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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Oscar time in an election year

As I was watching the Oscars last night I was thinking about performers, speeches, and the act of speaking. Octavia Spencer, who was wonderful in The Help, was speechless when she was the winner in an incredibly strong field (and if you still have not seen Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs, go see it ASAP!). I think Ms. Spencer was caught off-guard (though, really, if you are nominated for an award like that you should have a little something up your sleeve). But her job is to embody other people's creations, make the words of the screenwriter and the vision of the director live on screen. So maybe the "real" Octavia was gob-smacked last night. Most of America can forgive that in a grateful actor.

Not so Mitt Romney. When will that man learn to stay on script? If I were on his communications team I would have pulled out all my hair long ago! His gaffe in Detroit when he ad libbed about his wife's two Cadillacs, and his recent NASCAR comment certainly were not "on message." They may have cost him votes he cannot afford to lose. Why does he (and to be fair, he is not the only candidate who does this. Rick Perry's mistakes cost him his seat at the table) continue to speak this way?

He falls too easily into the "diva trap."

I warn my clients to avoid this by being thoroughly prepared, then trusting their preparation to carry them through their speeches, meetings, etc. But sometimes, gosh darn it! - the thrill of seeing faces turned toward you and hanging on your every word is just so sweet! You feel you can do no wrong; all your words are golden. So you venture something new that you think is even more exciting - or (most often) funnier - than you have prepared.  And - just like that - the trap is sprung.

Some of my clients say they fear becoming too "scripted" and want to "keep it real"when they speak. I tell them they owe it to their audience, meeting partners, and clients, to be prepared, to know what they're saying and how they are going to say it. That is how you establish credibility and gain trust. Not by trying out some stand-up material or a false humility act on unsuspecting potential partners. If you want to get the job done, preparation is key. And comedy, above all things, requires enormous preparation. So even if you occasionally insert a quip that is funny, 99% of the time it does absolutely nothing to further the conversation, or strengthen the relationship with your partners.

And the people you are meeting with are always, to some extent, your partners. They are not your "fans." When you forget that, you start veering perilously close to the diva trap. It's OK for Sally Field to gush "You like me! You like me!" while accepting her Oscar for Places in the Heart. She took flack for that for years, but she is in a business where that kind of personal credibility isn't really a job requirement.

Mitt Romney, however, seeks a job where it is. So he should save his "off the cuff" comments for his private speech. Or he can look for a new career - in the movies!


Working networking

Networking! A word that strikes fear in the hearts of many, trepidation in the hearts of most.

I am in a few very collegial groups whose purpose is to support each other, and yes, network. As in: I will get to know you better as a person, hear about what you do and why you love to do it, and then we might be able to work with each other some day or help make connections for each other. But hard-core "networking"? I like that about as well as going for my annual check -up.

Once in awhile I do talk myself into going to one of these events where the stated purpose is to just network. I find I can last about 90 minutes before my energy flags, and so I heed that sign and make my exit. It is time to go when you can no longer be your "best public self." But I have worked hard (which may be why I am out of gas), and I have already made connections.

When I help a client with networking, we focus on her "cocktail party speech'', which is a hybrid of two time-tested public speech forms: the elevator pitch and the neighborhood get-together introduction. When networking, you need to present yourself in your best light, and give a few tantalizing details about what you do. You will also be testing the waters with your conversation partner to determine if this is a connection worth pursuing. So you need to be specific but not jargon-y. Tell a bit about your business but more about yourself. And listen to the person you are speaking to. It's challenging to strike that balance, but it gets easier over time. And the very best networking experiences I have had come from meetings, lectures, book launches, exhibit openings, etc., where I am truly interested in the event/subject matter/topic. These events attract people with whom I already have something in common, so I have a guaranteed ice-breaker.

That way, every networking evening is a winner! Even if I walk out with fewer valuable contacts than I would like, I have been enriched, challenged, engaged by the experience. And as the French say,  je me coucherai moins bête ce soir*. Which is always a good thing!

* I will go to bed less stupid tonight.


What one picture is worth

Yesterday I was tweaking some speech templates I provide for clients, designing a way to integrate story into existing organizational structure (beginning, middle, end; never more than 4 main points; tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them that you told them). While we need to keep employing these principles, we also need to share more stories in our speeches and presentations.  People learn from story. Narrative arc provides structure, suspense keeps listeners hooked. People will stop what they are doing to listen to a good story, as the announcers at my local NPR station are fond of saying during the current winter pledge drive. I am sure we have all had our "driveway moments"

Of course my biggest battle in this area is from those who feel they absolutely must present everything in PowerPoint. (sigh!) It can be a useful tool when your graphic or picture really is worth a thousand words. Or thematically underscores your presentation. But when you are putting 6-8 bullet points in teeny tiny print up on a large screen you aren't doing yourself or your audience any favors! And charts and graphs need to be used judiciously: make them big, bold, easily read and easy to understand.

