Think Your Voice Sounds Weird? Here’s Why.

If you’re like most people, when you hear yourself on a recording, your first thought is, “Oh my gosh, that’s not really what I sound like, is it?” The short answer is: yup, that’s you. Here’s a bit of insight as to why, and a few tips to make sure you sound your best, no matter what kind of voice you have.

Whether or not you generally like the sound of your voice as you’re speaking, it’s true that what you hear in that moment is different from what everyone else hears. That’s because you’re listening through two different mechanisms.

When you are listening to someone else, the “input” goes in your ear, hits the ear drum, and sends vibrations through the inner ear canal, which the auditory nerve takes up to the brain for interpretation. This is also how it works when you’re listening to yourself on a recording, which is like listening to another person.

On the flip side, when you speak, of course your own words come out your mouth and the sound goes into your ear for the same process we just discussed, but that’s only half of the input.

The other half is that when you speak, air comes up from your lungs through your throat and vibrates through your vocal cords, the “source” of your voice. But then those vibrations also ricochet off the muscles in your throat and mouth, in your nasal cavity, and create residual vibrations that hit the bones in your neck and head as well, sending their own pulses to the brain.

In essence, when you listen to someone else or a recording of yourself, you’re listening in “mono-sound,” or single track. But when you listen to yourself while you’re speaking, you’re listening in “stereo” or “surround-sound,” with a much fuller, richer sound.

It’s that “stereo” input through multiple channels that makes your real-time voice sound fuller, richer, more resonant. In other words, listening to yourself on a recording takes away half of your stereo input that you think your voice sounds rather tinny, thin, maybe even higher pitched. That why you probably feel like your voice not only sounds different on a recording, but that on the recording it sounds worse than you expected

So how can you ensure that everyone hears your best, most melodic voice? Here’s three quick tips that will help them hear your ideal sound.

First, hydrate. Make sure you drink enough water, because a dry throat, dry mouth and tired throat muscles don’t allow sound to flow easily. The “fine print” to this is that it also means you should limit caffeine (*gasp!*) prior to an important speaking opportunity, because caffeine is a diuretic that makes the problem worse. Caffeine dehydrates the throat and vocal cords, making you voice dry and scratchy, and making you cough or clear your throat over and over. Trust me, you don’t need the caffeine; if the meeting or presentation is that important, your adrenaline will carry you through with energy to spare.

Second, limit dairy. You’ve probably heard similar advice when you have a cold or allergies, and the rationale is the same: dairy produces mucous, which is what you’re trying to eliminate when you’re sick, and also when you need a nice, clear voice. Mucous gives you that sensation of perpetually needing to clear your throat as well, which is an annoying habit to hear time and again in any speech, presentation or conversation.

Lastly, breathe! The way you breathe will directly affect the quality of your voice. Start with your posture. If you’re slouched in your chair, you limit the amount of air you can take in, which is the fuel for your voice. And as you run out of air, it “fries out,” with a frog-like, croaky sound. Some people also ramble on and on without taking a breath for fear that if they do, someone will jump in during that split second and cut them off. Once the air is mostly gone, if you keep on talking, that same vocal “fry” will creep in again.

If you can’t imagine what that sounds like, try this: recite the alphabet, but do it all in one breath; if you get to Z just start over again at A until you absolutely can’t squeeze out another letter. What does your voice sound like in those last few letters? That’s vocal fry.

Why does this matter? Because not only is it unpleasant and even annoying to listen to, but it sounds insecure, timid, and hesitant, which is a combo that connotes anything but leadership.

The lesson is that you need to remember to take a deep breath at the end – and often in the middle – of a sentence to re-fuel, so that your voice sounds as clear and strong at the end as it did in the beginning of a sentence.

So remember: Drink water, limit caffeine and dairy before speaking, and remember to take enough breaths while you’re speaking. This allows you to maximize the fullness of your tone, so the voice you hear in your head more accurately reflects the voice that everyone else hears when they listen to you… and that’s a voice the projects confidence, control, poise and power.

Who doesn’t like the sound of that?

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Storytelling Lessons From Pixar

When I’m working with clients on their public speaking and presentation skills, one of the more common questions I get is, “I keep hearing that I’m supposed to tell stories, but where do you get your stories? I’m not a storyteller. How do you find them, and how do you know when to use them?”

