Knowing When to STOP Talking

Usually I work with people to find the best verbal strategy, approach or delivery to get through to their audience and get to “Yes.” Today I want to focus on the exact opposite skill set: knowing when and how to stop talking.

Ironically, for many people that’s the hardest part. If you’re like me, at some point or other you’ve had the “out-of-body experience” where you’re in a high-pressure situation, and as you catch yourself rambling on, your brain is screaming, “for heaven’s sake, just stop talking already!” But you’re on a verbal runaway train and can’t seem to jump off.

Part of the reason this happens is because Americans in general and American corporate culture in particular are notoriously uncomfortable with silence in conversation. Silence quickly slides into the category of “awkward silence” for most people, and is felt as something to be avoided. This helps to explain the compulsion many people have to fill silence at all costs.

In the vast majority of these occurrences, self-doubt is a huge factor. Even if you were confident up to that point, something triggers a sudden insecurity – consciously or subconsciously, which you telegraph through your rambling.

With that in mind, let’s look at three contexts in which this situation is likely to emerge, why, and how to get it back under control, so you can steer the train safely and successfully into the station.

The most common scenario is when you’ve asked a question or made a comment, and the other person doesn’t respond right away. Your subconscious then assumes that they didn’t understand what you’ve said, or panics that they did understand it, but didn’t like it and don’t want to answer it. So you rephrase, or qualify, or offer possible answers to your own question, until they finally jump in and give a concrete response.

In reality, sometimes people just need a moment to digest what you’ve said. The more technical it is, the more important it is, the more processing time they need. Be generous in allowing them time to think, uninterrupted, before they respond.

The second context is when you think you need to keep explaining something. Perhaps your topic is complicated and you are speaking to non-experts so you think more details and examples will be helpful. Alternatively, you might be speaking to people who are experts, which can be intimidating, so you feel compelled to share every data point to demonstrate the extent of your knowledge and how hard you’ve worked on the project. Or you might be speaking to a very high-stakes audience, and interpret their silence as disapproval, at which point you keep talking in attempt to qualify or justify your argument and persuade them to agree with you.

Ironically, however, in these situations, the more you talk, the more it will either overwhelm and confuse the non-expert, or dissuade your audience because the rambling sounds nervous and uncertain rather than confident. In these cases, make your point, then just hold your ground – and your tongue. This signals to them that you expect a response, and it’s their turn to break the silence. If necessary, calmly ask them if they are confused by something, or would like an example or further clarification. Knowing when to stop is a sign of confidence.

Finally, rambling often occurs when you need to answer a question or offer a response, and don’t feel like you have time to think it through before you are expected to speak. The pressure is on, and each second of silence feels like an hour as all eyes are on you. But rather than taking the listeners on a stream of consciousness journey with you as you try to figure out what you really want to say, try prefacing with something like, “That’s a great question; let me think about the best way to answer it concisely.” Who would deny that request, especially if the alternative is a rambling mess?

Here’s a final tip: Write a note to remind yourself not to fall into these traps, and look at it before you enter the next high stakes meeting. If you wait until you catch yourself mid-ramble, it’s too late. You’ve gone down the rabbit hole, and there’s no easy way back. Priming yourself with these reminders before you start is one of the best ways to project persuasive confidence and leadership.

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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!

Turning a Faux Pas into a Win

The other day I was doing a training on leadership communication for a large client in the communication technology industry. Among their many products and services are video and teleconferencing tools. In the course of my program, we got to the part about facilitating virtual meetings, and as I clicked to the next slide, I suddenly heard a couple of boos from the crowd. I look up and realized my gaffe: my default visual was an image of people chatting on Skype – a direct competitor.

I apologized immediately, and said I had completely forgotten that this image was in the deck… then wondered aloud if my next image had the same problem. Click. Yup, up popped a picture of a conference telephone by another competitor, which was confirmed by a collective groan, “Oohhh!” as if their favorite batter had just struck out at the plate.

Now I had a choice to make: I could flush beet-red, babble a string of mortified apologies, and run out of the room in humiliation, or I could turn it around and make it a “teachable moment.” I opted for the latter, and explicitly shared this very choice with the group.

