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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

True trickiness of tone

I have been thinking a lot about tone of voice lately as I have been immersed in writing and directing my latest play, A Very Present Presence. The story  involves time travel, ghostly visitations, feminist awakenings, and Millennial angst. As you can imagine, these different characters and their various situations call for a whole rainbow of tones.

So once again I have been deep in the weeds examining the crucial role played by tone in interpersonal communications. What subtext or hidden intention does a character reveal to other characters and to the audience by her particular tone? How do I, as a playwright, convey that through the words I chose to have her speak? And, extrapolating to real life, what does a particular speaker's tone tell us, as listeners? And when we speak, why do we need to be mindful of it?

We all know that how people say what they say colors the meaning. We process words differently depending on what we perceive the speaker's underlying intention to be. And by the way, it seems dogs do this as well (so stop trying to fool poor Fido by crooning "sweet stupid dog" as you pet him).

But there is also unconscious bias on the part of the listener. People often react the way they are predisposed to, regardless of the words said and the way they are delivered. The speaker may be intending to convey something on an entirely different level with her words than she is signalling with her tone (which is where the concept of subtext--or what is said beneath the text--comes in). Then on top of that, the listener brings her own bias to bear, probably without really realizing it.

This potential for misunderstanding and misperception is a goldmine for comedy writers. I have been utilizing this fact of human nature in my plays. And Tina Fey and her team put it to good use in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (check it out if you haven't. It's nominated for 11 Emmy Awards). Kimmy chooses to see the best in people. So when she turns to her friends for support and comfort, she is often satisfied by whatever they say, ignoring the fact that their words may not specifically address her problem. They respond, showing they are aware she has a need, and that is good enough for her. It is the incongruity of the situation--the disconnect between apparent message sent and message received--that makes us laugh!

In real life, though, these layer of meaning can cause confusion, or worse. And sometimes it isn't worth your time or effort to sort out what an off-hand remark by a colleague might have meant. But the more you listen carefully--to yourself and others--the more you can learn about messages and the intention underneath. In many professional/public situations this is a valuable skill to possess. In your personal life, maybe not so much. Our private interactions are so subtext-heavy that words very often take a backseat to tone. And if you're like Kimmy, the fact that someone sees you have a problem--and is addressing it, however vaguely--is often enough to convince you that they care.
photo from A Very Present Presence at The Kennedy Center, Sept 5, 2106


Being politically "authentic" 

Enough with Donald Trump's "authenticity," already! What does that even mean? He doesn't use a telepromter! He is so unscripted! Refreshing! So authentic! Puh-leeze...

If you've read my blog before you may remember this entry or this one where I share my thoughts on using "authenticity" as an excuse for sloppiness, laziness, or pretense. So I was happy to read Mark Thompson's op-ed in yesterday' s New York Times, Trump and the Dark History of Straight Talk. He says Trump is actually one in a long line of political types who use anti-rhetoric (his "telling it like it is" strategy) as a way to prove he is the anti-establishment candidate. But Thompson points out that Trump's "authenticity" is not so very authentic after all: "The quality to which every anti-rhetorician aspires is authenticity. But there is a big difference between proclaiming your authenticity and actually being true to yourself and the facts. So let me use a different term: authenticism, for the philosophical and rhetorical strategy of emphasizing the “authentic” above all."

Donald Trump is playing at being "authentic," but it is a false authenticity. He is quite the showman, however, and his show is playing well with the thousands of voters who flock to his extravaganzas—I mean, his rallies. But scratch the surface, and his authenticity falls away. We see this in his recent imitation of a weathervane when it comes to immigration. His earlier tough talk was just a ploy to knock off primary rivals.

Thompson says Hillary Clinton is the complete opposite of Trump, rhetorically. He calls her the "technocrat's technocrat." I take this to mean she is too "in the weeds" in her speeches. She gives too much detail, is too strategic, too cerebral. She appeals to voter's heads but not their hearts. I am not sure this is true of all her speeches, and certainly the content of many of her speeches doesn't support this assertion (the Reno speech was full of feeling). But her delivery does get in the way of making a connection with her listeners. Which frustrates me no end.

Like much of America, I have been a Hillary-watcher for years. I definitely think I could offer her some help. The secret to connecting with listeners is exactly what I teach: how to communicate your authentic presence; how to speak in your own voice. Even if you are an introvert I can give you strategies for standing up in front of rooms of 25 or 2500 to confidently share your message. The key is using your inner strength to draw your audience toward you, rather than pushing your message at them (which is a hallmark of Trumpian "authenticism").

But discovering how to communicate with such authenticity takes time and self-study. And political campaigns are reluctant to have candidates give me either. When I have had success, it is because candidates have been acutely aware of their need to connect more fully with voters and have sought me out. They have made the time, in spite of grumbling from staffers that they didn't need this training, not really, because they were "fine" on the stump. Working with me (or any speaking coach, for that matter) does not guarantee victory. No single element in a campaign does. But even when my clients lost, they won more votes than they expected.

Until campaigns realize that helping a candidate communicate with true authenticity is an important skill to develop, we may be stuck with campaign as entertainment vs. campaign as lecture. Let's hope the party powers-that-be have this realization soon, or we could all come to dread this peculiarly American quadrennial ritual.

****photo inspired by Emily Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody"


Want to move up? Listen down

Lining up to hear the candidate. Hot summer, 2016 This political season I have been watching, cringing, and shaking my head. I find a huuuuge gulf between what I think of as leadership and what certain segments of the electorate and media seem to think it is. For one thing, it has become abundantly clear that Donald Trump is not a good listener. Never has been, never will be. And he's OK with that. This should be a red flag for anyone thinking about voting for him. It is disastrous for a company, organization or any sort of coalition when the person in charge refuses to listen to other points of view. Imagine how catastrophic it would be to elect a head of state who does not possess the skill--or even desire--to be a good listener!

