Blog Index
The journal that this archive was targeting has been deleted. Please update your configuration.

Outside the Speaker's Bubble

a newsletter about speakers and speaking

The Speaker's Bubble is that wrinkle in the time/space continuum you experience whenever you speak, and experience even the slightest bit of pressure to perform. It's that place where your heart rate speeds up, just a little. Where you hear your blood pounding ever-so-slightly in your ears. Where you turn various shades of crimson, or feel short of breath. All these are purely normal physiological responses to the stress of "the-one-versus-the-many." There are ways to control this stress; excellent speakers know this. So do experienced leaders. My Communications Conditioning practice teaches speakers of all skill levels how to deal with stress and present like pros! I can give a practical road map of strategies to make anyone a better communicator for life.

Click here for a schedule of my upcoming workshops.


November 2012

Just back from Beijing

You may have noticed that this month's newsletter is later than usual. There are a couple of reasons:
1) I am sure your e-mail in-boxes were already overflowing with last-minute campaign messages and pre-holiday alerts.
2) I was in China, where you cannot access Google, Facebook, the New York Times, or many other "western" media outlets. So it was easy to disconnect, unplug, and enjoy the experience of a completely different culture. Needless to say, this was not conducive to newsletter-writing.

In the spirit of better late than never, here is a brief version of my newly renamed monthly: "Outside the Speaker's Bubble." I thought I would share some observations on the act of listening. Listening is fundamental to every speech situation. It is especially important in those smaller interpersonal interactions you might be tempted to categorize as  "just talking" and not "speaking." Interviews,  for example, and client meetings.

What not to do

In China, we were watching televised coverage of the 18th Communist Party Congress . It was fascinating, following so closely on the heels of our own Presidential election. One particular interview segment on English language CCTV stood out. It looked like a typical interview show, two well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-lit men having a conversation. The CCTV interviewer was questioning a representative from the European Union. Apparently the questions had been scripted to elicit very specific answers. The EU representative was respectful but firm in his responses, which were not the ones desired. The interviewer must have been told by his producer to badger his "guest" into the correct statement, because that is what he tried to do. It was painfully clear to anyone listening that such a statement would not - ever - be forthcoming.

The interview failed spectacularly. No listening was occurring, so no real conversation could take place. Because you can't control the message of someone you can't control. And so the guest was abruptly dismissed even as he was mid-sentence, on-camera!

Comedic fodder

If this blatant censorship had not been so startling to witness, it would have been funny! It was obvious: "We don't like the answer so we'll pretend it doesn't exist." Now, most of us will never find ourselves in such an extreme situation. But we do run into its cousin: "I don't really care what you are saying so I will go to my mental happy place."

Last Thursday night's comedy line-up on NBC provided two excellent examples of how active non-listening is a non-starter. The episodes of The Office and 30 Rock utilized Dwight's and Jenna's disengaged conversational engagement to great comic effect. And comedy can be instructive. So watch, laugh . . . and check yourself next time you feel a case of Dwight-Jennitis coming on.

Tips you can use!

Write it down
Keep a list of talking points  in each project folder. That way you always know what to say when someone asks you to "bring them up to speed."

Avoid mirrors
Don't check yourself in the mirror just before you step onstage/walk to the podium. Make sure your look is "set" well before the moment-before.

Keep track of the time
Make sure you craft your speech to fit in under the time allotted. And stick to your plan. Time flies when you're  speaking. And no one likes a speaker who goes on too long!  


October, 2012

Back from a creative break

As regular readers of this newsletter may recall, I took a bit of a hiatus from my Communications Conditioning practice this summer. I spent much of August and all of September directing and producing my play, Becoming Calvin. It was good to stretch those artistic muscles again, and to develop new managerial ones! The production went very well, and I am currently taking the next steps, both for future production of this play and for writing the next one in the cycle.

So, as we march closer to the election, I realize I have not been as heavily invested in following the campaigns as in years past. Here in the swing state of Virginia we have been inundated by ads, so I fear I may have become that "tuned-out" voter pollsters say are becoming more numerous each cycle.

