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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Rethinking thinking

One of the high points of my recent trip to London was a compelling production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the new Bridge Theatre, directed by Bridge's founder, the brilliant Nicholas Hytner. This play is startlingly relevant at the moment. And Hytner has underscored that relevance, streamlining the text and giving it momentum that does not stop for a nanosecond. I have never experienced staging like this: I had tickets to stand on the floor, where I joined others to became part of the story, literally standing in for the Roman mob whose shifting political allegiance drives the play. We surrounded the actors, whose playing space was constantly changing: large portions of the floor lifted up for various scenes, so action moved quickly, As eyewitnesses to unfolding events, we moved around them. Tension mounted and the threat of violence ratcheted up in the second half of the play. I have never before experienced a play so viscerally. 

It wasn't just the proximity to the action that drew me in. It was the complete authenticity of the actors. Standing practically next to them, I felt their intimate connection to the story. One moment in particular stands out: early in the evening I was about three feet away from Brutus (a thoughtful, almost nerdy Ben Whishaw). He was sitting at his desk, arguing with himself whether or not to join the plot to kill Caesar. As he was thinking out loud I saw him: completely, wholly, believably Brutus. And I was struck by the depth of emotion and thought that radiated from his very being. But I didn't see a brilliant actor, because it was not at all about him. It was about active engagement in the thought process. It was--as all acting is--about action, about doing. Even when what we are doing is "just thinking." 

Engaging in powerful thought is action, as I tell my acting students and my speaking clients. You don't have to push or make things happen in order to be interesting. But if you are fully committed to your thoughts you will be completely in the moment. Because when you are actively thinking about what you are saying and why you are saying it, you physically and mentally connect with the images that led to the thought. And because of this connection, you are immersed, engaged, as you speak. Your audience will sense it, whether they are "groundlings" at a theatre, or your leadership team in the board room. That is how you become authentic and project authenticity. That is how you pull your listener into your story, so they believe it, too. Don't second-guess yourself. Commit to your message. Commit to the thoughts behind what you are saying. You'll nail your performance. And you might even be asked for an encore!



It's more than just the notes!

I was lucky enough to see the incomparable Orpheus Chamber Orchestra rehearse and perform at Carnegie Hall this past Saturday. I was expecting a great concert, but what I got was a masterclass in communication! Orpheus is a "conductorless" classical music ensemble. Each piece is led--but not dictated or driven--by a different member of the ensemble. As that member is also playing their part. They are all highly skilled professionals, of course, so you would expect them to know their music inside-out.

But they go further. Each and every one of the 27 members of Orpheus internalizes the music, and communicates it physically. And while not unusual for pop musicians, this degree of movement is not that common in the classical world. Musical instruments fuse psychically and artistically with musicians to interpret the composer's vision. The music emanates from each artist's entire being. You can see the rhythm conveyed through their bodies. Some are more physically expressive than others, but each seems to be inside the music, not so much playing it as living it. They feel each other's movement, even as they hear each other's harmonies and musical lines. Being so attuned on so many levels is the only way any ensemble could ever succeed without a conductor.

This concert tackled some pretty intricate compositions by Brahms, Mozart, Hayden, and it was a wonder to behold. To have such a high degree of trust, to be open enough to communicate that freely, was this music-lover's and communications expert's idea of s perfect evening. We should all be so connected when participating in our various "ensembles"!



The hard truth about the easy way

Happy New Year!

As we turn the page and begin a new year, many of us seek guidance to achieve our New Year's goals. But all too often, the experts we consult-- especially in this quick-fix, instant gratification world--offer This One Thing or One Big Tip that will change your life. If you've been on this planet for any length of time, you know, deep down, that nothing is thateasy. And yet....

Recently, Expert Public Speaking Trainer offered One Easy Way to Become a Great Speaker: "Just think about your message." On the other hand, International Communications Coach cites "Never stop trying to read your audience" as The Key to Success! Now which one do we believe, since it is virtually impossible to do both of these simultaneously?

Neither one.

The truth is, of course, somewhere in between. If you only focus on your message, you run the risk of disconnecting from your audience. And if you are constantly trying to read them (a fool's errand, at best; see my blog, here), you disconnect from yourself. Effective communication depends on maintaining the basic communications loop: Speaker sends Message to Listener who then sends feedback to Speaker. So you have to be mindful of your audience, but not to the point that it takes you out of your speech. And you have to focus on delivering your message, but not to the point of ignoring your audience. It's a balancing act that requires self-awareness, as well as preparation. And lots of practice.