There are lots of places where a well-timed, well-honed anecdote will be far more compelling than a dry, technical explanation.

You could use a story to describe your experience with other satisfied clients, sharing their problem, your methods, solutions, and their return on investments.

You could use a story to create a hypothetical picture of what might happen down the line if someone does or does not use a particular product or service.

You could use a story to draw an analogy, ideally something that happened to you, that can be used as an icebreaker or as a parallel or segue for the rest of what you want to talk about.

But what story should you use? That’s often the sticking question for many people. If only it was as easy as taking ideas from movies, but we can’t do that… or can we?

There’s little question in anyone’s mind that if you’re looking for entertainment, a little escapism, and a combination of laughter and tugging on your heartstrings, Pixar is an easy go-to. Their movies are made for children but in a way that adults get just as much enjoyment. And that’s particularly important if you have a kid at home who insists on watching Toy Story over and over (and over) again.

But now Pixar has become a resource on a whole new level: they’re actually offering virtual classes on the art of storytelling.

Pixar has teamed up with Kahn Academy to create a program called “Pixar in a Box,” offering a range of different creative training programs, and the newest series is “The Art of Storytelling.” While their short, interactive videos, transcripts, lesson plan and activity sequences are typically aiming for those in more entertainment-oriented industries, the exercises are great mind-openers to concepts and strategies that are very applicable in the corporate world.

The concept of using storytelling in presentations and the like is not new, although it certainly has become more popular in recent years. Pixar’s take on it gives it a new spin, along with a step-by-step tutorial on how to build a story that has impact. While you may not be looking to create a 90-minute animated comedy feature film like Inside Out, figuring out how to use these strategies to weave compelling and persuasive anecdotes into your presentations, discussions, and other exchanges is a true skill worth developing.

The key is about bringing information to life. It’s about painting pictures for the listener in a way that helps them personally relate to the topic at hand, where they can visualize what you describe, imagine smells and textures, and empathetically feel the emotions you want to evoke. If you’ve ever watched a Pixar film, you know they are the masters at this. (And if you have never seen a Pixar movie, that’s your first homework assignment this weekend! Try Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc.)

Sometimes you know a story would be valuable, but aren’t sure where to start. Alternatively, I hear many people describing a situation that has the potential to be a good story, but inevitably degenerates into a rambling spiral of tangents and unnecessary detail so as to be counter-productive to the speaker’s purpose. This short series, full of animated videos tutorials with exercises that you can complete in five minutes or an hour as you like, is a great way to start with a clean slate, get your bearings and productively move down a well-lit path to figuring out how to craft a story that will achieve the impact you want to have on your listeners.

Do you need to go through all of the lessons like how to do storyboarding? Maybe not, but you never know! Maybe it will give you ideas for how to direct your IT department or graphics department on what kind of visuals you want in your slide deck. Or maybe it will get your creative juices flowing to help get you unstuck by doing different kinds of pencil sketches for 30 seconds instead of trying to compose in a linear format when you don’t know where to start and the blinking cursor is just staring at you on the screen.

The nice part is that you can skip any pieces you don’t feel like exploring and jump around to the parts that peak your interest. The series is currently under construction but the first lesson is already available.

So go ahead, at your next lunch break, take a peek, watch one of their videos (each one is just a couple of minutes long) and play with an exercise or two just to see what it stimulates in your mind and on the paper. You may just find you’re a natural storyteller after all!

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

The New Year’s Resolution You Want To Keep

If you’re like me, you probably hate making new year’s resolutions. They are something we do out of some traditional obligation, knowing full well that we won’t stick with it for more than a day or two at best. Then, to make matters worse, there’s a predictable little twinge of guilt for falling off the wagon, since resolutions are supposed to make us better people, somehow. Enough. I want to make this year different.

Decide for yourself that this year, the resolution will be about others rather than about you. Specifically, take an honest look at your relationships and the nature of your communication patterns with those people. Is there something about your collective dynamic that compels you to be excessively blunt, passive-aggressive, or indifferent? Do you shut down to avoid confrontation? This year, let your resolution be a gift to them – and to yourself: a shift in the way that you communicate, and, as a result, the start of a new, healthier and more positive relationship.