“Actually, I’m glad this happened, because it allows me to demonstrate some additional strategies in leadership communication, rather than just talking about them.” From there, I walked them through a sequence of steps, both in addressing my personal mistake, and narrating the conscious strategy behind each step I was taking in the process. I share it with you here, so that you can also learn from my mistake, and use the experience to your advantage, as I did.

First, I apologized. Not over-apologized, as I described as common habit among some people, especially women, in this earlier article. But the fact is, plain and simple, I made an undeniable, objective mistake, and it was my responsibility to own it. I wasn’t groveling, but still clearly sincere. My voice stayed even in speed and volume to indicate composure, and model the degree of drama that I believed was warranted by the situation, so they could follow suit.

Note that people will mirror your tension level: If you start calm in a crisis, others will follow your lead and stay calm, even if unhappy, which minimizes the damage. But if you start frantic, whether frantic with guilt or frantic with worry, the audience will infer that that level of drama is warranted, and they will feel a comparative degree of indignation.

Second, I briefly explained my original intention behind the mistake, providing just enough information to help them understand what happened and increase empathy. In this case, I explained that at the time I selected these images, my focus and biggest challenge was finding appropriate pictures with sufficiently high resolution so I could zoom it on the slide and still have the picture be in sharp focus, which limited my options based on the images I found on-line.

That doesn’t excuse the fact that I still completely forgot about the connection to the client’s product line, but hopefully that gave them an appreciation for the fact that my intention was to ensure that they had clear visuals, not grainy, as part of their experience.

Third, I offered a solution to the problem, and engaged the audience in helping me to solve it. “Let me offer this to you in return: From here on out, I will replace these two images with your products instead, and have them be the standard images when I present to other companies in the future. How does that sound?” I saw lots of head nods in the audience. Free advertising for them; who wouldn’t appreciate that?

Then I followed up with, “But I’m going to need a little assistance. Since I wasn’t able to find good, high-resolution images of (Product X and Y) online, I need one of you to send me some. Who here will volunteer to send them to me?” Half a dozen hands shot up in the air. Now, not only had I offered an agreeable solution, but I had enrolled the client’s enthusiastic participation in helping me execute the decision. Now we were partners, sharing in the responsibility to achieve the desired outcome.

Finally, we debriefed the episode. I had the audience reflect on public mistakes that they had made or had seen others make, and compare how they were handled compared to what we had just done. This gave everyone the chance to digest the experience, and consciously identify for themselves what I had modeled as positive strategies for handling mistakes. They listed them, so I didn’t have to, which helped it to sink in.

Ironically, something that could have completely undermined my image as an expert in leadership communication turned out to be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that very expertise.

At the end of the day, several people came up to talk to me, and most of them referenced that lesson about how to turn a faux pas into a win. One woman said, “I really wanted to see where you were going to go with it once that second image popped up, but you handled the whole situation perfectly! I’m so glad we got to go through the process.”

Naturally, the nature of your error is going to determine how you need to rectify the situation. My unintentional “affront” certainly could have been much more detrimental if in a pitch rather than a training, but still would not be nearly as critical as forgetting the decimal point when drawing up budgets.

In the end, what matters most is how you respond in the moment. Keep your composure, acknowledge the error, apologize appropriately and sincerely, give only as much explanation as is necessary (sometimes none), then offer a remedy and see it through. This enables you to maintain control of the situation and lead by example, which helps you to build (or rebuild) trust, and reinforce your image and reputation as a leader.

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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!

Dads: Raise your daughter to be a CEO

Father’s Day is coming up, so in the spirit of honoring the male role models in our lives, I’d like to share a special note with all the dads and other men (and women) out there about how to raise your daughters to be a successful, confident and happy future executive.

Over the years, I’ve spoken in front of myriad professional women’s groups, and coached women at every level and in every industry imaginable, and one factor regularly surfaces as having a major influence on their current levels of confidence and self-efficacy: their relationship with their fathers.

I often get asked how I’ve developed my confidence and sense of self, and more and more I realize how much of the credit goes to my father (and mother) for setting this foundation in me in all these ways and more.

