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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Catch your breath

It's mid-afternoon on a Friday in November.
I am about to go do some pre-Thanksgiving reconnaissance for a fresh turkey.
Tomorrow, I will do a workshop on effective presentation skills for dynamic speaking to a roomful of emergent leaders.
The clock is ticking; I am starting to feel a teensy bit tense!
I tell myself what I tell my clients:

Just breathe! Just do it. Deeply and often. Take a "breathing break" during that mid-afternoon slump to re-energize.

And it works!

As we embark on the winter holiday season, filled with so many good smells, notice how often you stop and take a deep breath. Not for the sake of getting breath into your body, but because you are surrounded by incredible smells. We inhale deeply, to experience the aromas of turkey and pie, cinnamon, pine boughs, cookies in the oven. This deep breathing consequently relaxes us. It keeps us saner, more on track, and less stressed than we would otherwise be during what can be a pretty frenetic time.

So -- take a deep breath. Take another. Ahh!


Embrace the Speed Bumps

My clients come to me for a variety of reasons. Some are content experts who do a lot of speaking, but are always seeking to improve. Others are running for office and engaging in high stakes, very public communication from dawn till well after dusk. Still others want to get ahead professionally, and know they need to step up their speaking in all situations - around the conference table, with clients, at networking events,  etc. They come to me for different reasons, but they express many of the same concerns.

One I hear most often is, "I want to be able to think on my feet" or "I need to learn how to speak off the cuff." Clients are a bit dismayed when I tell them I have no magic wand to immediately make them extemporaneous geniuses. I do have strategies that I share, which vary according to client and situation. But one general rule I tell everyone  - slow down! The benefit of this is two-fold: it gives you time to think about what you are saying before you say it (which, we can all agree, is a prerequisite for sounding intelligent), and it helps you avoid those filler words which at best are a minor annoyance to the listener, and at worst make you seem disorganized and unfocussed.

Try slowing down today; what have you got to lose? Just a few "um"s, " you know"s, and (cringe) "like"s that you and your listener will not miss at all!


A Teachable Moment

This year's crowded Republican campaign trail is strewn with gifts that keep on giving! Rick Perry's debate gaffe last night illustrated the importance of #3 on my list of Five Things You Must Always Do When Speaking.

I don't believe in too many rules (see, only five!), but one thing I tell my clients is ''Organize your thoughts before you speak! This seems obvious, but be honest! How consistently do you do it? For each meeting you attend, every phone call you make, you often have an idea of what will be asked of you and said by others. Have your main talking points ready so you don't fumble."

So it seems absurd that the GOP would even consider nominating for president a man who can't take time to organize his thoughts and practice his talking points (also on my Top Five list). And he didn't even have it in his notes! Such a rookie mistake.  I would be very shocked if one of my clients revealed him/herself to be so unprepared for any speaking engagement, let alone such a highly visible, high-stakes one.

I suppose there must be a few leadership positions somewhere that do not require "excellent written and verbal communications skills." But Leader of the Free World is not one of them!

At least now I have a new watchword for my clients - don't pull a Perry! 


Are you listening?

I have been thinking a lot lately about listening.
Last week, working with my adult acting class, I reminded my students that listening is a physical activity. It takes mental and muscular power to focus on being still enough to absorb what someone else is saying, to mentally travel through his or her thought process, and to understand the message being sent. A scene based on conversation, contrary to some students' initial impressions, is not one in which "nothing happens." It can be the moment when life-changing truth is revealed, decisions are made, bonds are forged. This happens, onstage as in real life, even though a casual observer might perceive this important exchange as "just talking."

Listening, being part of an ongoing communication loop, is the only way to make true connection possible. Otherwise all that verbal output is just chatter, cluttering up our already noisy days. Sometimes it verges on assault. The "used car salesman" approach of highly energetic delivery coupled with a forced cheerfulness is a perversion of leadership technique that I have seen applied by many who should know better.  

If you do not make the space to listen to others, to answer their questions, address their concerns, clarify your position, maybe even modify it after they give you feedback, you are not really communicating. To really listen you need to be unafraid. Ask yourself: so what if I am challenged? Remember, your goal is not to win or to be right, your goal is to get the job done in the most economical/effective/elegant/
excellent/expeditious way possible (and that's just the "e" list).

Something to think about next time you catch yourself not really listening. Or being heard. 

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