Here are three ways you can wrap your gift:

First, beware of what your eyes say, regardless of what comes from your lips. Even if you don’t say a word, you may not realize that your face is projecting your true opinions about what the other person is saying.

For example, do you roll your eyes, look away, or cock a single dubious eyebrow if you disagree with someone? These micro-expressions are signs of disdain, and convey the message loud and clear that you are not open to hearing what they are saying. It’s a sure-fire way to put people on the defensive.

Personally, I realized several years ago that when I’m concentrating on something, my eyebrows furrow. It doesn’t mean I’m angry or disagree at all, but that’s often how people misinterpret my “thinking face”. Ironically, they should be happy when I do that, because it means I’m truly listening and contemplating what they say. So it’s my responsibility to remember to “reset” my eyebrows to a more neutral, nonthreatening position.

If nothing else, be sure to make eye contact when someone else is talking. Resist the urge to multitask; don’t look at your computer or smartphone. Give them the gift of your full attention. At the start of a meeting – formal or informal, suggest that you both leave your phones off the table until you’re done. It might feel counterintuitive, and even counter-cultural, but the respect will be felt by everyone there.

Second, watch your choice of words. Small details in word choice can have a big impact on how people interpret what you say, and how they feel about it as a result. Try to avoid using absolutes, such as everything, never, everyone, nobody, and always… Statements like “Everybody thinks it’s a bad idea,” or “There’s nothing you can say that will convince me that…” show that you are not willing to listen, and that you think you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Moreover, they are a form of exaggeration, and exaggeration is melodramatic. Nobody likes to work with the “drama queen/king.”

Instead, to promote mutual listening, try hedging those statements. Try phrases like from where I stand …, on several occasions…, or It concerns me when … You can still clearly state your case, but it acknowledges that you are sharing your perspective, not claiming it to be “gospel truth.” It shows you are open to working together. Avoiding absolutes and related melodrama promotes productive conversation, and achieving a mutually acceptable solution.

Finally, engage people. We’re all busy, so I’m not saying you have to listen to someone’s life story, but make an effort to connect with them as individuals, not just as coworkers or employees. For example, when you’re walking down the hall or waiting for the elevator, don’t just give them the perfunctory nod that acknowledges their existence. Say hello and ask a simple question that shows interest in them personally. Is the company going to be closed for a holiday? Ask if they have plans for the time off. If they have pets or children, ask how they’re doing. It’s not forced “small talk” if it’s sincere. Just remember: a little effort goes a long way.

But you know what the greatest beauty of these tips is? The effort they require is a drop in the bucket compared to what you get back, so it becomes the resolution that you can – and actually want – to keep!

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Do you have a comment or question about how to comfortably and easily make this resolution? Click here to set up a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally.

Networking with Confidence and Purpose

I am constantly surprised by how often I’m working with clients and the issue of networking comes up. In all the coaching – and group training – I’ve done around this issue, I’ve noticed that, broadly, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who enjoy networking and those who loathe it. But there is one thing both groups have in common: most people don’t feel like they get much out of the experience beyond a glass of wine or beer and a handful of business cards from people they’ll probably never see again.

There’s something sadly ironic in the fact that children trade Pokemon cards with more enthusiasm than most adults exchange business cards while networking. But I think the key is that the children go into the exchange with two things that most adults lack in the scenario: confidence and purpose.

Networking with Purpose

When you attend a networking event, why do you go? Do you enjoy the social interaction? Is it merely on the agenda for the conference you’re attending so you’re just following the schedule? Did a colleague drag you along as a “wingman”? Alternatively, maybe you’ve been more “task-oriented,” and told yourself you have to meet three new people and then you’re allowed to leave.

Ultimately, whether positive or negative in feeling, none of these approaches make networking valuable. So how can you make networking a useful and positive experience… and do it with comfort and confidence?

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Networking is simply planting the seeds for a new relationship. It doesn’t have to result in an immediate financial transaction, but the purpose is to meet someone that you can then build a long-term relationship with.

