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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

A resolution you can keep

Here's something that is easy to do and will vastly improve your performance this year:
Learn from your stumbles . .  .
I mean that, literally!

As you prepare for your first speech events of 2012 (which includes conference room meetings and client pitches, as well as those large-audience keynotes), and you practice your speeches or talking points (you do practice them, right?), make a note of any word pairs or phrases that you stumble over. If you can reword them so they are less awkward in your mouth, try that. But sometimes you can't rephrase your stumbling-block, because it is, say, a government project title, or the name of an important client. Then you need to say the words slowly and pick the phrase apart. Zero in on the particular combination of sounds that "bump up against" each other in a way that is awkward for your tongue or lips. Since these are muscles that can learn new tricks, all you need to do is practice the difficult phrase slowly, then speed it up till it rolls off your tongue. When you can say it five times fast, it can become one of your tongue-twisters for warm-ups.

If you don't already have a repertoire of simple word pairs to include in your daily warm-up, try these old standards. They are deceptively simple, but hard to do quickly and clearly, five times in a row:
toy boat
unique New York  

You can find your own challenging phrases in real-life conversation. Here are a couple of my favorites:
tragedy strategy
shoulder surgery

Keep adding to your own collection, and practice your phrases at red lights. You can also practice while crossing the street, if you have your earbuds in or headphones on. No one will know.

Let clear articulation become a hallmark of your speaking in 2012. Aside from making you a stronger communicator, think of how much time you will save if you never have to repeat yourself!


A toast for 2011!



This time of year, many of us sit through, stand through, groan through some pretty awful toasts. A toast should be a welcome element of any celebration. It presents an opportunity to honor and pay tribute to a special someone or singular occasion. But so often, it seems the better option might be to put a ban on toasts altogether. Out-of-control guests have been known to hog the microphone at times like this, to air grievances or unleash their inner Oprahs (an excellant example of this can be found in the dueling toast smackdown between Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids).

Of course, you could always rely on the inspiration of the moment, and give a toast that consists of some hastily scribbled napkin notes. None of your friends will tell you how that approach was not terribly successful, and you'll think you were great, until you see the video. Then, you'll say, "I was OK. If I had prepared, I would have been bettter."

So.... prepare! You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out: if you had prepared, you would have been better. Prepare - and you will be.

I give my clients advice on what to do if they find themselves in the honored position of being asked to make a toast:
  • Take 10 minutes to put it together and practice at least 7 times (you'll memorize the speech as you practice).
  • The purpose is praise and celebration.
  • It should be short--no more than 150 words or 75 seconds long.
  • Tell something about the person or occasion you are honoring. Don’t just tell biographical information, rather, create a speech that penetrates to the essence of the person/occasion and generates a deep sense of respect. 
  • Major traits are expressiveness and feeling. Go for the warm glow!
Try this next time you're asked to make a toast. You will enjoy yourself more, your host will be pleased, and who knows where a successful toast could lead?



The Power of Voice

Last week I was honored to be part of the Women in Public Service Colloquium, sponsored by the Department of State and Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Wellesley College. (

Thursday morning began with a wonderful kick-off: presentations and conversations with global leaders Hillary Clinton, Christine Legarde, Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo (at 37, the world's youngest head of state), and Gloria Steinem, among others.

The next day I got to work. I was asked to help train the 40 global leaders who had been selected to participate in the Emerging Women Leaders in Public Service Forum. The day's theme was The Power of Voice; I was there to give the group guidelines for effective public speaking and critique their presentations. I was delighted that the Director of the Forum, Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, had the vision to bring me into the process. Often high-level trainings focus so much on the importance of content they forget that delivery is just as important for getting the message across.

Thrilled as I was to participate in such an exciting initiative, I knew it would be a creative challenge. My role was to offer constructive criticism to speakers who were often speaking, in their second (or third) languages, who had just put content together in committee, and who had not much chance to practice. I addressed technical vocal production and presentation issues; they were happy to get "nuts and bolts" answers to specific questions. I was even drafted to role-play a beleaguered speaker facing a hostile audience!

The women were all deeply committed to their causes (in this session they spoke on reaching various UN Millennium Development Goals:, and they spoke with passion. As Arig Bakhiet, the representative from Sudan, said: "Even when they are speaking with an accent, or with a language that they are not fluent in, the feeling, the committment they have for the subject comes through." She was right. These brave, inspiring women are already leading the world into a brighter future. When they return to their countries they will get to work, build stronger networks, and raise their voices for global women's empowerment and equality. The Power of Voice!


The present of presence

Taking a break from ordering Christmas gifts online yesterday, I decided I should go through accumulated flagged e-mails. And I finally read a Washington Post article about Barbara Cook, the 84-year-old legendary singer who was one of this year's recipients of The Kennedy Center Honors:

My husband sent me this link, knowing I would be interested in the insights this incredible artist shares about vocal training and her approach to singing. What I didn't expect (though I should have, now that I reflect upon seeing her years ago in a small club room in NYC and recently onstage at the Kennedy Center), is that her primary focus seems to be on being present. Peter Marks starts this wonderful portrait of Ms. Cook by explaining her fascination with Hugh Jackman on stage: “Here’s the thing: What I try to tell students in master classes is what we want is them. It’s so hard to believe that what the world wants is the intrinsic you on the stage. And that’s what Hugh Jackman’s got, in spades. He’s incredibly present.

Later, she describes her own journey from Broadway leading lady, to has-been, to star of clubs and concert halls. Of course she has an incredibly well-trained, strong voice. And it is so beautiful it shimmers. But what really elevates her as an artist is her willingness to be open with the audience. She has been around long enough to strip all the artifice away; she invites the listener into her heart: "When you allow people to really, really see your humanity in its most profound form, it touches that humanity in them. In that critical way, we find we’re not so alone in the world.”

When you are being yourself, your best self, people can tell. They respond. They connect. It sounds so easy. But nothing is harder. For all of us, whenever, however we try to communicate, it takes thought and preparation. But if we lay the groundwork, trust what we're doing, and actually come prepared for give-and-take, we discover something rare and wonderful to share with others. We have that kind of courage to let go and just Be. Present.


How Not To Be a Bore

In An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavsky (the father of modern acting) demanded that actors - to truly be good at their craft - "cut 90 per cent."

I offer similar advice to my speaking clients. As content experts, we often have the urge to tell everything we know about our subject, assuming the world is as interested in it as we are. Even if our conversation partners are incredibly captivated by what we do, unless they are colleagues engaged in the same line of inquiry/practice at the same level, they need it broken down for them. In easily-digestible, bite-sized pieces. They can't know all that we know (that's why we're the experts!) and so we need to meet them at their level. If we don't, we fall into the trap of droning, monologuing, and otherwise boring or confusing people who, through no fault of their own, have become our unwitting "audience." And how do they respond? Can you say, "Excuse me while I find that cheese dip?"

So as you go out to socialize with family, friends, and colleagues this holiday season, don't be the bore at the party. If someone ask you what you're up to professionally, give them the Twitter version - short, sweet, somewhat intriguing. If you tantalize them (and if they are interested in the subject), you may be able to arrange a follow-up meeting. If they have no interest in your subject matter, at least you found out in a mercifully short time, and can go connect with someone else. 

Oh - this advice works for non-business encounters, as well. It is a good rule of thumb to follow whenever you want to cultivate a relationship. As that old rascal P.T. Barnum said: "always leave 'em wanting more"!