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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

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. 



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!