The key is that you never know when there will be a reason for you to contact them – or for them to contact you. Maybe you’ll read an article that you think they’ll appreciate and you send them a link. Maybe you’ll look through their contact list on LinkedIn and see someone you’d like them to introduce you to. Or maybe they are chatting with someone else at another networking event a month later who just so happens to need your services, and they can make the introduction.

There’s a terrific book called The Go-Giver that epitomizes this perspective. It’s an easy read in parable form that you can skim in a weekend, and will clarify both how to do it and why.

Networking with Confidence

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest stumbling blocks people face is not why they should talk to someone, but simply the mechanics of how to start the conversation.

First, it’s important to distinguish the difference between networking and small talk. I just had a conversation with a client earlier this week in which she shared that she dreaded an upcoming event and said, “I just don’t’ know how to make small talk all night.” When I suggested that small talk wasn’t required at all, she stared blankly at me for a moment before asking, “Aren’t networking and small talk the same thing? What’s the difference?”

“Small talk” is simply a communication tool used to break the ice, and initiate conversation with someone new. It can be something as mundane as the weather or how slow the elevator is, to a more organic offering like a compliment regarding someone shoes or tie, or asking what brought someone to the event, or what they thought of the event’s speaker.

Once we’re a couple of sentences in, I simply segue with, “By the way, I’m Laura.” Then I can ask more about them, and see where the conversation takes us.

In case you’re still hesitant, here’s a secret: the vast majority of people there feel as uncomfortable as you do about networking! They are unsure of whom to approach or how to start the conversation, and are hoping someone will take the first step for them. If you do them that favor, they’re already grateful to you, and that’s a great way to start a relationship.

When you look at networking from this perspective, without the pressure of collecting a certain number of business cards, forcing two hours of small talk or closing a deal, it is almost certain that you will find opportunities for future benefits, and even learn to enjoy yourself in the process.

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

The Missing Link in Mentoring

“Do me a favor and stop bringing her into these meetings; I can’t stand the sound of her voice.”

My jaw dropped when my aunt, a retired VP from a major mortgage lender, recounted this instruction she received from her senior boss, pertaining to one of her employees, many years ago.

“What did you do?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Nothing. I was so surprised when he said it – I hadn’t noticed anything particularly offensive about her voice myself – and he wasn’t exactly the ‘warm fuzzy type,’ so I just said okay. I didn’t know how to tell her, and I wouldn’t have known where to begin to help her, so that was that,” she said, remorsefully.

Looking back, it is painful to think about how that one split-second exchange altered the course of that woman’s career, salary, and life. All the meetings, insights, connections and opportunities she missed; the possible promotions and salary increases and bonuses she never received. And she never knew why, or was given the chance to fix the perceived problem and grow.

Mentorship, sponsorship, advocacy… call it what you will, but it needs to go beyond the perfunctory semi-annual or quarterly meeting to discuss career goals. For most people in that kind of relationship, it probably does, but does it extend to seeking, offering or accepting guidance on the way someone speaks? This is a huge factor in developing executive presence. Short of generally suggesting that someone work on his or her communication skills as is commonly referenced on the annual review, leadership communication tends to be a major missing link.

So what are some of the things to look for in the leadership communication skills in your mentee, and how can you help them work on those areas?

Communication Skills to Look For

Let’s start with content. When presenting information to senior leadership, employees frequently tend to provide too much detail – or “get lost in the weeds,” as they say. Remind them that it’s okay to get right to the point, justifying later as necessary or allow the audience to ask for more detail. Reassure them that they’ve been given the opportunity to present this work because they already have the benefit of the doubt that they are qualified and capable, and their results are trustworthy.

Getting more into the delivery, the ability to show poise and “grace under fire” are often demonstrated by how they control the pace of their speech. Whether they are talking for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, does it sound like one giant run-on sentence? When speakers can articulate their thoughts in finite sentences, much as they can when writing, they sound more in control.

Even if they are fast talkers, something as simple as remembering to pause, just for a second after each point, allows the listeners’ brains to catch up with their ears and digest the last point. Then the speaker can lead everyone ahead to the next point, together.

Along with adding that pause between sentences, “vocal punctuation” is equally important to sounding authoritative, and helping the listener understand when a sentence begins and ends. A problem in this area is that modern social patterns have popularized a bad habit known as “up-speak” or “up-talk,” which is where people sound like they’re always asking a question? At the ends of all their phrases and sentences? Even when they’re not? Which sounds insecure? And gets really annoying, you know?

