Monday, October 17, 2016

Toxic weeds

As someone whose whole professional life has to do with words and what we communicate through them, underneath them, and in between them, I have had many thoughts "communication" in the final weeks of this presidential election. I qualify the term because communication theory posits a loop: speaker-message-listener-feedback-speaker, etc. What we have seen from Donald Trump has been like broadcasting--in its original 18th century usage, "seeds sown by scattering." Accusations, overstatements and generalizations are thrown to the winds, and, with nothing to tie them down to reality, these seeds of half-baked ideas float about until they land in some sort of soil. If it is not hospitable they wither and die, but if they find fertile soil, they take root and grow into toxic weeds that threaten to overrun anything near them. I have a weed like that in my backyard. It winds through my neighbors' fence into our space. We call it the "evil weed" And, like Donald, it always comes back no matter how often we try to yank it out. Because the roots are not something we control.

I have been thinking a lot about the depths to which our political discourse has fallen this cycle. Bullying tactics have become more and more normalized as we slog on toward November. They have reached a fever pitch in the past ten days, and I fear that our sense of what constitutes bullying and why it is so bad for us may be permanently warped. When Donald stands in front of the press and public and says with a straight face "It was just words. It didn't mean anything," it makes my blood boil. Of course words have meaning! I have blogged before about this facile excuse for bad behavior. Every word has an intention behind it (unless your brain has become disengaged from your mouth--which almost seems to be Trump's defense. But that can't be right. Who would vote for a candidate who doesn't think before he speaks. Oh. Maybe that is what they mean by "authenticity"?!?) And, contrary to what his campaign tells us, the concept that bullying is wrong has not just been rolled out this October to thwart Donald. In January 2104 I wrote about the need to see language as a tool that can easily be weaponized; at that time, even the NYPD recognized that fact.

Like so many people, I am weary of this election charade. The daily posturing, name-calling, hate-filled language coming from the Trump camp is something many of us have been working to eradicate for years. It is invading our space, like my backyard's evil weed, which I will keep pulling out and cutting back. And someday I will either weaken it so much that it can no longer thrive, or I will have to do something I have resisted thus far, and go ask the neighbors to help. They may not want to eradicate it (they seem to find it attractive), so we will compromise and work toward a mutually beneficial solution. That's what grown-ups in a civil society do.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Being politically "authentic"

Enough with Donald Trump's "authenticity," already! What does that even mean? He doesn't use a telepromter! He is so unscripted! Refreshing! So authentic! Puh-leeze. . .

If you've read my blog before you may remember this entry or this one where I share my thoughts on using "authenticity" as an excuse for sloppiness, laziness, or pretense. So I was happy to read Mark Thompson's op-ed in yesterday' s New York Times, Trump and the Dark History of Straight Talk. He says Trump is actually one in a long line of political types who use anti-rhetoric (his "telling it like it is" strategy) as a way to prove he is the anti-establishment candidate. But Thompson points out that Trump's "authenticity" is not so very authentic after all: "The quality to which every anti-rhetorician aspires is authenticity. But there is a big difference between proclaiming your authenticity and actually being true to yourself and the facts. So let me use a different term: authenticism, for the philosophical and rhetorical strategy of emphasizing the “authentic” above all."

Donald Trump is playing at being "authentic," but it is a false authenticity. He is quite the showman, however, and his show is playing well with the thousands of voters who flock to his extravaganzas -- I mean, his rallies. But scratch the surface, and his authenticity falls away. We see this in his recent imitation of a weathervane when it comes to immigration. His earlier tough talk was just a ploy to knock off primary rivals.

Thompson says Hillary Clinton is the complete opposite of Trump, rhetorically. He calls her the "technocrat's technocrat." I take this to mean she is too "in the weeds" in her speeches. She gives too much detail, is too strategic, too cerebral. She appeals to voter's heads but not their hearts. I am not sure this is true of all her speeches, and certainly the content of many of her speeches doesn't support this assertion (the Reno speech was full of feeling). But her delivery does get in the way of making a connection with her listeners. Which frustrates me no end.

Like most of America, I have been a Hillary-watcher for years. I definitely think I could offer her some help. The secret to connecting with listeners is exactly what I teach: how to communicate your authentic presence; how to speak in your own voice. Even if you are an introvert I can give you strategies for standing up in front of rooms of 25 or 2500 to confidently share your message. The key is using your inner strength to draw your audience toward you, rather than pushing your message at them (which is a hallmark of Trumpian "authenticism").

