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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

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!


What is authentic "authenticity"?

I had to laugh when I read Adam Grant's article in the New York Times last week: "Unless You're Oprah, 'Be Yourself' is Terrible Advice."  I have said the same thing to countless clients-- really? Do you truly think "being yourself" is such a good idea? But "authenticity" remains a buzzword. It is almost as if being "authentic" has become a sort of magic wand. Or Holy Grail.

When clients ask me to help them be more authentic, I ask what that means. I receive a wide variety of definitions. So I define it, and we get to work. Actually, I define authentic presence--that confident place where you embody a relaxed energy that gets your message across in a dynamic, memorable way. Because that's what they really want. It's not quite the same thing as "being yourself," especially if you are a "low self-monitor" (as Adam Grant would say) who does not filter much of your inner life.

I teach my clients strategies for recognizing where their presence lies, how to access it, and how to consistently project it. Of course the route to each person's authenticity is specific, but there are some general rules. Practicing proper breathing and posture is essential, as is the understanding that speaking is a physical activity. Then you can get out of your head and into your body, which is where you need to be to convey presence. And when you do that, your authenticity falls into place. You are projecting your best self: in control but not pushy, focused but not self-centered. You are confidently sharing what is important to you with others, yet remain open to their ideas, ready to listen and truly connect.

The opposite of this is false presence. And false presence is pretense. It takes more mental effort to maintain a seamless pretense than most people (professionally-trained actors excluded) are capable of sustaining. And of course, there is the default--no presence--which is what may people project. It's not that they are being inauthentic, it's just that their sense of authenticity is submerged and imperceptible to the listener or audience. The professional term for these people is "boring," and they break the second rule of effective communications (the first is "know your audience," btw).

The good news is that everyone has authentic presence to discover and use. Just don't confuse it with unfiltered bouts of "being yourself."



Studying the script

Lately my work has been running along two separate but parallel tracks: coaching clients to be more effective and dynamic speakers who can communicate their authentic leadership, and writing (and rewriting) my latest play. That script is really taking off, and I will blog more about it later on. But for now I wanted to share something that struck me particularly this week as I was toggling back and forth between these two worlds.

In my play, I carefully craft dialogue to reflect what the characters are thinking, and what it is they are trying to communicate, as well as what they are trying to hide. This necessitates being omniscient--knowing what they know, what they are aware of, and what they are unaware of.  So, as you can imagine, when my characters speak there is a lot of pausing, as well as unfinished sentences, interrupting, phrases that are imprecise followed by a "you know what I mean." Because on an intimate level, true interpersonal communication happens in the subtext, the feeling underlying what is said and not said. In fact, often the most important words are left unspoken (for a master of this, see anything by playwright Harold Pinter). The playwright uses this tool to reveal that a character is inarticulate, or does not understand, or cannot utter to words because they are too fraught.

All this is to say, though playwrights craft their characters' speech to reveal certain aspects of character to the audience, the characters themselves may be at a loss for words. Or they are speaking spontaneously, reacting to what has been said to them. Often the act of speaking itself is a sort of connection-making that says much more about them and their relationship to their conversation partner than the actual words do.  Just like in real life! When we are engaged in private speech, that is.

So when I work with my students and clients on public speaking,  I advise them to do the opposite of what my characters do. Since public speech, broadly defined, can be any type of speaking you engage in when you are not with your "nearest and dearest," it cannot be anything like the private speech I conjure up for my characters. In public speech, the words you say matter very much. You cannot afford to be inarticulate, or skirt the issue or leave things unsaid. You can get into huge trouble if you  assume the listener can fill in the blanks. You must plan what you need to say, choose the best, clearest, least ambiguous way to say it, and then be ready to listen to what your conversation partner has to say as a way of furthering dialogue. Avoid the very human temptation to slip into the private conversational gambit of impromptu chit-chatting. You will reveal more than you intend!

The soundness of this advice has been proven to me and my clients time and again, and yet it is still occasionally met with resistance. Those who resist are generally the less experienced communicators who know they need help and so come to work with me. The other big bucket of naysayers are old-school top-of-the-heap blowhards who would never work with me in a million years. Somehow, when they find out what I do, they always feel compelled to brag about their excellent, spontaneous, loose, off-the-cuff communications style. They are lousy speakers, but since they are insulated from real scrutiny due to their positions (this is Washington, D.C., after all) no one ever tells them. Perhaps I will put them in a play someday; they are very entertaining!



Better living through chemistry?

Recently, I was asked what I thought about the use of beta blockers to relieve speaking anxiety. I have to admit I was taken aback. I've known for a while that these drugs have been used by professional musicians to combat performance anxiety, though that is not a common practice. It is, however, controversial. But I had never been asked about use of these drugs for regular speaking-in-public situations! As someone who helps people overcome "speakers' nerves" on a pretty regular basis, I know that some sort of stage fright is absolutely normal. As a professionally trained actor, I am quite familiar with the concept. Yet I don't think I know any actors who rely on this sort of help. We all get attacks of nerves before going onstage, but part of our training is devoted to developing strategies for working through those anxieties. Most of us use some combination of yoga, breathing exercises, backstage rituals, and of course, rehearsal, to get us where we need to be so we don't keel over when the stage manager calls "places!"

It seems a growing number of doctors are prescribing drugs such as propranolol (which treats heart and circulatory conditions) "off label" to patients with speaking anxiety. Before I looked into this, I thought, well maybe this is a relatively harmless little pill, a way to "take the edge off" before a speech. When I looked up propranolol, though, I found it is a pretty heavy-duty drug. If you take it, you have to avoid alcohol, as well as anti-depressants, and NSAIDS (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc). And of course there are side effects! Now, I am sure there may be some people who have such severe anxiety they do need drugs to help with this, but my hope is they are seeing a mental health professional and getting the support they need that way.

I am not a doctor (thought I did play a nurse on TV!), but I do know that if a particular use of a drug is not approved by the FDA there is usually a reason. This article in The Washington Post summarizes the arguments more succinctly than I can. But the bottom line is, feeling nervous when standing before strangers is not a medical "condition." It is a human condition, one that we all feel. Don't fall into the trap of medicalizing something you can train yourself to deal with. People who tell me about their performance anxiety seem to think this is some terrible affliction peculiar to them, when what they describe to me is what any actor feels on preview night.That adrenaline jolt is normal, and useful to an extent. If you have anxiety it means your body is doing what it is supposed to do: reacting to stress. If you want to control the effects of that anxiety, there are plenty of non-pharmaceutical ways to do so--that even allow you to take a celebratory drink after the curtain falls!