (from my training as an actor) that people often are "showing" emotions on at least two different levels. Their bodies, for example, will say one thing, while their faces convey another. The eyes and the shoulders often disagree. And what comes out of their mouths can express something else altogether! As an acting teacher I often coach my actors to "play the opposites." People are complicated, contradictory; the conscious mind and the subconscious are often at odds. Only novice actors try to convey consistent characters. And as a playwright, I walk the fine line between having my characters consciously make decisions, and "letting them" do what they need to do, even if that comes from a subconscious need.

So I was glad to read a column in yesterday's New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett who is an expert in the field of the psychology of emotion. She tells Apple and the TSA and everyone else who thinks they can "read" someone's inner emotional state by looking at her/his face "...this assumption is wrong. Several recent and forthcoming research papers from the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, which I direct, suggest that human facial expressions, viewed on their own, are not universally understood."

She goes on to cite studies that point out the flaws in previous research that led people to believe they could understand emotions by just looking at faces. Her conclusions make sense to me. Then she answers the inevitable question: "If faces do not 'speak for themselves,' how do we manage to 'read' other people? The answer is that we don’t passively recognize emotions but actively perceive them, drawing heavily (if unwittingly) on a wide variety of contextual clues — a body position, a hand gesture, a vocalization, the social setting and so on."

So to be able to accurately "read" someone you need to know context in which you are encountering this person, and it helps if you have more than a passing knowledge of the person as well. Think about it: as you look around at an event where you are a participant (a wedding reception, or a class reunion) there are people whose expressions you most definitely can identify. But you are in a familiar context, with people you probably know quite well. And even those people might seem a bit more opaque if you are with them in a foreign setting (a Congressional hearing room, for example).

I advise clients to spend their prep time wisely: prepare (before you write a word, get as much info as you can on the speech occasion/event itself, as well as your audience), and practice (no one ever practices too much). When you are there, do your best to connect by staying focused and "in the moment." Don't distract yourself trying to "read" your audience. Even if you are a neuroscientist, such conscious speculation will take you out of communications loop, disconnecting you when you most want to be connected. Save the "match the face to the emotion" game for your next family gathering.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Olympian in all of us

My last blog generated much good discussion on- and off-line. So I thought I would pick up where I left off. In that post I focused on the people blaming their lack of "natural gifts" for not trying to cultivate a skill, or improve on what they already possess. As I continued to watch world-class athletes finishing up their competition at the XXII Winter Olympic Games, I kept asking myself: who is really a "natural" at skeleton racing? snowboard cross? And ice dancing? I started skating as a kid, and I remember the first lessons I learned had to do with just staying upright. It was a while before I learned to skate backwards, and I never learned to twizzle! I am sure Meryl Davis and Charlie White fell a lot as kids. But they got back up. Only to fall again. They have probably fallen hundreds of times over the years. But eventually, their technique became so strong that ice-dancing seems the most natural way for them to move. They immersed themselves in their discipline, and they mastered it.

So what about those who reach a level of mastery sufficient to their needs, and then stop? Unlike Team USA members who assured us they just keep trying to improve each time they compete, these folks are happy where they are and that's that. I am not thinking of the U.S. Speedskating team (I am sure they were working hard to stay on top), but of people who perform in a very different arena: public speaking.

You know the ones I mean--those who have reached their own goal of feeling comfortable standing and speaking in front of people, but have stopped there. Now that they are no longer anxious, they try to maintain control by not changing anything. They become set in their ways. Predictable. And not open to hearing suggestions that might lead to improvement. Something worked for them once, and without anaylzing why, they repeat whatever it was each time they speak. Often it involves retelling some lame joke, or striking an "I'm-the-important-expert" pose. Or something else they use as a gimmick so they can face the crowd and still stay in their comfort zone. None of these tactics are designed with the listener in mind. It's all about what the speaker needs. And that's just wrong.

Your job as a speakers is never to just deliver content. If it were, you could send a memo. You need to speak to the audience, not talk at it. Invest in making a connection. Audiences can tell if you are unable/unwilling/unprepared to do this. Sometimes they give you the benefit of the doubt, but don't count on it. That "relaxation" you feel when you think your "formula" has served you well? It may just be boredom from the audience creeping toward you.

Like the Olympic athletes, anyone who wants to truly master a discipline needs to keep moving forward. Keep learning. Keep growing. And be thankful the "stumbles" you have on the way won't send you careening down a half-pipe or slamming into an ice rink wall.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Save the comedy for the club

I know... it has only been two months since I last blogged about the misguided notion that you should start your speech with a joke (see Giving Thanks for Sarah Silverman, and, before that, Safety Training Required) but when I tell people I am a public speaking coach, they often feel compelled to share with me their ideas of best practices. And inevitably, the joke thing comes up. So once again, with feeling, I say: please disregard past instructions from amateur speakers and their clubs, books you have read by random speechwriters, or lessons learned in Public Speaking 101. DO NOT START YOUR SPEECH WITH A JOKE. I am not joking!

