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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

These myths have got to go!

I spend a lot of my time debunking myths about public speaking. I can't believe that in 2017 some of these are still being passed off as "conventional wisdom" to unsuspecting clients, but I have had to undo their effects too many times! Those of you who have been reading me over the years know how I feel about this. But just in case you need a refresher, here are the two things you need to stop doing TODAY to be a better speaker:

Myth #1: Always start with a joke! I think this is the worst piece of advice anyone can give you. In fact, I would immediately be suspicious of whoever tells you to do this. Because if you start by telling a joke you will almost certainly fail. You can see my various takes on why this is such a bad idea herehere and most recently, here. Even professional comedians sometime bomb. And since all humor is culturally-specific, your joke will either offend or be misunderstood by a high percentage of the audience. Even back in the old days, when everyone guffawed at jokes told at Rotary luncheons, there were those who didn't really "get" them. They may have laughed along because it was expected, but the humorous misfires didn't lead to any bonding, or establish the speaker's credibility. Quite the opposite.    

Myth #2: Always try to read your audience. Really? There are too many "experts" out there who can help you "read" your audience. That is nonsense. And a waste of your valuable time. I have written about why in posts here and here. To give you the highlights, though: people are bundles of contradictions. The idea that you can delve into the innermost thoughts and feelings of a relative stranger while you are conveying your message in a meaningful way is ludicrous. Again, our example of professional stand-up comedians is instructive. They do need to be able to "read" their audiences, and so they spend considerable time honing this specific skill. Why? Because they are in the business of entertainment. You're not. You have a message to deliver, not jokes. You do need to engage your listeners, but if you focus on their moment-to-moment reactions you are not fully serving your message. And let's be honest: how many of us can accurately "read" our nearest and dearest, let alone a roomful of strangers?



Unjumble your language

Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at the airport, on her way to London for graduate school. Many thoughts were going through my head, as you can imagine. Amid the vortex of concerns and emotions I remembered George Bernard Shaw's clever reference to the United States and England as "two countries separated by a common language." Most of my readers probably can attest to the truth of this. Even J.K. Rowling had to change the title of her first Harry Potter book to reflect linguistic differences!

If hearing English-language words used incomprehensibly reminds you of overseas travel delights, you're in luck. You don't have to cross the Atlantic to get that special feeling! You can just walk down the street pretty much anywhere and trip over a big pile of jargon, or its odious cousin, business speak. You know what I mean: that gobbledygook that is constantly used inside your office, but has no actual meaning on the outside. A lovely list of the most annoying of these phrases was generated by Forbes in 2012; I am sure it could be much larger by now. 

My clients will tell you I am pretty demanding when it comes to eliminating jargon from their presentations. This is especially difficult with slide decks, where the jargon exacerbates the prevailing problem of too many words. Such slides say nothing to me, so I ask clients to explain them. Often they cannot. Jargon has muddled the meaning. Which is not so good when your goal is to communicate your ideas! Cut out the jargon and you accomplish TWO big things: you no longer alienate those not privy to the particularities of your usage; and your message is easier to understand. If your goal is to communicate clearly, you need to use language you and your listeners share.

Before you say "well, she doesn't know my industry; certain buzzwords are expected--and we all know what they mean," let me tell you what I have noticed. When I try to tease out definitions for these phrases, it becomes clear that this jargon is often understood quite differently by the many people who use it. That's because few of them ever really asked what was meant by those particular words. It was a badge of belonging to use them--so they just assumed a meaning (and you know what happens when you assume!)

It takes a while to break bad habits, but it's worth it! Unjumbling your language will clarify your meaning. And do your friends and family a favor right now--stop using business speak and jargon outside of the office. And start sounding like the authentic you again!


The expressive self

Summer is a busy time for me: I teach full time for a pre-college summer program at American University's School of Communications, meet with clients, and try to sandwich in some creative work as well. This year I am researching a play I hope to have drafted by December. I also wrote a one-act that will have its premiere reading on Labor Day (see info below).

And I have seen some amazing theatre in NYC and D.C.: A Doll's House, Part 2;  Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812; and An Octoroon. I highly recommend them all!

All these activities got me thinking once again about the intersection of public speaking and acting. I keep coming back to the fact that acting is about action. To see Laurie Metcalfe physicalize the pain and frustration of Nora Helmer as she paces the stage like a caged animal, or to watch Jon Hudson Odom transform before our very eyes into three extremely different characters is to experience the essence of great acting. Because in acting, as in life, it's not just the words you say or how you say them that reveals your thoughts and feelings. It's how your body expresses them, clarifying--or contradicting--the words themselves.

Acting teachers and directors tell actors "show, don't tell," and as a playwright I follow that advice, too. The fact is, we are all so much more than our words. And that truth is fundamental to the art and craft of drama.