Disclaimer: I am a linguist, not a psychologist, and this post is not intended to overgeneralize women, fathers, or anyone else. My goal is to raise awareness of some patterns of communication behaviors that can have lasting effects, and offer perspective and tools to help you avoid those pitfalls and promote happiness and success at home, in the workplace and beyond.

The most genuinely confident and effective women I work with typically have stories to tell of how their fathers set high standards because they genuinely believed that their daughters were capable and worthy of success at that level.

Their dads co-celebrated success and lamented failures together, and knew when the appropriate response was a consoling hug or a loving “kick in the pants” to stop the pity party, learn a lesson and do better next time. And they knew that there was a time and a place for each.

Here’s the thing: Your daughter may know intellectually that you love her and that your goal is to want the best for her, to reach what you see as her fullest potential. But the way these intentions are communicated often are interpreted in the exact opposite way: that love and approval are conditional, contingent upon perfection and successful attainment of whatever standard they believe you set.

There are so many little moments in life that can individually go unnoticed, but add up over time. Was she the MVP of her field hockey team or did she get the lead in the play, and if not how did you respond? Did you let her know if you believed these were even worthwhile pursuits in the first place? Did you think she went to the right university, got the right degree, got the right job, is dating or married the right person (and at the right age), and even (ugh!) did she feel like you thought she was pretty enough? These may seem like they shouldn’t be relevant, but dad, trust me, they are. More than you’ll ever know.

How do I know?

Dad (a music teacher) encouraged me to audition for all-state band (I played the alto sax), which I did all four years of high school, even though I only made it once. After each audition, we’d talk about what went right and wrong and how to do better next time.

He pushed me to take honors classes but didn’t flinch when I agreed to take AP history and Spanish but not calculus (thank goodness!)

(I’ll probably get flack for this, but I’m going to mention it anyway.) He also always told me I was pretty, even when my ever-fluctuating adolescent weight was on the top end of the yo-yo curve. To a teenage girl’s self-esteem, it mattered. A lot.

I know he hated the idea of me moving to Japan (twice!), and tried to talk me out of it both times, but ultimately supported the decision – and even came to visit once – because he knew it was something I needed to do.

When I decided to go for my PhD in my late 20s instead of getting a “regular job” he asked probing questions so we could discuss the pros and cons and the best way to make it work. And the discussions and interest continued, guilt-free, even when it took twice as long as expected to graduate.

As I went through romantic relationship after relationship, he never once gave me a guilt trip about my biological clock or his (undeniable) desire for grandchildren even though I was 40 before I finally met my husband. I’m sure that time frame was even harder for him to rationalize given that he and my mother met in high school and have been happily married ever since.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we’d have long conversations full of intimate details and unfiltered emotions. He’s definitely not that kind of dad. But he’d show interest and ask how things were going. He’d offer advice when warranted and offer objective counterpoints when he disagreed, but ultimately he let me know that he recognized my efforts and intentions, trusted my judgment and respected my decision, even when we didn’t see eye to eye.

Most importantly, even when I had genuinely messed up, even though he was really upset with me in the moment, he never belittled me or called me names, and he made it clear that he still loved me.

So to all you dads out there, how can you communicate with your daughters in a way that builds her confidence and empowers her with the skills and perspective to be a successful leader?

    • Talk to your daughter. Don’t be afraid to initiate conversations, and ask tough and sometimes personal questions to help her think through things, then be prepared to listen. Listen to truly understand her motivations rather than to identify the holes in her argument and formulate your rebuttal.
    • Challenge her to try new things, and set ambitious but attainable goals. Celebrate victories, acknowledge and praise progress and efforts. Reflect on failures together, and recognize the difference between when to say, “it’s okay, you can’t win ‘em all” and “I don’t think you really gave it your best. What happened?”
    • Invite her to initiate difficult conversations with you, and encourage her to express when she needs help, doesn’t understand something, or otherwise disagrees with you, instead of hiding her true feelings.
    • Even when she does make a mistake or otherwise does something you don’t approve of, make it clear that the you think the decision or action was dumb, not that she is stupid. Then – possibly an hour or so later after you’ve cooled off – remind her that you love her and are proud of her no matter what.

If you can fine-tune your objectivity regarding this aspect of your relationship with your daughters now – no matter what their age or family or professional status – that sets a foundation for success that no fancy MBA can match!