Why do you want to waste the first incredibly valuable seconds of a speech engaging in an activity for which you have not had previous training, sending your listeners off on a mental tangent--inviting comparisons with professional comedians who really can tell a joke, or worse  jeopardizing your credibility? You should be "hooking" the audience with your content, not using them as comedy club guinea pigs. It is not that I lack an appreciation of humor. But I know that humor is hard and its use has to be earned. Or as we say in acting world, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" (deathbed quote variously attributed to actors Edmund Kean and Edmund Gwynne.)

And it's not just jokes. This weekend someone told me the best advice he got in a college course on public speaking was to open with a humorous icebreaker. When I shared this with a colleague, he suggested that there must be a book of such quips floating around, because he has heard a few of them on multiple occasions--from different people. I have had this experience: shifting uncomfortably in the audience upon hearing the same mildly humorous line spoken for the fourth time in as many speeches by a respected, notable speaker. Why does she diminish her brand with this attempt at "funny"? A comedian can have a comic "catch phrase," but is it really appropriate for anyone with a more serious job?

The reason always given (and I just heard it again this weekend) is that starting with a humorous line "relaxes the speaker and relaxes the audience." But watching an audience suppress the eyeroll and groan that accompany the thought "here we go again--another content expert who wants to unleash his inner comedian on us" does not a relaxed speaker make. So you reflexively turn a blind eye to the audience reaction in the opening moments, when you should be making a strong initial connection! And trust me, there are ways to achieve relaxation at the podium that are more effective than trying to regain momentum after you "bomb" with your first quip. Because unless you know your audience extremely well, know their cultural background, know their sense of humor, and have practiced your jokes and your humorous stories for timing and rhythm, you will bomb with someone there. Why take the risk?

It all boils down to ego. Because in a business setting, unlike a comedy club, no one will boo you if your joke falls flat. And if your core message is in demand, you will be asked to speak in spite of your propensity to be NOT funny. But do you really want to be that guy -- the one about whom people say, "It's funny: for such a smart guy, you would think he would know he can't tell a joke"?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

State of the laundry list

The President's annual State of the Union Address always provides a good overview of the agenda his administration will pursue in the coming year. Sometimes it even inspires! But last night's edition followed the pattern of too many SOTU's in recent memory--it was fairly dull. Here's how I know: I am trained to pay close attention to speeches of all kinds, yet I could barely overcome the distractions that beckoned.  After years of asking myself why I feel so strangely dissatisfied after SOTUs--whatever the party of the President--I engaged in an experiment last night. I actually tracked the speech to see if concentrating on that level made it easier to follow. It did not. Even with pen in hand, I lost the thread of the speech, only to pick it up seconds later, when I found we were on an altogether different topic.

I conclude that the State of the Union really isn't meant to be a very good speech, as speeches go. It is a comprehensive list, a giant memo outlining the administration's plans for the next months. I guess it fits this definition of address: "a formal communication". And since everyone in the room (and many of those who tuned in) would be reading and parsing the speech after the fact, maybe the President's speechwriters don't feel the need to "write for the ear." But to anyone at home who was not playing a version of SOTU bingo (I particularly like the League of Women Voters' version, pictured here) or listening for specific sound bites to support her/his cause, it was a dud.

Delivery was good, yes--the President looked relaxed yet enrgized, really focussed and relatively impassioned. And he displayed the great comic sense we relish whenever we see it.

But the content violated so many tried-and-true practices of speechwriting. His "introduction" (if that is what it was) contained one list of six points, followed by one of five, and I was getting lost already. There were far too many topics; Tamara Keith of NPR tweeted that he would cover 12! If they had been clumped into three major topics, say Equality/Inequality (income, civil and human rights), Economic Growth (foreign and domestic, big biz and small), Foreign Relations (Iraq, Afghanistan, war on terrorism, use of diplomacy) we could have tracked the subpoints more clearly. I got lost halfway through "Citizenship," which seemed to include "diplomacy" (with an appropriate shout-out to diplomats and the military). But that segued to the fight against terrorism, on to international relations and back to diplomacy. I saw how these could flow logically if you were reading a paper, but for the casual listener at home who was trying to follow the essence of the speech, it was hard. The address was definitely not user-friendly, unless you were using a scorecard or tweeting out favorite "lines."

There is a reason most speeches adhere to standard organizing principles, and good speeches rely on the "tell you what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them you told them" pattern in one variation or another. Even speeches based on a story-telling model have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I think that is why most listeners are just half-attending the speech, waiting to prick up their ears when the President speaks about their issues. And maybe that is really the point of it--to cover key issues that matter to the constituents and policy-makers. So, yes, on that score it was a win. President Obama covered a lot. And I even heard some points that pleased me.

But let's not fool ourselves that this was a good speech. A good list, yes. With some great personal stories thrown in to liven it up. But beware--no one should use this as a model for their speech-making. Ever. If you want to capture the audience's attention and keep it, look to a speech that has some shape, some vision, some over-arching theme. For an address that really is a speech - look at just about anything else this President has given us.