But discovering how to communicate with such authenticity takes time and self-study. And political campaigns are reluctant to have candidates give me either. When I have had success, it is because candidates have been acutely aware of their need to connect more fully with voters and have sought me out. They have made the time, in spite of grumbling from staffers that they didn't need this training, not really, because they were "fine" on the stump. Working with me (or any speaking coach, for that matter) does not guarantee victory. No single element in a campaign does. But even when my clients lost, they won more votes than they expected.

Until campaigns realize that helping a candidate communicate with true authenticity is an important skill to develop, we may be stuck with campaign as entertainment vs. campaign as lecture. Let's hope the party powers-that-be have this realization soon, or we could all come to dread this peculiarly American quadrennial ritual.

photo inspired by Emily Dickinsons poem "I'm Nobody"

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Cool fun in the summer!

I have been teaching some really terrific high school students who have come to American University for its Discover the World of Communications summer program. This blog post shares some of the video clips I have used reinforce and illustrate my teaching. Feel free to  skip my musings, but watch these videos! You will be entertained by the first and fourth links below, enlightened by the middle two.

This is my eleventh summer teaching Speaking for Impact, where students learn to find their inner presence and embrace it as a way to quell anxiety and project authority. I give them  much of the theory and many of the exercises I share with my adult clients, because the fundamental problems of nervousness, lack of confidence, and confusion about preparation are the same.

But the teaching tools I use are different: we watch a lot of video! There are many excellent speeches available online that we can learn from. Commencement speeches are great, of course, but there is a virtual goldmine for instructors and coaches in political speeches and debates. Sometimes these provide timeless examples of what not to do,  others show us that even with a textbook perfect speech, your campaign still might fail somewhere down the line.

We also sample TED talks and their progeny. Many of them are quite good, teaching us new things and fresh ways of looking at the world. But the TED mandate to leave the audience with a "charge" or "call to action" is often tacked onto a perfectly wonderful informative speech, and I am often left wondering why sharing information and insight with the audience is not enough of a gift in itself.

And then there is a pervasive TED delivery style: techniques and strategies that get used over and over again because -- well, they work. But when everyone is using the same flavor to spice up their speech it all ends up seeming the same. It becomes familiar, almost bland. Canadian comedian/writer Pat Kelly does a wonderful parody TED talk that hits all the right notes, and has you laughing and cringing at the same time. I just did a TED-style talk (video coming soon!), so I understand the temptation to fall back on the tried-and-true formula. But once you start relying on something so predictable, you dilute its importance. Even if it was once valid or original. Kind of like "passionate" and "passion." Think about it: if there really were as many people who were passionate about saving the planet as you hear on TED talks alone, we would have solved all earth's problems by now.

As I tell my students, there is one surefire way to avoid being a cliché: Don't use them!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Studying the script

Lately my work has been running along two separate but parallel tracks: coaching clients to be more effective and dynamic speakers who can communicate their authentic leadership, and writing (and rewriting) my latest play. That script is really taking off, and I will blog more about it later on. But for now I wanted to share something that struck me particularly this week as I was toggling back and forth between these two worlds.

In my play, I carefully craft dialogue to reflect what the characters are thinking, and what it is they are trying to communicate, as well as what they are trying to hide. This necessitates being omniscient--knowing what they know, what they are aware of, and what they are unaware of.  So, as you can imagine, when my characters speak there is a lot of pausing, as well as unfinished sentences, interrupting, phrases that are imprecise followed by a "you know what I mean." Because on an intimate level, true interpersonal communication happens in the subtext, the feeling underlying what is said and not said. In fact, often the most important words are left unspoken (for a master of this, see anything by playwright Harold Pinter). The playwright uses this tool to reveal that a character is inarticulate, or does not understand, or cannot utter to words because they are too fraught.

All this is to say, though playwrights craft their characters' speech to reveal certain aspects of character to the audience, the characters themselves may be at a loss for words. Or they are speaking spontaneously, reacting to what has been said to them. Often the act of speaking itself is a sort of connection-making that says much more about them and their relationship to their conversation partner than the actual words do.  Just like in real life! When we are engaged in private speech, that is.