The irony is that most people don’t realize when they do it – and it is just as prevalent in men as in women, and in Baby Boomers as in Millennials, contrary to popular belief. There may be variations, but it still has the same effect of sounding like the person is just droning on and on. Awareness of vocal tonality and the ability to control it is critical to making your desired impact when you speak.

So if you are mentoring someone, formally or informally, start listening for some of these patterns. Neglecting to address these issues can undermine all the helpful and well-intended guidance you are otherwise offering.

And if you really want to challenge yourself, start checking your own speech patterns; are you following the recommendations, or are you guilty of some of the pitfalls? Taking stock of your own good and bad speech habits and taking steps to improve the effectiveness of your own leadership communication is mentoring by example.

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Do you have trouble determining which of these patterns or others are negatively influencing someone’s image or reputation? Are you unsure of how to talk to them about it, or how to help them improve? Or do you have other questions or feedback about this issue? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!

The 4-Word Secret to Confident Public Speaking

I work with a lot of clients on a wide variety of skill sets. For many, the primary focus is public speaking. The story is common: You’re confident in front of your team, but when you have to speak to larger groups, especially to high-stakes audiences or groups of people you don’t know as well, your heart races, your face turns red, palms sweat, and all sorts of self-defeating “what if” scenarios circulate through your mind.

What if I forget what I wanted to say?
What if I make a mistake?
What if they don’t like me?
What if I don’t come across as an expert?
What if they ask a question I can’t answer?

These self-defeating questions are what is referred to as “head trash.” It will pile up, fester, and become overwhelming unless you take action to get rid of it and replace it with something more productive.

When talking to one particular client whose head trash was getting the best of her, I said: “I’m going to tell you a secret that will change everything and help you speak with complete confidence. It’s just four little words. I want you to write them down in big letters, and tape the message to your computer, bathroom mirror, laptop, door or anywhere you’ll see it regularly. Will you do that?”

“Yes,” she agreed, and grabbed her pen.

Then I told her the secret: “IT’S…NOT… ABOUT… YOU.”

She wrote it down, then stared at it, processing its meaning.

“Here’s the key,” I continued. When you present, you’re focus needs to be on customer service. It is your primary responsibility to ensure that the audience has the best experience possible. Do you love your topic or at least think it’s really important? Share that passion with them, and help them understand it.

“Eye contact is your friend. Each person there wants to feel like you’re talking to them personally. Look at each person, all around the room, to let them know that they matter to you, and make them feel like they’re part of the event.”

She was digesting what I was telling her, so I continued. “When you go to hear a speaker, do you sit there critiquing them the whole time, hoping to catch a mistake? Of course not. If they make lots of mistakes or flounder, that makes everyone uncomfortable. You’re just hoping that they’ll be interesting and give you some important information to make it worth your while to have shown up. You are rooting for their success, because if they do well, you’ll have a good experience, which is what you really want in the end. That’s exactly what your audience is hoping for too.”

She was quiet for a moment, so I asked, “How do you feel about that?”

“Honestly?” she said, “As soon as you said it’s not about me, I felt instantly relieved. I can focus on taking care of the audience, because it is important that they feel like they learned something important. Then it’s not about performance perfection, whatever that means. Suddenly, it all seems like a very reachable goal. I know I can do this.”

So take out your “head trash,” and focus on serving your audience. You can start with thinking about what kind of speaker you’d want to listen to if you were in audience, and then work on letting those qualities shine through. Put the audience first, and you’re guaranteed to feel confident and be successful..

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Does your head trash get in your way of being a powerful, confident public speaker? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

The Value of Vulnerability

Showing vulnerability in order to show strength is an irony many leaders have a hard time grasping.

Naturally, it is important – albeit sometimes difficult – to be vulnerable in our personal relationships. A certain degree of vulnerability is necessary for love and intimacy to be possible. But it is equally as important in developing our professional relationships as well.

I had a client who, as head of the department, was told by her supervisor that she needed to let people get to know her better in order to strengthen team chemistry and trust. For someone whose primary motivation had been to avoid any potential of being seen as “weak,” this was daunting.