I am told that PowerPoint presentations are necessary "for the visual learners in the audience." Really? I have two responses: #1: Putting words on a screen to be read while you are saying something else is confusing even for people who learn through language. And if you do put the same words on the screen that you are saying, you will bore everyone in the room. #2: What about the kinesthetic learners? The musical learners? How are you reaching them?

A few summers ago I was working with Asian climate change scientists and educators as part of George Washington University's PISA program. I knew they liked to use charts and graphs a lot in their presentations, and wanted them to make sure they did not become over-dependent on this method of content delivery. I was searching for an example I could use to illustrate my point. And I asked them, these climate change experts, what image they remembered most about Al Gore's "slide show" in An Inconvenient Truth. Was it the large, detailed graphs? Charts showing ever-increasing temperature deviations? No. It was the polar bear stranded on his ever-diminishing piece of ice. An image with a story. That sticks.


Voice and women's leadership

This week I was busy getting out my monthly newsletter, and so the "Talk the Talk'' blog entry took a back seat. My apologies!

In the newsletter - for those of you who haven't gone there - I talk about the transformative power of voice, as employed by Meryl Streep in her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. In a wonderfully in-depth interview with NPR's Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Ms. Streep gives background on how Mrs. Thatcher herself found a new voice, and used it as a tool in her transformation from Education Secretary to party leader.

I am especially interested in this story because I work with a lot of politicians, mainly women. These women come to me because they know they need to strengthen their voices as part of establishing stronger leadership personae. Some of this has to do with the still lingering perception that "women aren't strong enough to lead," that well-documented double-bind women face while vying for leadership positions. But much of it has to do with personality. As is true with men, women who seek leadership roles not always the most outgoing, extroverted people. As such, they know they need help with their verbal communications, especially before large crowds, and with the packed schedules candidates must maintain.

It is true that women's voices have a general tendency to be smaller. It is a fact that men (in general) have bigger, deeper, more resonant voices than women, due to their relatively larger size, specifically their larger larynxes. This has been an impediment to women in many leadership positions. I also work with female pastors, who need to strengthen their delivery; they have all heard variations on the theme "I can't hear what that preacher-lady is saying." Microphones can only do so much of the work.

But don't tell a soprano at the Met that she is not as strong as the guys she sings with! She knows how to maximize her instrument, to make it flexible, responsive to emotion. And she can turn up the volume when she needs to. She has learned how to use her voice. She knows what to do to maintain proper vocal health, so she can stay strong and continue to grow in her career. One of my favorite opera artists, Renee Fleming, sang her first major role in 1986 and is still going strong!

I tell every one of my clients she or he can develop a strong public voice. No question! Everybody who has a working diaphragm, larynx, lips, tongue, and teeth already has the basic material. All that is needed is some coaching, guidance (and a bit of effort) to uncover it. But then you have it for life!


Experts make it look so easy!

Last Saturday I attended a lecture hosted by the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington on religious pluralism. The Institute sponsors a Convocation each year, and I always enjoy feeling my mind stretched when I attend. This year's speaker was the esteemed religious scholar Dr. Richard Plantinga. His presentation was extremely interesting; you can see it here. If you look it over, you will notice it is very readable. Even if you are not highly knowledgeable about the subject, you will learn from reading his text. He takes us through some fairly weighty material, and balances the concluding tensions in a way that makes us feel we have reached greater enlightenment on this complicated issue.

Anyone who remembers being thrilled by lightbulb moments in the classroom and beyond will understand how Dr. Plantinga does this. He breaks down a complex subject into smaller parts that are comprehensible (not necessarily right off the bat, but sooner rather than later). Your best professors did this. They may have learned how to do it through pedagogy, but most likely it was knowledge hard won through experience. They found their own voices, and spoke in terms that helped listeners and students understand. Vocabulary pitched at the proper level of complexity. Simple, direct sentences. Metaphor that is evocative, yet not too convoluted. Striking imagery.

Not all writers and scholars can do this, of course. I am sure you can remember the professors who won major awards for books and articles, but were disappointing lecturers. Writing for the ear is not the same as writing for the eye. It is a different variation on a theme.

I write plays. (My latest play, Becoming Calvin, was commissioned by the Reformed Institute.) And that is yet another variation. I write for the ear, yes, but in different voices. And I write for the eye--not to be read--but to be visualized, physicalized and turned into action. Writing this way taps into different levels of creativity. But always, the watchword is clarity. If character or plot or theme become too complex and people can't follow then, then I need to go back and simplify. Because the point is never about showing off how much you know or how deeply you feel or what creative stretches you can do. It's about sharing your message.