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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.


February 2013

Our sensory selves

I was introducing an acting exercise to my Adult Ed Beginning Acting students week before last. The point of the exercise was to recreate a moment in time using sense memory, rather than any cognitive  or emotional memory. Some students told me this was not possible, that relying on what they heard, saw, smelled, felt, or tasted would not recreate as true an experience as one they "thought about." I replied that our senses hold the key to much of our memory but we don't trust them, possibly because we cannot control them as we control thoughts. I pointed out that our sense of smell is especially powerful and immediate. If they didn't believe me, they would the next time they got a whiff of something that catapulted them back in time (leaves burning, pine trees, wet wool).

We experience the world through our senses, then our brains interpret that experience. So it is essential for us to be able to engage that sensory awareness and use the information provided. "Get out of your head and into your body," I told them. But they weren't convinced. I was mulling this over last Saturday when I happened to hear a broadcast of the radio program "To The Best of Our Knowledge."  The program included a rebroadcast of a fascinating interview with Jill Bolte Taylor.

Can't argue with brain science!

Dr. Taylor is a brain scientist who had stroke and wrote a book about it. And in this interview, she describes what happened when the left hemisphere of her brain went "silent" as the stroke progressed: "The right hemisphere thinks in pictures and is all about the present moment. It is analyzing and perceiving the information from our sensory systems in this moment and creating a big enormous collage of this present moment and the existence of the present moment is beautiful. There is no judgment there, it just... is." That is a perfect description of the non-judgmental state actors must enter. In the biz we call it "being in the moment," and you can't act without it.

As a speaker, you can't communicate without it, either. You need to be present when you present. Our sensory selves keep us anchored in the moment, where that critical voice is silenced, where we can see things more clearly and listen more closely. Because we are there, not thinking about what just happened or what's next.

A lesson for a lifetime

Practices like yoga and meditation, and artistic disciplines like acting, dancing, and making music keep you grounded in the moment. Dr. Taylor experienced this state of being as euphoria during her stroke. You can watch her describe her stroke and the unexpected revelations it brought in an excellent TED talk.

We all could use a large dose of sensory-based living. If we relied more on our right-hemisphere sensory perception and less on what Taylor calls our "left hemisphere verbiage system" and I call our "inner critic," we might be able to approach the state of nirvana Taylor describes. Or at least connect more fully with our listeners and conversation partners!

Tips you can use!

Don't forget to eat!
It's a fact: the brain needs glucose to work. If you are hungry or dieting, your thinking may be fuzzy and you will not present your best self.  

It's OK to take your notes
You can even read them! Just make sure you have practiced enough so that you can make lots of eye contact throughout.  

Invent your own "bridge phrase"
Everyone needs a few words to fill the void once in a while. Find a phrase you feel comfortable with, and practice, practice, practice till it feels natural rolling off your tongue. You won't use it as often as you now say "um" or "so" but it will be there when you need it!


January 2013 

Happy New Year!

I hope the start of 2013 finds you well-rested, rejuvenated, and ready to embrace new challenges!

I had a great 2012, so I was a bit sad to see it end. But one thing I wasn't sorry to see go: the year-end frenzy of "resolutions" articles in all media. Every year, it's the same. Once again, according to the website Statistics Brain, the number one resolution is "lose weight". Many Americans are overweight and could stand to tone up a bit for health-related reasons. But as a country we are obsessed with "perfect bodies." Having dealt with these issues in the world of professional theatre for too many years to count, I can testify to the insidiousness of our collective goal to achieve an unattainable standard of physical perfection.

Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times on this very topic on Christmas Day, and I found his argument compelling. He was writing in context of the movie The Sessions (which I am looking forward to seeing soon), and concludes: "We're so much more than these wretched vessels that we sprint or swagger or lurch or limp around in. . .We should make peace with them and remain conscious of that, especially at this particular hinge of the calendar, when we compose a litany of promises about the better selves ahead, foolishly defining those selves in terms of what's measurable from the outside, instead of what glimmers within."

You can't judge a book. . .

It's not news that many of us bemoan our less-than-perfect physical selves in the new-year-new-beginnings-season. But if we return to the Statistics Brain site, we see that when grouped into categories, the stats tell a different story. More of us -- 47 percent -- make resolutions that are self-improvement or education-related than the 38 percent who make weight-related promises. I suppose that is why my Acting Workshop classes always have more students in January than in the fall.

My speaker-training/communications coaching practice also benefits from this urge to polish up tired skills or acquire new ones. And my clients are most successful when they do what experts say is the only real way to make a resolution stick: start small, mastering a discipline one step at a time. They practice, and let the training unfold. Mental changes and attitudinal shifts take place as their expertise increases, but all this takes time. So if you think you might need skills development or training anytime in 2013, take advantage of the cyclical urge to master something new. Resolve this year to become the best communicator you can be. Develop your own effective, dynamic technique NOW - before you have an urgent need to do so. And find a new way to  "glimmer within."

Tips you can use!

Consult the experts
My friend Paula Tarnapol Whitacre has just published a free e-book, Ease in Writing, that is chock-full of quick and useful writing tips. See ideas I shared with her in Chapter 20!  
Don't begin with "so"
"So" has become the new filler-word with which to begin an answer. This inappropriate use of "so" makes you sound like you have been carrying on a conversation in your head, rather than listening. Don't do it!  
or "OK"
"OK"  is often coupled with "so" ( "so, OK!") as a first response. Why do you need to approve the question? It makes you sound much more informal -- and less compelling. Avoid this unless you are going for a very causal style. 


Holiday 2012

Ho! Ho! Ho!

'Tis the holiday season and everyone is busy. I know readers of this newsletter are no exception, so I will keep this short and to the point!

First of all, I want to thank you for reading "Outside the Speaker's Bubble" this year. I hope you have been able to use some of my speaking tips whenever you engage in communication. And I hope some of my insights and observations have given you food for thought. Please continue to give me feedback, pose questions, and ask me to unravel communications problems as we begin another year together. And of course, share this newsletter with your friends and colleagues and whoever else might find it useful!

Body language speaks!

I heard a fascinating story on NPR the other day, one that had me cheering and making a mental note to share it with you all. A study conducted by Hillel Aviezer, a psychology researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded that our body language conveys more information about our emotional and mental state than our facial expression does.

Now, if you have ever worked with me, you know I base my practice on the importance of using your body while you speak. Speaking is a physical activity that requires the body's engagement as much as dancing does. And this is a good thing, for many reasons. Not the least of which is that you cannot achieve energized, dynamic speech without a full breath-body-mind connection. And you cannot convince your listeners that you are fully engaged with them without this connection, either.

If you need more convincing, there is an excellent TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy that demonstrates how body language can undercut or elevate our own feelings of confidence.

So if you think you can "put on a happy face" and communicate something from the neck up while you slouch, sit tensely with your arms crossed, or sway to and fro like an unstable Christmas tree, you're wrong. And now we have the science to prove it

Tips you can use!

Make the most of your parties
Be sure you have a snappy introductory speech to pull out of your back pocket at every social event. Networking opportunities abound at holiday parties.

Stretch when you travel
Whether you're in the car or on a plane, you need to get up and move every 90 minutes. Take a break at a highway rest stop or do some stretches in the airport restroom. Traveling is easier when your body is relaxed and happy.

Stay in the moment
During the holiday season, our thoughts can get ahead of our actions more than they usually do. Breathe, focus, slow down, and be mindful of what you're doing. Open yourself to unexpected delights of the season!



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!