“How can I open up to them? I don’t know if I can trust them to see that side of me,” she said.

I replied, “My guess is that they probably feel the same about you. But here’s the thing: When two people each need to receive trust before they’re willing to give it, there’s a stalemate. Eventually, one person has to take the first step, giving the other person the opportunity to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. That unlocks the door to change.”

I’m not saying you have to give them your bank account number and password. Sometimes it’s about laughing at yourself, or letting them know that you’re swamped and need their assistance.

Last week I got a frantic email from a client asking to have a strategy call the next morning before a high-stakes meeting that had just been organized. I wanted to help, but had a logistical challenge, so I told her the truth in full transparency: the only time I could squeeze her in the next morning was 9am, but I would be in ‘mommy mode’ at that time, since I had to take my son for a pediatric checkup at 10, and wouldn’t have childcare at that time. I couldn’t predict what mood he’d be in or how much he would interrupt, but I was willing to give it a try if she was.

Without hesitating, she said, “I’ll take it.”

So at 9am the video call comes in via FaceTime, as usual, but this time I answered in a t-shirt and jeans with my hair pulled back. I hoped she wouldn’t be distracted by my casual appearance. “I think we’re safe – he’s in his highchair and I’m feeding him breakfast, so he’s busy and happy for a while,” I told her.

My willingness to be vulnerable by letting my client see me this way was immediately rewarded.

“Oh, is he there? Can you turn the camera? I’d love to see him.”

I re-angled the camera so my client was face-to-face with the big blue eyes of my son. He stared back at her, curious about face on the screen. And then this high-powered CFO of a multi-billion-dollar company did the best thing possible: she launched straight into full-scale “peek-a-boo” mode.

My son’s face lit up immediately, and he squealed with laughter as played with him. After a moment or two I finally turned the phone back so we could get on with our meeting – and my son’s breakfast. She sighed with a big smile, and said, “That was the perfect antidote to the morning I’ve already had, thank you!”

From there we shifted gears and got down to business. We had each let down our guard with the other and I am sure that we would agree that the experience further strengthened our bond, both personally and professionally.

So once in a while, take a little chance: (metaphorically) play a bit of “peek-a-boo,” and let them see you.

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Do you have other questions or feedback about vulnerability and leadership? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!

David, Goliath and the Investor Pitch

At some point or other, we all find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, and even feeling like we are out of our league. Nowhere is this more prevalent than when pitching a business, product or idea, and the little voice inside our head says, “Am I good enough? Do I belong here? Will I meet their expectations? Can I persuade them?” Today I want to share with you how one person rose to the task and showed everyone that he deserved a seat at the table, and was playing to win.

A favorite part of my job is helping people tell their stories in a compelling way, and the business pitch is a high-stakes platform where you only have one chance to do it. I had the distinct honor and pleasure of coaching five Hero Club entrepreneurs in preparation for their pitch at the C-Suite Network Investors Summit in San Jose on September 11-12th. All five CEOs were terrific, but in retrospect, one pitch stood out from the rest, and offered a lesson about overcoming the odds and expectations, and why you should never underestimate anyone – including yourself.

David Williams is the CEO and superintendent of Village Tech Charter Schools in Cedar Hill, Texas, just outside of Dallas. More than one person I spoke to afterwards confirmed that they had wondered why a non-profit, specifically a Pre-K – 12 school, was pitching in Silicon Valley. Privately, they had wondered if it was something of a charity case, like when the older siblings decide to let the little one play with them, even though they have minimal expectations. David himself later confessed to having similar concerns leading up to the event.

David is not alone. How many times have you anticipated an event or opportunity with trepidation, based on feelings or concerns of inadequacy, of not belonging? Sometimes there’s a bit of the “Imposter Syndrome” that creeps in. David had to prove to himself and everyone else that he was a much of a leader in the business world as in the academic realm.

To David’s credit, he rose to meet this Goliath. He knew what was at stake, and his motivation was focusing on how important it was for his company, his school, his people and his community.

One of the most common areas where people tend to fall short is in being able to adjust your message so that the right points get across to the right audience: a critical factor in the art of persuasion. In this case, David’s challenge was making the shift from “teacher” mode to “business executive” mode.

