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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Comfortable in her own skin

One thing was crystal clear to me as I watched the first presidential debate on September 26th: only one of the candidates was comfortable in her own skin! Hillary kept cool, and expressed her feelings with a secret smile, which seemed to serve as protective armor (the "go to your happy place" technique most women are all too familiar with), and an expression of genuine glee ("all that studying paid off!"). She must have decided to control what she could, and not waste energy worrying about anything she couldn't--like her unpredictable opponent. She maintained her composure and spoke in a relaxed tone of voice, and looked like she felt centered, grounded and as calm as possibe under the glare of those lights. She had, as we say in acting, an objective: something you want to/need to accomplish in the course of a given scene. She made reaching that objective her goal--regardless of her obstacle.

Donald, on the other hand, reminded me of insecure beginning acting students who flash "aren't I great?" looks at the instructor and classmates because they know they have no idea what to do. But they hope their false confidence can hoodwink the audience. The technical term for such a person is "show-off." I think Donald falls into that category, though he thinks of himself as a showman. His "technique" consists of riffing off what his audience gives him. Since he has so little in the way of a coherent message, he depends on their response to guide him, claiming that "off the cuff" is more authentic. (You know what I say about that.) That approach might work for a well-trained improv performer, but not Donald. He's a mediocre showman, at best. And when he is out on a tightrope without the net of audience cheers, he has no center to help him keep his balance. His energy is all outward-focused; he pushes his message at his audience. And when he can't tell if it's connecting, as we saw in the first debate, he has no inner resources to fall back on. Because there is no real objective beyond basking in the crowd's adulation.

The next debate on October 9th is town hall-style. This will be fascinating because Donald will assume he can nail it. But this will be no rally of Trumpers. And it will be moderated. The intimate setting will reveal who is most comfortable in their own skin, who has integrated their message into their very being. Barack Obama, I recall, did an extremely good job of playing to the audience in his 2008 Town Hall. That is where I first noticed he was ambidextrously handling the microphone, so he could gesture inclusively to the entire audience surrounding him. Not an easy thing to do, and one that would not even be on most candidate's radar. But non-verbal connection is important. So if Hillary can keep up her relaxed focus, she'll have an even better time in that informal setting than she did behind the podium. And Donald? He'll shout and stomp, rail and rage. He'd better be careful, though, or he might fall off the tightrope!


Tone policing: Vinegar vs. Honey 

Long before it had a name, I was the victim of "tone policing." I was outspoken, but I was also a good girl, so I often swallowed my anger or frustration and heeded the advice to "calm down," and "lower your voice." I got used to having expression of my feelings negated in this way by authority figures of all kinds. But I never got used to it and I never liked it!

I could write a book on how power has been wielded against me in this way by those who felt my speech threatened their privileged worldview.  So much that they were justified in silencing me. And this has not been just my experience! Our screens are exploding with examples of that behavior now, on TV, on social media, as well as in the press. Black Lives Matter activists are being told, as they express their quite justified anger, that they won't be listened to until they can "be more reasonable." Transgender allies are being shut out of conversations because they dare to raise their voices in protest of ridiculous "bathroom bills" or police brutality.

Then there is the other side of the coin. The spurious argument about infringement of free speech rights. Supporters of the outlandish candidate for president spew repugnant falsehoods, then turn around and accuse those attempting to engage in civil dialogue of trampling their free speech rights. But calling someone out on hate speech is never wrong. Bigots, racists, homophobes and haters of all kinds do not see it this way; their blindness on the issue is a large part of their problem.

No, shutting down the hate is not tone policing. Tone policing hinges on power imbalance. Assumptions of superiority couple with the fear of losing undeserved privilege and result in reflexive silencing of those who would challenge that privilege. So when the marginalized lash out at their oppressors, the oppressors duck the issue by saying "I can't talk to you; you're too upset!" or "I can't hear what she is saying because she is too shrill!" Or, my personal favorite, the dismissal disguised as "friendly advice" from a gatekeeping stranger: "you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, sweetie."

All these arguments are spurious. People who are angry need to be listened to, not ignored because they aren't using your preferred vocabulary with the correct tone at an acceptable time. Anyone who has successfully raised a child can tell you that! The sooner you address their grievance, the better for all of us. It is a problem-solving short-cut, the most effective one anybody has come up with. So even if the only strife you encounter is in your home or office, be aware that silencing people in this way will only make things worse.

Oh, and by the way--I just had to trap a bunch of fruit flies hanging around my kitchen and guess what? My jar of vinegar caught dozens. And the honey? Not a one!


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.