So when I work with my students and clients on public speaking,  I advise them to do the opposite of what my characters do. Since public speech, broadly defined, can be any type of speaking you engage in when you are not with your "nearest and dearest," it cannot be anything like the private speech I conjure up for my characters. In public speech, the words you say matter very much. You cannot afford to be inarticulate, or skirt the issue or leave things unsaid. You can get into huge trouble if you  assume the listener can fill in the blanks. You must plan what you need to say, choose the best, clearest, least ambiguous way to say it, and then be ready to listen to what your conversation partner has to say as a way of furthering dialogue. Avoid the very human temptation to slip into the private conversational gambit of impromptu chit-chatting. You will reveal more than you intend!

The soundness of this advice has been proven to me and my clients time and again, and yet it is still occasionally met with resistance. Those who resist are generally the less experienced communicators who know they need help and so come to work with me. The other big bucket of naysayers are old-school top-of-the-heap blowhards who would never work with me in a million years. Somehow, when they find out what I do, they always feel compelled to brag about their excellent, spontaneous, loose, off-the-cuff communications style. They are lousy speakers, but since they are insulated from real scrutiny due to their positions (this is Washington, D.C., after all) no one ever tells them. Perhaps I will put them in a play someday; they are very entertaining!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Shortchanged by shortcuts

I know my habits are often out of fashion. I am not instant-this or quick-that. And I have never striven to "fail fast." No, my approach to getting things done is more along the lines of "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well," and "Slow and steady wins the race."  So I applauded a story on NPR this weekend giving students a tip for better learning: take your notes by hand rather than typing on a tablet or laptop. The story had a familiar ring to it;  I looked it up and recalled reading the article two years ago when it was published in the journal Psychological Science. But the conclusions still stand, and in the period since the science has been done, I am sure thousands of students have migrated from pen-and-paper note-taking to typing. The students who still engage in the former, however, are learning more.  Pamela Mueller, one of the researchers, explained it this way in the NPR story, "When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."

Another article that vindicated my old-school way of doing things appeared in  Sunday's New York Times, "Sorry, You Can't Speed Read."  I have always been a fairly fast reader, but never for a second desired to become a lightening-fast one, even though many people have said it has increased their productivity. In this article Jeffrey M. Zacks and Rebecca Treiman conclude that in mastering the technique used in speed-reading (gathering lots of visual information quickly), language comprehension suffers. I relish losing myself in a good story, or teasing out the strands of an author's argument, so I don't like to rush. But if I do speed through the last two pages of a chapter--if I am keeping someone waiting, for example--I have to go back and reread them. Why do I even bother? As Zacks and Treiman note in their op-ed, "If you want to improve your reading speed, your best bet — as old-fashioned as it sounds — is to read a wide variety of written material and to expand your vocabulary."

Old-fashioned. Yep. That's why I also insist my clients practice their speeches for best results. More than once or twice. In an insta-world where easy gratification all too often comes at the speed of light (or pressing of a button), there are some processes where short cuts just don't cut it. Like fast fashion or disposable decor, shortcuts to effective communication result in messaging that is "here today, gone tomorrow." If you want anything to stick--lessons learned, books read, or speeches delivered--you just have to put in the time.

"Sea Tortoises Coming Ashore by Night" 
by Charles Livingston Bull
courtesy Library of Congress

Monday, March 21, 2016

Metering your thoughts

I have such wonderful clients: they are smart, self-aware people. They know what they know--many are experts in their field--but they are also clear-eyed enough to know what they don't know.  And when they know they are not speaking or presenting as well as they should, they come to me. I help them improve their communications skills so they can clearly convey their (sometimes complicated, often paradigm-shifting) ideas to others.

Lately it seems a lot of my clients have the same problem: they get stuck in their heads.  I don't mean they listen to negative self-talk that holds them back. That is true of every single person I have ever coached, and I always address it by giving my clients strategies for putting that self-talk "out of mind." No, the "stuckness" I am focusing on happens when you are called upon to speak in a meeting and your thoughts come so fast it's hard to get them out coherently. All the right ideas are in there, in your mind, but there is a traffic jam as they try to take the exit ramp.

It is frustrating, yes, to know you actually have the answers, but cannot express them with the dynamic confidence you want. It would be nice if you could just flip a switch and slow your thoughts down so they come to you in a manner that is easier to process. If you were actually in traffic, you'd find the exit ramp meter most helpful. Sadly, our minds are not that automated.

So here's the next best thing: slow down. Breathe before you begin to speak. Put a period at the end of each sentence. Complete each thought. Give yourself a little space between the idea you just verbalized and the next one. Space to breathe. Space to think. Try this until the run-on-tumbling-out-of-words becomes a series of sentences, and you will find you have slowed down your pace to a tempo you can control. Then you'll be able to shape your impromptu responses in a way that reflects your expertise and knowledge. And an added bonus: you will have time to gauge the level of audience comprehension, so what you say will land with maximum impact and effectiveness.