If it were true that One Big Tip was all you needed, wouldn't there be more successful speakers in the world? Public speaking still ranks high up on the list of people's fears, so we know many find it a challenge. Fortunately, a good coach understands that every speaker has their own communications strengths and weaknesses. In my practice I help each of my clients find a path that leads to greater speaking success. It may not be the easiest path, but it will be the one that helps them become the best speaker they can be. So they'll just have to come up with a new resolution for 2019!



Ann's Top Ten

This seems to be an appropriate month to share my Top Ten List of Tips You Can Use!

These are the tips I am tempted to share every month, and if you've been reading my newsletter over the years, you might have run across them a few times. They are evergreen: not a week goes by when I don't share most of them with clients.

(Of course, you know I have a thing about orgainization and too many main points. So I have "clustered" them for easier comprehension.)

For speaking events: Delivery

Breathe Every day I hear people who forget to do the most basic thing before they start to speak: Breathe! Even if you haven't had a chance to do your daily breathing/centering warm-ups, taking a good deep breath will help you speak with energy and focus. 

Take up your space! Standing tall when you speak makes you seem bigger and bolder--even if you're small of stature or an introvert! Use that knowledge and embrace your power--don't shrink from it. 

Practice may not make perfect, but. . . it sure helps you feel more present, more connected, more in the moment. But you know this. So do it!

For speaking events: Content

Prepare yourself Overpreparation is a myth. "Speaking from the heart" is overrated. You know this if you've sat through disappointing, confusing, boring speeches. But if you want my take you can read about it herehere and here. 

Simplify, simplify, simplify Your clarity of expression mirrors your clarity of thought. If listeners get lost in your dependent clauses or confusing vocabulary they'll stop listening. Simple sentences with active verbs will keep your audience with you. 

Less is more Use three main points, possibly four, per speech. Organize and practice so you will finish in less time than you are allotted. This allows time for Things To Go Wrong (which they do) as well as Q & A (which audiences love).

Kill the PowerPoint Or at least cut it down to size! Don't be lazy and just put your outline up. Find a thematic visual that reinforces your theme. Or just tell the story. Revisit my blog post to find out why.

In meetings/conversations:

Put on your neutral face Yes, RBF is a real thing, but you can minimize it by practicing your "zen face:" relaxed, not super-smiley, just a little less intense. Making a few muscular adjustments can make a huge difference in how others perceive you. 

Don't know? That's OK---You can't be expected to know everything, but you should know where to find the answers.  Don't make things up: chances are someone else in the room will have Googled the real answer by the time you've finished. 

Keep your eyes on the prize In high-stakes conversations it's easy to become distracted from your main goal. Stay focused: remember your objective. Phrase that in as few words as possible and repeat it internally like a mantra when you feel a derailment coming on. 


Put down the megaphone


I've had an interesting few weeks: my clients have spoken in a variety of situations at home and abroad. It's been fascinating learning about their topics as I help them prepare. But different as each of these experiences have been, we always start the same way: by framing their content in terms of a conversation. My speakers may have an hour to present their great ideas on a stage the size of a football field or twenty minutes in a conference room, yet they are all speaking with people, not talking at them. Why? Because communication implies, at the very least, a two-way street. The speaker is engaging the listener who is processing what the speaker is saying. If a formal feedback loop is not built into the event (i.e. a stand-alone speech without Q & A), the listeners will find a way to respond informally, if not directly to the speaker herself. 

Many seasoned as well as emerging leaders understand the concept of engaging in active listening. But understanding and actually doing it are two different things. And, to be honest, active listening isn't the easiest thing to do, but it can be taught (see my blogs about how here and here). Over time it can become relatively easy to listen that way when you're engaged in the less formal communication of conversation. The tricky part comes when you integrate that kind of listening into your formal speech events. But mindfulness of the other always must be present in your speaking, as you develop your content with the audience's need in mind, and as you work on communicating with and not at (see above).

My clients have had lots of success lately using this strategy for speaking. But I have seen and heard myriad egregious example of speakers who broadcast their message--those who just throw their words out and splatter them all over the audience. (Virginia is home to the perpetual political campaign, so I am exposed to far too many examples of What Not To Do a regular basis). That is not effective communication. And it is bad leadership strategy.  

If you want to read about listening as a good leadership strategy, take a look at this oldie but goodie from January 2014.