His favorite stories of children’s heartwarming experiences and funny comments will successfully imply all sorts of information about the success of a program when speaking to a room full of teachers. But to a room of business executives and investors, those stories are just the sprinkles on the sundae: added for a little color and sweetness, but of minimal substance. We had to shift the focus to problems and solutions, to data and dollars – a philosophical shift that makes most teachers’ stomachs churn with disdain. And the whole thing had to be done in eight minutes.

We found ways to use a couple of anecdotes to personalize his statistics, and humanized the call to action, which helped him make this critical shift while remaining completely authentic, and true to himself.

Although many investors there weren’t interested in adding a brick-and-mortar enterprise to their portfolios, it was clear by the end that David’s pitch was the crowd favorite. The little non-profit venture had set the bar for what everyone else believed an investor pitch should look and sound like. He had succeeded in earning the personal and professional respect of everyone there, as evidenced by a comment I heard come from several people’s lips with genuine admiration that day: “He killed it.”

The moral of the story is not to let yourself be intimidated by your “Goliath.” Even when you feel like you’re out of your element – or even your league – seek whatever guidance you need, and play to win.

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Are you preparing a pitch, or do you have questions about another critical presentation? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!

Do you hold yourself back from success?

“Whenever I’m in a meeting and I think of a question or comment, I end up arguing with myself about whether or not to say it… then five minutes later someone else says what I’m thinking, and it leads to a great discussion. I could kick myself when that happens!”

This is a challenge described by many of my clients, both men and women alike, and it stems from a lack of confidence on a variety of possible levels. But regardless of the origin, the outcome is the same: you hold yourself back from being recognized for your insights, expertise and overall value to the team.

So why does this happen, and what can you do about it?

The late, great sales guru, Zig Ziglar, had a great saying that has stuck with me from the first time I read it in one of his books many years ago. He said that you have to ask yourself, “Is your fear of failure greater than your desire to succeed?”

That hit me right between the eyes.

The short answer is that, for people who typically hold back as described above, their default answer, often subconsciously, is a resounding “YES.” That’s why they hold back.

At times, we all have doubts, and frankly there are some people who could stand to filter their thoughts and hold back a bit more from time to time instead of blurting out everything that comes to mind. But that’s an issue for another post.

What is most powerful to me is the thought process you inevitably go through if you actually ask yourself that question when you find yourself holding back. And if you’re someone who holds back more often than not, you need to do it. That’s because it actually leads to two deeper and more concrete questions to help you regain confidence and take action:

The first is, how would you define “failure” in that situation, and what’s the worst thing that could happen if you did “fail”? Does failure mean that people ignored what you said because they thought it wasn’t important? Maybe it means you could make a mistake, share wrong information or demonstrate ignorance. And what would be the repercussions of one of those situations? I highly doubt that you could lose your job, be removed from the project or account, get chastised in pubic, take a major hit to your reputation, or die of embarrassment. More likely, the worst that would happen is that you might get corrected in public. You’ve certainly heard others make contributions that were not received with open arms; what happened to them? Most likely, nothing.

The second key question is, how would you define “success” in the same context? Of course, you wouldn’t expect the boss to throw a party or give you an immediate raise; success could be simply a matter of knowing you made a valuable contribution to the discussion. Maybe your idea provides a critical piece that will help the group to problem-solve more efficiently. What is certain, in the success context, is that you show yourself to be a valuable, proactive member of a team, and it might put you on someone’s radar, in the good way.

Also, remember that those best and worst case scenarios are based on you actually speaking up. A third question that gets overlooked is, “What is the effect of silence on my part?” Again, holding back judiciously from time to time is probably appreciated by most people. But when your reputation in those meetings is of someone who is non-participatory, playing it “safe” and hiding in self-defense mode unless forced to speak, is that really the leadership image you want to create?

And just in case you were about to play the “introvert” card, stop right there. That excuse won’t work. Introversion is not about fear of public speaking, confidence or general shyness. It’s about how you get energized, and what takes energy from you. Don’t mistake being an introvert – assuming you genuinely are one – with being hesitant to ask a question or offer a comment in a team meeting.

So the next time you recognize that you are holding back, do two things: First, decide what you want your leadership reputation to be. Then ask yourself: “Is my fear of failure greater than my desire to succeed?”