Here is a blog I wrote in January, 2014 that unpacks why it is critical for a leader to have good listening skills. Enjoy.

Last week, while trying to solve some communications problems specific to clients in leadership roles, I looked to Adam Bryant's "Corner Office" interview with Penny Pritzker in the New York Times, "On Hearing the Whole Story." Pritzker, a highly successful business leader in the real estate, hospitality, and financial services industries, is currently serving as Secretary of Commerce. She answered Bryant's question about improving her leadership over the years this way: 

"Probably the biggest mistakes I’ve made were when I wasn’t listening carefully enough. Sometimes you need help with that. I have often said to my closest advisers that your job isn’t just to tell me what you think, but you also have to get in my face and make sure I heard you. It’s hard to deliver bad news, and part of leadership is giving people permission to give you bad news, and making sure you really hear it."

The thing that struck me was how much humility is packed in that statement. And the acknowledgement that true leadership means a willingness to deal with uncertain, or even negative, feedback. A reminder that when you are a leader it is not about you, but about the shared goal of the stakeholders in your venture. If your staff or team is reluctant to give you bad news, then how can you really find our what is going on? Their job in not to please you, but to give you the information you need. 

As Shanti Atkins, President and CSO of Navex Global, said in Bryant's January 2nd column: "Even now I like to have people around me who will disagree with me and who will tell me when they think I’m wrong or something is a terrible idea. If I get the feeling I have people around me who are managing up, I get very nervous. I just instantly start wondering, 'What’s actually happening and why can’t you give me more of a balanced picture?' ” 

We all need to be ready to really hear what employees, co-workers, even family members, have to say--especially when it is something we may not want to hear!  Let's resolve to be better--and more open--listeners this year. Mindfully practicing our listening skills will improve every facet of our lives, not just the bottom line.


It sure is sticky!

It is hot hot hot here in Northern Virginia these days! When I get up in the morning I dread hearing it's going to be "sticky." Ugh! It's not so bad if I have scheduled a "writing day" indoors, but if I am out metroing to client sites, "sticky" just about does me in.

But "stickiness" can be a positive thing: in verbal communication it is something we strive for--making your message stick. Studies show audience members recall on average less than a quarter of what they hear at any speech, meeting, conference call, etc. With those odds, all of us who speak need to do everything we can to ensure our message is memorable.

I know, I know, everyone says this. But just how do you go about writing a speech, or even crafting talking points, that will stick? Many of us take shortcuts here, believing whatever we say has great value. Because we all overestimate the universal value of our insights, our thoughts and musings. And so we forget to put ourselves in anyone else's shoes and ask--what's in it for them?

There are many resources online to aid in your creation of sticky content, and many consultants like me who would be happy to help! But I'll give you two big tips now. The first thing you absolutely need to do is ask yourself: how can I relate to my audience/listeners? For this you need to do some research and find out who your audience is, and why you are speaking to them about this specific topic at this particular time. Then decide on stories you can share, and vivid, concrete examples you can give that will capture their imaginations and put them in the room with you. Establish that connection right off the bat, and they are more likely to stay aboard your train of thought.

Once you've hooked them this way, make sure you don't lose them: write for the ear, not the eye. Short sentences with active verbs. No jargon. Cut those dependent clauses and make sure your pronouns have antecedents. Be clear, above all.

If you can master these two elements of messaging, you may find yourself in a sticky situation. But a good sticky: like honey, not humidity!


Cool fun in the summer

I have been teaching some really terrific high school students who have come to American University for its Discover the World of Communications summer program. This blog post shares some of the video clips I have used reinforce and illustrate my teaching. Feel free to  skip my musings, but watch these videos! You will be entertained by the first and fourth links below, enlightened by the middle two.

This is my eleventh summer teaching Speaking for Impact, where students learn to find their inner presence and embrace it as a way to quell anxiety and project authority. I give them  much of the theory and many of the exercises I share with my adult clients, because the fundamental problems of nervousness, lack of confidence, and confusion about preparation are the same.

But the teaching tools I use are different: we watch a lot of video! There are many excellent speeches available online that we can learn from. Commencement speeches are great, of course, but there is a virtual goldmine for instructors and coaches in political speeches and debates. Sometimes these provide timeless examples of what not to do,  others show us that even with a textbook perfect speech, your campaign still might fail somewhere down the line.

We also sample TED talks and their progeny. Many of them are quite good, teaching us new things and fresh ways of looking at the world. But the TED mandate to leave the audience with a "charge" or "call to action" is often tacked onto a perfectly wonderful informative speech, and I am often left wondering why sharing information and insight with the audience is not enough of a gift in itself.

And then there is a pervasive TED delivery style: techniques and strategies that get used over and over again because -- well, they work. But when everyone is using the same flavor to spice up their speech it all ends up seeming the same. It becomes familiar, almost bland. Canadian comedian/writer Pat Kelly does a wonderful parody TED talk that hits all the right notes, and has you laughing and cringing at the same time. I just did a TED-style talk (video coming soon!), so I understand the temptation to fall back on the tried-and-true formula. But once you start relying on something so predictable, you dilute its importance. Even if it was once valid or original. Kind of like "passionate" and "passion." Think about it: if there really were as many people who were passionate about saving the planet as you hear on TED talks alone, we would have solved all earth's problems by now.

As I tell my students, there is one surefire way to avoid being a cliché: Don't use them!