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!