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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Only connect

It's a new year and I am getting lots of calls from folks who have resolved to improve their public speaking. My callers have a variety of needs: conferences to present for, remarks to make, pitches to deliver. If you have any of these coming up you may be doing this right now: writing a draft, right-sizing it to give your audience just enough (but not too much) info. Then you'll shape it using the classic beginning-middle-end narrative structure. You'll remember to use story effectively both as a framing device and for specific examples. And when you finish you'll be all set, right?

Well, no. Mastering your content is only half of it. Communicating your message depends as much, if not more, on your delivery. Time and again I have seen people who fail because they can't connect with their listeners. It's not just picking the right words and arranging them the right way that makes such connection possible. After all, you're not submitting a memo or a report. You're communicating through speech so you and your listeners can connect directly. You need to own what you are saying. And feel compelled to communicate it. Only then can others feel your enthusiasm, disappointment, or whatever underlying human emotion has led you to engage in this inherently scary act of public speaking.

I know, I know. I've heard it, too: it's best to "speak from the heart" (i.e. without a prepared text). That way you naturally connect with your audience. WRONG! When speakers neglect preparation to avoid sounding "scripted" they end up with a mess of underdeveloped points and random anecdotes, just wasting the listeners' time.

The truth is, to be a great speaker you need clear, powerful content and emotionally resonant delivery. It takes time to work on both parts of effective messaging, but what's the alternative? Being "fine" (a.k.a. boring and instantly forgettable)? Not getting your message across clearly? Feeling terrified because you can't call up those reserves of "passion" you were depending on, and find yourself staring in horror at three bullet points as your only lifeline? That's what makes people fear public speaking more than death itself.

You can do better. Here's hoping 2017 will be the year you start making those crucial communications connections!


A holiday wish list

If I were able to give gifts to each of you, you'd find these under your tree (or wherever you find your holiday surprises): wishes to help you all become terrific speakers in 2017.

I wish for you:

  • cooperative contacts (or research assistants) who will give you specific details about your audience: who are they? why do they want/need to hear from you? why do they want to hear it now?
  • mental space to fully prepare what you are going to say prior to the day before you have to say it.
  • an internal outlining and right-sizing alert system so you will sense when you are going on too long, getting off track, or giving more information than your audience can digest.
  • the knowledge that classic story-telling models are best, because audiences can follow a narrative structure: Beginning (introduction and scene-setting); Middle (three to four--NO MORE--points); End (wrap up and conclusion).
  • awareness of the physicality of the act of speaking to keep you from getting stuck in your mental cul-de-sac where that nagging negative voice lives.
  • realization that it's about the message, not about you, freeing you from obsessing over your hair, shoes, or whatever your Achilles' heel is.

If you get even a couple of these in your stocking, your performance as a speaker will improve immensely . . . and soon, too. If you don't, you can always give me a call. I'll probably have something left in my gift closet!



Thanksgiving in the aftermath

Thanksgiving--a day of food, family and fellowship. It offers us, just before the Holiday Crazies begin, a glorious day to kick back, relax, and count our blessings. In the past, I have reflected in this space on what I am personally thankful for. My list covers a lot of ground, from supportive friends and family to the brilliant comic Sarah Silverman.

This year, however, I offer a different message to those of you venturing outside your comfort zone, taking that real (or metaphorical) journey over the river and through the woods. We have all been bruised by the grueling election season and its immediate aftermath. So as our national holiday approaches, we would do well to look around and ask how we can put ourselves, our families and our communities back together. Let's take a simple first step and listen, really listen, to one another. Now don't get me wrong--I am not advocating acquiescence or amnesia. But I am suggesting it might be best to wait until after the pie is served to point out Aunt Tammy's rhetoric of racism, Cousin Fred's sexism, or neighbor Abigail's elitism. Because we do need to root out language that excludes and divides. At the same time, it is important to find common ground with those who have different perspectives. We must do that if we want to continue The American Experiment we celebrate at Thanksgiving. So I propose that as we mash the potatoes, sit down to the turkey, watch the parade, or enjoy the game, we actually try to listen to each other with open ears and open hearts. Because like the route to Grandmother's house, the road to real communication may be a long one, but it is never a one-way street.



Boxed In

Picture this: you're facing a room full of strangers, telling them about something you understand inside out, when suddenly you see blank looks on too many faces, and wonder if you started speaking a foreign language. Or, just after you have confidently delivered your speech, you find out from the questions asked that people did not get what you were saying, not one bit. Sound familiar? It happens to most of us somewhere along the line.

