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.