Thursday, October 29, 2015

Venturing into the unknown

Recently I have been prepping clients for town hall-style meetings and live Q & A sessions--the type of event listed as "A conversation with the expert. . ." or "Talking to . . ." in conference programs. One of my clients said, "I want to control the conversation, even if I am being asked the questions." But he didn't want to pull that old politicians' trick of dodging the question and answering a different one instead. Right. That is never a good idea. It may seem, at the time, like an effective way to get your talking points out, but if someone is recording the exchange you will look like an idiot repeatedly, maybe even virally, ever after.

So how do you venture out into this uncharted territory? How can you ensure successful communication of your message when you are not in charge of the agenda, but responding to questions asked? It is preferable to discuss possible lines of inquiry with your moderator or interlocutor beforehand, but it's not always possible. Is there any way, short of practicing a Vulcan mind meld, to make sure your time in the spotlight offers you an opportunity to say what you need to say?

Yes. If you have done your preparation. Many people (thankfully not my clients) seem to think this is an unnecessary step. After all, you've been asked because you are the expert, so what's to prepare? You know your stuff, so you can just wing it, right? Wrong. Respect your audience. They want a little piece of your expertise, so put yourself in their shoes. Plan ahead. Plan to tell them what you find most exciting about your subject. Or discuss its timelier elements. If you can connect your subject to recent news events, so much the better. And be sure to have your best stories and examples polished and ready to be inserted into an answer early in the hour. It's not good to walk offstage and think "I really wanted to tell them about X--but it never came up." If you need to convey a particular point think of at least three ways you can weave it into answers for other likely questions.

And don't make the mistake of assuming every event of this nature will be your own personal love-fest. The moderator may think you are the best, but you could get push back from the audience. Be sure not to over-react. It is possible that the question you hear as a clear challenge to your authority may not have been meant that way at all. Since you are sitting in the speaker's "hot seat" your defensive ears could detect a menacing tone that simply isn't there. So prepare for the skeptics and always have an answer handy for the question you dread most. A real one, not a snarky aside.

Speakers often anticipate these sorts of town halls with apprehension, fearing an hour-long voyage into terra incognita. But if you take time beforehand, you can make sure you answer their questions while introducing some of your favorite talking points. And a good time will be had by all!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

It's like talking to a mirror!

Last month I blogged about the importance of finding and using your own professional tone of voice. With everyone. All the time. I heard from several friends and colleagues that this is challenging, particularly at rigidly hierarchical workplaces. It seems they work with some people who self-identify as being "on top" who exhibit the boorish behavior of "talking down" to those below them in the org chart. And I reiterate: don't do it.

One of my friends who read that blog brought up a related topic.  She said my discussion of professional tone reminded her of an old habit: emulating the tone of whoever she was talking to. I have noticed many people do this, and it is often a hard habit to break! Because it is something that we often all slip into, unconsciously, as a way of reaching out and connecting with others. This phenomenon has been studied quiet a bit: researchers call it communications accommodation theory. I looked up some academic papers to see if I could find a succinct definition, but the best one I found was in Wikipedia (and it seems pretty accurate): Communication accommodation theory (CAT) was  developed by Howard Giles. It posits that "when people interact they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others". There is more to unpack here, but the gist of it is that we do this (intentionally or not) to fit in. A couple of studies that came out in psychological journals in 2010, "Alignment to Visual Speech Information" (Miller et al.), and "Imitation Improves Language Comprehension" (Adank et al.) note that this tendency often gets carried even further. They say their studies have demonstrated it is easier to understand a foreign accent if we mimic it ourselves. Of course there are disclaimers accompanying discussions of these studies: "don't try this at home!"further elaborate on this.

Research has shown we naturally gravitate to emulation or imitation of tone, even accent. But we are advised against giving into this impulse wholeheartedly. The reasoning seems to be that it could be taken as mockery of the speaker, and therefore offensive. While this may be true, it focuses too much on others' perception of you. I prefer to look at this as something you need to control because it will directly benefit you. Because when you are imitating someone else, even with noblest of intentions or instincts, you are not speaking in your own voice. You become a reflection of the person you are speaking to. For a few professionals this is desirable, and they engage in this practice intentionally. But for the rest of us? You can see that this could become one big loop of imitation, like speaking in a room full of mirrors. Which raises the question: how does a new voice get heard? How are new thoughts expressed?

Before you know it, your very honest, well-intentioned imitation has created, literally, an echo chamber of communications. This could lead to some pretty bad outcomes--much more serious than just offending someone with a bad accent. So find your voice. And use it.

Trees that Bring Wealth and Prosperity: Beauty 
Utagawa Hiroshige Utagawa Hiroshige
courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery