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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Use the right tools

Spring is here, and that means it's time to tackle those home repairs. Last week I had a nagging plumbing problem fixed, and it's such a relief! I'd been searching for months for someone to do a seemingly easy job: replacing the leaky pipe leading to my outdoor spigot. But finding the right plumber meant I needed one who had the appropriate tools. I thought "how hard can that be? Plumbers all have tools for this, right?" Apparently not. 

While the plumber was fixing my pipe, I made a connection between his work and my work with clients. Because I often find myself urging them to find the tools, processes, and systems that work best for them.  Preparation is the key to being an effective speaker, but if you lack instruments to help you prepare, and the right places to store that preparation,  you can still fall short of your speaking goals. 

Many of my clients do most of their business speaking over the phone: client pitch meetings, status updates, reports.  And many, who would of course do lots and lots of preparation for a keynote or panel presentation, go into their calls with a jumble of notes jotted on scraps of paper, or a few bullets in a document on their screens. Because if you're on speaker and not video, clients and team members can't see your lack of organized preparation...or so goes the conventional wisdom. But people do hear when you're scrambling to find a critical piece of info. Even if you have it here somewhere, they can tell that it's not where it should be: at your fingertips.

It's always refreshing to share a success story! A new client, who was already big on prep but knew she needed some help, followed my advice and looked for tools to make the most of her phone meetings. And she found a notebook with which to create an organizing system that works for every type of call she'll have. With a small investment of time upfront, she was able to convert a wide variety of notes into a handy folio of information that she will use time and again. She has told me that she is already more confident and present on her client calls. And others have noticed, too.

Take a minute and review your tools. You're smart. You know your stuff. But if pertinent info isn't right where you need it when you need it, you run the risk of being like the first six plumbers I contacted: unable to get the job done.  


Carving out meaning

It's My Party! cast and creative team
Recently I had the great privilege of seeing my words come to life onstage, at the premiere public reading of It's My Party! at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia. My director and I had assembled a top-notch cast to portray the various historic luminaries (and some fictional foils) involved in the final push to pass the Suffrage Amendment. The play was extremely well-received, and we had a good discussion afterward. Some of the feedback puzzled me, though, because things people said were missing (details of plot, character, etc.) were actually there! I had to ask myself: is this a problem that could be fixed through the rehearsal process, i.e., an acting/directing problem, or is it a script problem, for me to fix? As a playwright, I wrestle with this. For example, I have to consider how much to emphasize a critical plot point, so that everyone "gets" it, while also trusting my audience to figure things out. It's a tricky balancing act, but I'm working on it as I revise It's My Party!, and write a new play for this summer's Capital Fringe. (more info here).

So it is with an odd sigh of relief that I turn from playwriting to working on client speeches. After all, in creating a play I have to generate personality, voice, information, relationships, etc., etc., for multiple characters. Writing a speech seems pretty straightforward in comparison. Speeches are directly addressed to an audience. The speaker portrays one character (Expert, Leader, Teacher), and delivers a clear message. And, in a good, easy-to-follow speech (the kind my clients deliver!), the speaker reiterates the main points of the message no less than three times. The audience cannot fail to "get" it. Of course, as with the theatre-going audience, you don't want to belabor the point or bore them silly. But the sweet spot between an opaque speech and an overly simplistic one is pretty wide—and easy to hit! 

And unlike a play, where everything is created out of thin air, a speech begins with a specific focus: a need to be addressed; information to deliver; followers to inspire. You've got a head start, because the overarching substance of the content is there already. The challenge is deciding how to impose structure, sharpen the language, and clarify the message with compelling examples. In my mind it is more a process of revealing. You're like a sculptor who begins with a large block of subject matter, and you go to work chipping away till it conveys exactly what you want it to. Then you can give the audience the absolute essence of your message. Many speakers fail to do this and you hear unfocussed/unfinished messages that somewhat resemble unrecognizable blobs of hacked-at marble. Take some time to refine. Works of art aren't created overnight, and neither are effective speeches! 



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!