But not wholly unaware

And yet, I have found this to be an instructive campaign. Even someone who had been whiling away the time on a secluded beach could not have missed this summer's major communications gaffes. And they have been appalling. As I tell my clients, no one in a leadership position can EVER assume any speech, Q & A, interview, or photo op is "off the record." To see people campaigning for office at the highest level explaining away damaging remarks as "off the cuff" and "not for public consumption" floors me! I am not saying as a speaker you should treat your listeners as potential spies or enemies, though I have worked with people who do this. This is not a good idea: you can end up seeming overly defensive, thus alienating potential allies. But you always need to be aware that what you say will be heard by people who cannot read your mind. If you are not clear, they may, after the fact, take your words out of context. Don't blame your audience if you have not contextualized your message well enough. If you are muddled in your messaging, it is highly likely they will not understand what you mean.

Try this easy fix

Often speakers get in trouble when they assume every single listener shares their point of view, and so they "shorthand" their message into something that might sound zippy, but is, in fact, over-simplified and misleading. This is why it is always important to get someone else who has a slightly different perspective to listen to your speech or vet your talking points. Or, if that is impractical, ask yourself: If I were to step back and hear someone else saying this, would it make sense? If I were to try to refute this, would it be easy?

Of course such analysis takes time. This is another excellent reason to prepare in advance. The simple truth is: the higher the stakes and the larger the forum, the more important it is to prepare, prepare, prepare.

It's not rocket science -- though perhaps we should all exercise more scientific detachment as we scrutinize our speeches and interview answers. When we fall in love with the sound of our own voices, or become "wedded" to a catchy turn of phrase, we can readily fall into the trap of being misunderstood by anyone who is not us. Too big a risk to run, in my opinion.

Tips you can use!

Wake up your mouth
Tongue twisters are good for getting those sluggish muscles working, especially for an early morning meeting. "Toy boat," anyone?

Get some sleep
Being well-rested not only gives you more energy to be a better speaker, it gives you greater focus so you can be a better listener, as well.

Sing in the shower
Something we all (secretly) like to do that is actually good for us! Open up those resonators and make some sound. The echo chamber of the tile prevents you from over-singing and straining your voice - so enjoy!


July/August 2012

I hope you have been having a productive summer, and have managed to keep cool! I have been busy teaching at American University and meeting with private clients. And much of my time this past month has been taken up with details related to producing my play, Becoming Calvin.

So, even though there is no real news here, I invite you to visit my blog, Talk the Talk. There you can read posts about speaking, leadership, and communications issues.

If you will be in the D.C. area mid-September, I hope you will consider coming to Becoming Calvin. Our PayPal box office will be open soon, so bookmark the links below and come back to reserve your seat!

See you at the theatre!

Tips you can use!

Is everything a question?
"Upspeak" - that annoying habit of ending sentences with an upward inflection - is no longer an affliction limited to Valley Girls or teens. It kills your credibility. Don't do it!

Siddown, you're rockin' the boat!
When you get up to speak, stand firmly on both feet, planted hips' width apart. Stand tall and don't sway or rock. Such movement, at best, distracts from your message. At worst, it can make your audience seasick!

Read your speech - aloud
It seems so simple, yet how often do you do it? And once generally isn't enough. For those who do a lot of speaking (and are good at it) seven is the magic number.



June 2012

Back to basics!

I am a firm believer in the importance of going back to the beginning every once in a while. When you have reached a certain level of mastery, it is often useful to go back to an earlier exercise and apply your improved technique to its execution. Many disciplines realize this is important, and include such drills as part of their preparation. Singers begin every lesson or rehearsal with vocal exercises. Instrumentalists always play their scales -- at least "run through them quickly" -- at the beginning of a practice session. And of course athletes warm up before any game or competition.

But getting back to basics involves more than rote repetition of a set of exercises, useful as that may be for limbering up the fingers or calf muscles. It requires a more mindful way of doing something that has become foundational to your practice. A way to see what you have learned, and what you need to revisit in order to understand how you do what you do and why.

Oh, now I get it!

A couple of my adult acting students, upon finishing their intermediate level class this spring, said they were thinking about enrolling in the beginning class again. They said they would now be able to really understand the value of those first lessons.