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply the solutions, or how to help others overcome these challenges? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Is positive feedback harder to give than negative feedback?

I’m sure you’re familiar with that unpleasant feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize you have to give someone negative feedback. You don’t want any drama and you try to avoid conflict. You don’t want to hurt their feelings or anger them. You don’t want them to get defensive and you don’t want to have to defend yourself in the process, but eventually you have to find a way to tell them that there are errors in the report and it needs to be redone, that they’ve been late for the third time, or that the promotion is being given to someone else.

While it may not be surprising that, according to a recent HBR study, 21% of people will avoid giving negative feedback to direct reports, the same study revealed that 37% of people also don’t give positive feedback! At that point, the question becomes: Is it actually harder to give praise than critique?

The article proposes a variety of reasons why people often don’t give positivefeedback, ranging from being “too busy” and forgetting, to feeling like a boss should be tough, or that giving praise was a sign of weakness. Some people may consciously or subconsciously believe that it’s essential to point out mistakes in order to avoid or fix major problems, but that positive recognition is optional and/or not important.

Most intriguing to me, however, was the idea that some people don’t give positive feedback because they don’t know how. So from here, let’s look at three simple strategies for giving clear and effective positive feedback.

1. K.I.S.S.
No, I’m not suggesting you do anything that will warrant a call from HR. Most of you are probably familiar with the age-old acronym K.I.S.S., or “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Praise doesn’t need to be emotional, gushy, effusive or melodramatic. People just like to know – especially from you “tough graders” out there – that they have met your standards, produced high-quality work, or been successful at completing a difficult project on time and under budget.

Most importantly, they probably already know this, but want to know that you recognize that effort or achievement. They know you will catch any mistake; make it equally clear that you watch like a hawk to “catch” them succeeding, too. It shows solidarity, lets them know that you’re on the same team, and promotes a sense of confidence and security, knowing that the boss is looking out for them.

At that point, simple comments like, “Thanks for getting that piece back to me so quickly,” “The layout looks terrific, nice job,” or “Looks like you got everything back up to date, much better” are all that is needed to let people know where they stand. It also provides a sense of closure, which helps keep them from worrying that there may be more bad news to come, so they can comfortably shift their full attention to the next task on the list.

2. Be Specific
Praise is much more powerful when it references something specific. Generic comments like “good job,” while better than nothing, don’t tell the person what it is that you like about it, and can often feel perfunctory and insincere. Does it pertain to the speed in which they completed the job? The depth of analysis? Or just the fact that they closed the deal? Whatever it is, referencing that factor helps them to understand what is most important to you and encourages them to focus future efforts on achieving similar outcomes.

Even if it is just following up on something for which you had previously given negative feedback, acknowledge that the specific problem was fixed to appropriate standards and what positive outcome it promotes, e.g., “This new layout is much cleaner, and the image really pops; the client is going to love it.”

3. Look in the Mirror

If you’re really stuck for how to give praise, ask yourself, if you had done that work, how would you want to be appreciated? Maybe, to the HBR article’s point, you’re not used to giving positive feedback as a boss because you aren’t used to getting it from a boss. I’m not saying your boss should have thrown a party every time you did your job successfully, but think back to a time when you felt like at least a little appreciation would have been nice. Be the boss you wish you’d had, and offer the word of praise that would have been meaningful to you.

Sometimes the best place to start is with a simple word of thanks and recognition of the other person’s effort. “Thanks for pushing through the last week of late nights to make sure we got the issue out on time, I’m sure everyone’s exhausted,” or “Thanks for jumping in to lend a hand on that project; I know your plate was already full” is all people need to hear.

Don’t worry that offering praise will make it seem like you’re “going soft” or that people will slack off once they think you’re happy. On the contrary, for many people, praise is actually a motivator. Success begets success, and feelings of success beget more behaviors of success.

What’s critical to understand is that when people feel like they receive sufficient positive feedback, it makes them more open to hearing and accepting negative feedback from the same person. This is because they know that the boss is fair and clear, and that all feedback, whether positive or negative, is honest and comes from the heart.

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Do you have trouble giving feedback, whether positive or negative? Or do you have other questions or feedback about this issue? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!