It's like your Driver's Ed teacher said: Obey the traffic signals, take your time, and you'll not only have a safer trip, you'll enjoy it more, too.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Midnight musings of grammar fans

I spent this past weekend with a couple of my favorite journalists. We stayed up late discussing politics and other current events, as well as the state of print and online journalism. Then, as Friday night became Saturday morning, our thoughts naturally turned to a topic near and dear to our hearts...grammar!

Yes, I know. We are geeks. It is true. And, as long as I am coming clean here, we think proper sentence structure and   correct word usage are both necessary components of clear communication.

People need to understand what they are reading, especially if they read quickly. In the case of newspaper or newsletter writing, incorrect grammar slows the reader down, muddles the message, and undermines the credibility of the writer and/or news outlet. Good editors read stories with an eagle eye, a grammar handbook, their chosen stylebook, and a dictionary close at hand. If they do not (or if you do not use the same tools when self editing), your readers are forced to make sense of poor or fuzzy grammar, or guess which word you actually intended. And you may not really be saying what you mean, because even the best editor is not a mind reader. The resulting story or headline needs corrections, retractions, or some other form of cleaning up. We all have our favorite examples of this. With baseball's spring training upon us, I chuckle to recall my favorite sports headline from last season  (see photo above).

I urge my speakers to be careful about their grammar as well. Even if a speech has more latitude—say, structuring it with a few em dashes or ellipses, or using a more relaxed, even colloquial vocabulary—it still needs to adhere closely to the recognized standards. Too much "artistic license" and you lose your audience. When speaking, a listener can't flip back to find the antecedent of a given pronoun, or tease out a sentence to unearth the main clause. Sentences that are complete, short, and clear are best, whether you are at the podium or conference table. Speakers generally lack proofreaders and editors, so do the job yourself. Let your ears be that extra set of eyes as you read your speech out loud. If you find you need to read a sentence a few times to make sense of it, you probably should go back and check your grammar. And for goodness' sake, if you have any question about a word, look it up! The world certainly does not need any more amphibious pitchers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Climb ev'ry mountain

Last week I was on vacation on the Caribbean island of Nevis. If you have heard of this island at all it is likely that you know it as the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. But Nevis is a tropical paradise, with vast beaches and their attendant beach bars, sugar mill ruins, many fine examples of Georgian Caribbean architecture. And a volcano.

My dear husband talked me into climbing Nevis Peak, all 3,232 feet of it! It was not an easy hike. For one thing, tropical rain forest terrain can get extremely muddy, which is definitely a hindrance to what amounts to a vertical climb. For another thing, though I consider myself in good shape,  I have never really climbed a mountain. Hiked through mountains, sure. Climbed the really steep, un-restored bits of the Great Wall east of Mutianyu. But even on the Wall there was a path of some sort, and inclines of less than 50 degrees. This was something else altogether. Very shortly into the climb, I realized three things:
1) I lacked the skills needed to do this.
2) I had to trust my guide.
3) I had to stay focused, in the moment at all times.

When it was all over my quadriceps were killing me, I was encased in mud, and my feet refused to obey. I did not say "It was fun!" like some of my fellow hikers. What I did feel was a great sense of accomplishment. I learned something new, and in the four-plus hours it took us to climb to the top (where we were in a cloud forest), then back down, I improved skills I did not even possess at the beginning. It was good to push myself outside of my comfort zone. And of course, I would have never been able to do it without my excellent guide, Reggie.

Back at our vacation villa, I took a long hot shower and tried to scrub off the bruises that I mistook for dirt--the only injuries from a slight tumble down the mountain. I realized, as the steam curled around me, easing my aching muscles, that there were many parallels to what I had just experienced and what I help my clients with on a fairly regular basis.

Many people come to me with a self-assessment that they "are in pretty good shape" speaking-wise, but lack the requisite skill and knowledge to be an expert public speaker. Or they have done pretty well so far, but are now faced with opportunities to reach far outside their comfort zones. So I, like Reggie, need to guide them through the process, instructing them to develop skills they need along the way. They need to trust me and stay focused on what we are doing. Stop judging and stay in the moment. I offer suggestions of better ways to do things, and make corrections when necessary. That is the way we all learn new techniques and improve our skills.