That is the dilemma for those of us who teach or coach adults. Our students and clients come to us with lots of life experience and a certain knowledge base. But they also have a reluctance to move outside well-established comfort zones -- even if they have enrolled in a class or called a consultant to help them do just that! And so they often tune out the initial training for a discipline or practice. Later on they realize the need for that beginning instruction. Some of them double-back and pick it up then. Progress is usually much faster after that.

Riding the learning curve

At various times of our lives we are so open to new things that new ways of seeing and being in the world take root almost instantly. When we are that receptive we learn faster. Other times. . . not so much. We are defensive, or we think we know it all already: Hey, if kids are such good actors, how hard can it be?

We can rediscover our creative receptivity by returning to a more elementary form of what we are currently doing. Playing a song from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Taking a batting clinic to analyze the swing. Singing that uncomplicated tune that sounds so pure and simple -- and is so hard to do without relying on tricks or "style."

It sometimes takes courage to get back to basics, embrace the fundamentals, and find out what is really foundational to your current practice or level of skill. But it is well worth it.

Tips you can use!

It's OK to say "I don't know"
In the information age you can't be expected to know everything at any given second. If you make something up, chances are someone else in the room will have Googled the real answer by the time you've finished.

Don't stick your neck out
Tip your chin down to avoid showing off that unsightly expanse of flesh when you video chat. You may decide you don't need that chin implant after all. And your voice will sound less strained.  

Wear sunblock
Always, but especially in the summer. Just running around between appointments exposes your skin to lots of harmful rays. To keep those pesky wrinkles at bay, at least use a good facial moisturizer with SPF 30. And reapply!


May 2012

Talk to the hand . .

A question my clients frequently ask when we have our initial session is: What should I do with my hands?  This is a universal worry -- my acting students have it, as have generations of novice actors before them. In a famous scene from Act IV of Anton Chekov's The Seagull, Nina describes her failed attempts on the professional stage "... really, my acting was so amateurish... I didn't know what to do with my hands, I didn't know how to stand on the stage, I wasn't in control of my voice. You have no idea how awful it is when you know you're acting badly." Yes, Nina, people who speak publicly often do have an idea.

Whether onstage, behind the podium, or around the conference table, we all suffer from self-consciousness if we are not physically grounded. A funny, yet instructive, example of this lack of groundedness can be found in an episode of Up All Night. Chris (played by the brilliantly comic Will Arnett) guests as a law expert on Ava's TV show. His first appearance does not go well. His "untethered" arms flail all over the place, ending with floppy hands. Ava declares him a "disaster" and his on-camera career seems doomed. He is oblivious. We laugh because we recognize not only the underlying anxiety that causes his behavior, but also because we know we would never be that clueless!

Harness the power of gesture

It's not just your hands; your whole body needs to be engaged in your message. Before you speak, get your instrument ready to communicate by doing physical and vocal warm-ups. Then breathe. If you are relaxed and physically expressive your entire body supports your content. Remember, you are not just a talking head. If you were, what should I do with my hands? would be a non-issue.

Politicians in particular show us how gesture can enhance or detract from a message. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard a good example of a political leader whose physical engagement reinforces her verbal message. In this clip of her visit to our local high school with President Obama, we see two leaders who are physically at ease in front of a dozen international cameras and high school students. A combination that would strike fear in the hearts of many!

But be sure you're saying something

Avoid the "Clinton thumb" It is a purely political construct, a gesture no one uses outside the political arena. Real people just do not do it. It is a gesture devised to simulate sincerity without going out on a limb and really committing, a marker of feigned authenticity. People have told me that Clinton adapted the gesture from his hero JFK. But I ask: "Just because JFK did it, and Bill Clinton did it, does that mean you have to do it, too?"

Tips you can use!

Use both your lips
Aside from making it difficult to understand what you are saying,"keeping a stiff upper lip" sends a message that you are withholding something, and are not altogether trustworthy.

If you don't know, ask questions
When preparing for a speaking engagement, make sure you know who you are speaking to, what the occasion is,and why you've been asked to speak. If you don't know, ask. Because if you assume, you know what that makes you.

"Step into those leadership shoes"
I often give use this as an image for physicalizing your leadership persona. When you actually put those shoes on, though, you need to practice walking in them before you "go public." You can't be perceived as a leader if you're off balance or clomping around like a horse.