When we really know our stuff we run that risk even more. Which is why being an expert in your field does not necessarily mean you're the best person to speak about your topic. Remember those speeches you've heard from esteemed experts or cutting-edge innovators who lost you after "good morning?" As listeners, such an experience represents a lost opportunity for learning at best, and a complete waste of time at worst. Yet when the tables are turned and we are the ones speaking, how do we regard these speech fails? All too often we blame our audience for not being smart or attentive enough to cherish the pearls of wisdom we are throwing before them. That is the completely wrong approach.

Wherever you are speaking--a classroom, an auditorium, or a meeting room-- your primary objective is to connect. Always. The verb may vary: share, teach, elucidate--even, perhaps, persuade. But remember you cannot convince anyone of anything until you have made a deep, real connection first! And that means taking a step back. Getting out of the weeds. You may be immersed in your topic and quite excited about what you have to share, but unless you are speaking a language your audience understands you won't connect.

We are facing some pretty huge problems these days, many of them compounded by the fact that not only do people not understand, they have given up trying to understand. The big, complicated concepts that drive science, economics, and politics shaping our daily lives will certainly affect the future of our communities, our country, and our planet. But many don't have the interest or desire to begin to understand them. There are many reasons for this, but one thing I have seen over and over is the inability of experts to effectively explain these concepts to non-experts. If people don't understand the larger relationships between various forms of energy usage and climate change, for example, maybe it's because no one has taken time to explain it in way they understand. Life moves pretty fast these days (thanks, Ferris!) and if you don't make an effort to connect, people feel disrespected. Then it's Bye Felicia.

And there you are, one step closer to having your great solution to the world's problems shot down by ignorant funders, defeated by a misinformed electorate, or otherwise sabotaged by people you might see as "just plain dumb." But you have to take responsibility as a speaker. No one can read your mind, and if you need to connect the dots for them, that is what you do. Step outside yourself and see what might be complicated or hard to comprehend. Ask someone to help. Someone who is not an expert in the way you are. Then break it down. And practice. Putting a reminder in the notes section of your PowerPoint is not enough. You need to make a plan and "bake it into" your presentation. If you wait for Q & A at the end to gauge audience understanding, you run the risk of sending too many listeners to their happy place along the way. And that's not a risk any of us can afford.

So step outside of the box you've put yourself in. The one where you're comfortable talking to people who already understand what you mean. And try to connect with others out there in the wide, wide world.


Toxic weeds

As someone whose whole professional life has to do with words and what we communicate through them, underneath them, and in between them, I have had many thoughts "communication" in the final weeks of this presidential election. I qualify the term because communication theory posits a loop: speaker-message-listener-feedback-speaker, etc. What we have seen from Donald Trump has been like broadcasting--in its original 18th century usage, "seeds sown by scattering." Accusations, overstatements and generalizations are thrown to the winds, and, with nothing to tie them down to reality, these seeds of half-baked ideas float about until they land in some sort of soil. If it is not hospitable they wither and die, but if they find fertile soil, they take root and grow into toxic weeds that threaten to overrun anything near them. I have a weed like that in my backyard. It winds through my neighbors' fence into our space. We call it the "evil weed" And, like Donald, it always comes back no matter how often we try to yank it out. Because the roots are not something we control.

I have been thinking a lot about the depths to which our political discourse has fallen this cycle. Bullying tactics have become more and more normalized as we slog on toward November. They have reached a fever pitch in the past ten days, and I fear that our sense of what constitutes bullying and why it is so bad for us may be permanently warped. When Donald stands in front of the press and public and says with a straight face "It was just words. It didn't mean anything," it makes my blood boil. Of course words have meaning! I have blogged before about this facile excuse for bad behavior. Every word has an intention behind it (unless your brain has become disengaged from your mouth--which almost seems to be Trump's defense. But that can't be right. Who would vote for a candidate who doesn't think before he speaks. Oh. Maybe that is what they mean by "authenticity"?!?) And, contrary to what his campaign tells us, the concept that bullying is wrong has not just been rolled out this October to thwart Donald. In January 2104 I wrote about the need to see language as a tool that can easily be weaponized; at that time, even the NYPD recognized that fact.

Like so many people, I am weary of this election charade. The daily posturing, name-calling, hate-filled language coming from the Trump camp is something many of us have been working to eradicate for years. It is invading our space, like my backyard's evil weed, which I will keep pulling out and cutting back. And someday I will either weaken it so much that it can no longer thrive, or I will have to do something I have resisted thus far, and go ask the neighbors to help. They may not want to eradicate it (they seem to find it attractive), so we will compromise and work toward a mutually beneficial solution. That's what grown-ups in a civil society do.