It can be hard to grow in this way if you are used to having easy success, or if you have reached a pinnacle of achievement. But just because you can hike for hours and do yoga like a twenty-year-old does not mean you know how to climb a mountain! You need to embrace new ways of seeing how a thing can be done and then do it. It is no coincidence that my most successful clients are those who keep moving forward. They don't stop their progress to get defensive, or offer rationalizations as to why they cling to bad speaking habits. They are in the moment, they have momentum, and continue to climb, reaching for the top!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Supreme communicators

I believe clear communication can solve many of life's problems. I applaud those who employ effective communications, even if I do not always agree with them. Disagreements are inevitable in life, but misunderstandings rooted in sloppy or lazy word choice can and should be avoided. This year's campaign season is providing us with many examples of unclear message transmittal. Sometimes this verges on the comic. But too often it makes us uneasy, eroding our confidence in the speakers. As the races tighten, I hope candidates will become more precise in what they are saying and how they are saying it.

I was sharing this view at a gathering of fellow consultants this past weekend, emphasizing the importance of preparing and practicing your message before you attempt to deliver it. This would eliminate many of the problems we are seeing on the campaign trail and debate stages. If you are ever in a comparable high-stakes situation, I hope you will take my advice: write out your talking points, then say them out loud. See if they make sense, if they actually say what you want them to, and if they flow. How comfortable are you with these words? If you are not 120% at ease with them, change 'em. Speaking in these circumstances is risky enough without the fear of lack-of-rehearsal stumble. I do not mean every utterance can be rehearsed--certainly in a debate you will be asked questions you have not anticipated (or at least we, the people, hope you are!). But your main points, the planks of your platform, should roll off your tongue eloquently and easily.

And if you are communicating largely through the written word, you still need to practice your text as if you are going to say it. Tell the story. Read your words and check them as you would if you were preparing to speak (see above). This weekend saw the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. As the media covered various aspects of his life, his legacy, each story mentioned what a brilliant writer he was. Even those who disagreed with his opinions read them with relish. Quite simply, he caught our attention and kept us engaged, which distinguishes his writing from most legal documents. Scalia's former law clerk Brian Fitzpatrick explained his secret it in an interview on NPR: "he was such a powerful writer, and I watched him write his opinions, and I figured out one of the ways that he did it was he wrote his opinions like they were speeches. He would read them aloud as he wrote them because he wanted them to be punchy like his speech was."


Illustration: Jurors Listening to Counsel, Supreme Court, New City Hall, New York, after Winslow Homer, 1869
courtesy National Gallery of Art

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Strike the pose!

I read an article today in Slate that raised some questions about the actual science behind one of the most widely viewed TED talks ever, Amy Cuddy's "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are." I read the article with interest because I am not a huge fan of Cuddy's. When I first viewed the talk online, I did think she had interesting observations, but her argument had some holes. And then it went viral. It started being taken as Gospel Truth, and now millions of people "understand" all about body language. As with every area of expertise, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I hear people say, "Oh I know all about body language. I can strike a power pose." And then they do. They reach for the skies like a superhero! I point out the impracticality of attending meetings in such a position.

When I coach my clients on presenting and public speaking, I always discuss body language. I ask: What does your stance, your posture, even the tilt of your chin say about you? Or how does it get  in the way of your message or the image you want to project? It is a complicated issue, because you are using several body parts, not to mention your breathing apparatus, as well as eye contact. (And that's just the non-verbals!)  This degree of complexity just disappears in Cuddy's talk. She simplifies the whole process, which of course makes listeners want to believe it is true. I have to give her credit for being an excellent story teller. She has been held up as a model of someone who put together a superior TED talk. Her highly personal story provides emotional stickiness, and some scientific findings back up her thesis, for good measure.

But now the science backing up her claims has been shown to be. . .well. . . not very conclusive. And so I hope we can begin to stop swallowing her central tenet whole. A mere two minutes of engaging in an expansive pose does not, by itself, make you feel more powerful. This is too facile. Believe me, having spent the better part of my adult life around actors, it is an absolute falsehood to claim that just mimicking a posture can transform you to that degree. Not even taking on a character's posture for two hours can make you "become" the character.  Actors spend weeks of rehearsal figuring out all the things we need to do before we can even come close to any sort of transformation. Not to oversimplify my objection to Cuddy's over-simplification, but the fact is each speaking situation has a different context, and the role you play varies within each context. You need to know what to do, physically, vocally and mentally, to convey strength, focus, decisiveness, collegiality, and any number of positive "leadership qualities."

If only it were as simple as striking a pose!