Just as acting is about acton, so is public speaking. My students will tell you I drum this into them: "speaking is a physical activity." And my clients hear me say "get out of your head and into your body!" But the truth is, to effectively communicate you need to do more than think about and organize your ideas. That's just the first step. To get those ideas in front of others (literally) you need to a way to get them there. And since we haven't evolved to using the Vulcan mind-meld, speaking is, by necessity, physical. So you must engage your body as a communications tool. Easy to understand, hard to do. Often students and clients tell me they have practiced when they have only "gone over" their presentations in their minds, not putting the words in their mouths and getting the speech into their bodies. And then they wonder why they stumble and fall!

Get physical. Use your body as an expressive instrument. I don't mean plot out your gestures or be overly concerned about "body language." I mean tap into the energy that is at the core of your being. That is the essential you. That makes your spin on any topic, any argument, any pitch uniquely, authentically yours. Give yourself permission to use your body when you speak. You'll feel liberated and free. And wouldn't that be a nice change?



The power of stillness 

I recently had a couple of clients tell me they want to walk around the room "Oprah-style" while delivering speeches and presentations. I understand their temptation to move. Conventional wisdom on public speaking says walking and talking is preferable to standing frozen in one spot. As if there are only those two options! In fact, standing still—with presence—is a highly effective way to convey authority and leadership. This question of movement vs. stillness comes up often with clients. I blogged about it last in October, 2013. But since we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, here is the updated and condensed version:

Have you ever wondered how some people can command the room when they speak, whether they are behind the podium, at an interview desk, or in front of a casual gathering? They have presence. They "own the room." There is a perception that such ability automatically descends upon those who attain positions of power. Au contraire;there are many who should have presence but don't (this is my current favorite example, so wonderfully awful I hope you will overlook the fact that it's not from a live event). 

The fact is that presence comes from being physically at ease, centered, still. No fidgets, no wiggles, no shifting. No pushing the message at people, but rather, drawing them in. Those who possess presence are not still as in "stiff;" they are still as in "grounded." It's a simple concept, but a hard one to master. 

As an actor, I rely on breathing and posture exercises—similar to yoga—to attain "centeredness." It takes some time to undo years of self-consciousness and self-criticism. And it takes trust that when you are put to the test, your body will remember how to keep the wiggles out and the stillness in. You are not aiming for statue-like immobility. Far from it! You are seeking to actively manage a potentially terrifying situation. Your body needs to have practiced this inner calm so it can kick in and mitigate your natural fight or flight instinct. 

The hardest part comes at the beginning of your speech. This is normal because speaking is, after all, a physical activity. But the activity of speaking has to do with breathing and vocal production, not shuffling feet, wiggling shoulders, shifting weight from one hip to the other or aimlessly gesticulating. These all signal the opposite of what you might think ("Look at how comfortable I am!"). They signal that you want to run, or hide, and are not at ease enough to stand still, to be open and vulnerable.

Master the presence of the leader's stance. Be still in a room full of noise and movement and you will command attention, even before you say a word.

photo: still waters at QianHai, Beijing


Respect the ice

How many times have you been in a group of people you kinda sorta know and you hear "ice-breaker!"? I am sure many of you, like me, feel a sinking feeling when you hear this phrase. "Great! Ten minutes wasted on glorified chit-chat. Why don't we all just take a break and gather 'round the coffee urn? It would be as productive." 

The fact is, ice-breakers can help people in a room coalesce into a team. That is, if the ice-breaker is well-thought out and properly designed. But too many meeting leaders just use it as a way to "creativity" start an otherwise boring, by-the-books meeting.

A good ice-breaker is aimed at a specific group, which is meeting for a specific purpose, with a specific goal in mind. Once the ice is broken, the meeting that follows purposefully leverages whatever connections have been made. But all too often the ice-breaker is a "check the box" exercise. And just as often, it fails.

Reccently I have experienced examples of ice-breakers that had the potential to horribly backfire. In the first instance the assumptions built into the ice-breaking questions came from a place of privilege. If you can be sure everyone in the room has an answer to the question "where will you summer this year?" it might be OK to ask. (BTW, this is only slightly more over-the-top than what I heard recently.) But an ice-breaker is used when you do not know people that well. And if even one person in the group doesn't understand, or does not have an answer, you are defeating the purpose: to foster connectivity, communication, and find things you have in common. Instead, you have made someone feel "other," quite possibly inferior, and definitely separate.

Gender, cultural and geographical differences can also play into the destructive potential of ice-breakers. Chatting with co-workers in the break room about sports can lead to informal bonding, but asking the assembled group to start by naming their favorite sports team can be disastrous--for any number of reasons: not all women (or men for that matter) follow sports; American sports are vastly different from sports worldwide; NFL fans will assert the superiority of their league; and God help you if you have Yankees fans and fans of any other team! You see how easily an ice-breaker can lead to a conference-room brawl? 

Of course I exaggerate. Most people, in these situations, will exercise proper professional decorum. And while you may never know that your senior manager feels like a poor relation because she doesn't "summer on the Vineyard," or that your new hire just had his feelings of being an outsider reinforced, you have cast a chill on their participation just the same. Which is the opposite of your intention when you try to break the ice.