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!

Giving Back

Sometimes the most powerful messages are communicated not by what you say, but by what you do. Especially when you do it for others, with no expectation for anything in return.

Recently I had the privilege of speaking with Rob Lowe, host of the “Giving Back Podcast,” where we shared some stories about how we, you guessed it, give back to the community and the world.

Most importantly, I had the opportunity to get out of the spotlight myself, and turn it on to the Hope Partnership for Education, an AMAZING educational organization — far more than a plain ol’ “school,” whose motto is “breaking the cycle of poverty through education.”

It’s not just about working with high-needs populations. They’re transforming the community.

For example, in an area with a >50% high school dropout rate, their students — all high needs, often entering school several grade levels behind, academically — have a 95% graduation rate!

How do they do it, and how can you help, no matter where you’re located or what your current abilities are? Tune in to this inspiring podcast to find out.

You can go directly to the podcast episode here: GivingBackPodcast.com

Or listen on iTunes here (Episode 12: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty).

Thank you for making a difference in our our world! Please share this and help others take action on what they feel passionate about.

Here’s to a world of success,

Laura

Featured!

Featured! 8 Public Speaking Tips From The Best TEDx Speakers

I don’t know about you but I love quick and easy tips with links on the ones you want to explore further.

Jonathan Li, founder of Lifehack.org, has compiled a list of 8 Public Speaking Tips From The Best TEDx Speakers. Each tip is summarized in a simple quote from its TEDx talk, with links to the original videos. How great is that?

I might have a slight bias in favor of #6, but I think they’re all pretty terrific and I know you’ll have some major “a-ha moments” too.

Enjoy, and feel free to drop me a line and let me know your big take-away ideas (even if it’s not #6!) Love to know what speaks to you.

“A Game of Inches”: Leadership on Any Given Monday

“A Game of Inches”: Leadership on Any Given Monday

Recently, my family decided to watch Any Given Sunday, the 1999 iconic football movie starring Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Fox and a slew of other stars and unexpected cameos ranging from LL Cool J to Lawrence Taylor (of 1980s NY Giants fame), who comprised the fictional Miami Sharks, an extremely dysfunctional pro football team/franchise.

It looks at everything from money and egos to injury and politics surrounding the NFL. Not my typical first round draft pick for Sunday evening family time, but I was outvoted… and I’m glad.

While my husband eagerly took every opportunity to point out plays, dangers of concussions and other “teachable moments” to our 13-year-old son (who, unsurprisingly, was far more interested in the movie than the lessons), I was drawn in to the way the characters talked to each other, and when efforts at leadership succeeded and failed.

Most importantly, I couldn’t help but notice how much the challenges on the football field, in the locker room, and in the board room all have in common. For example:

  • Seemingly incompatible priorities held by ownership/management and the players/employees
  • Executives who viewed the players as property rather than as people
  • Star players driven by their egos
  • A young female president/co-owner trying to prove herself in an industry that is historically and undeniably a “man’s world”
  • Work-life (im)balance and resentment
  • Life-or-death (money or safety) choices
  • And of course, the coach who had to navigate among all these groups while trying to do his own job and keep it all together if they were going to have a winning season, which was what everyone wanted.

But what really “scored points” with me was the inspirational locker room talk coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) gave to the players toward the end. (You can watch it here.) Talk about someone whose delivery is credible and authentic. His verbal, vocal, and visual (physical) communication are in perfect alignment, all conveying exactly the same message, and that’s what makes his team – and the viewers – buy into it… because they buy into him.

He describes football as “a game of inches,” and how those inches are everywhere. He drills into them that the difference between winning and losing is being willing to fight and die for that inch, and a crucial component in that motivation is knowing that the guy next to them is working for the same inch, working together to reach team goals that are bigger than themselves as individuals.

As he tells it, it’s “the six inches in front of your face,” that make all the difference.

While that summary may sound cliché, (watch the original clip, it was great, as was the rest of the movie), I started to think about the professional “inches” that are all around us. So often we get tunnel vision, focusing on the total yardage we need to score the big points in signing new clients, completing big projects, meeting sales goals, delivering killer presentations, or nailing the interview to land next big promotion, but lose sight of the inches in between.

The kicker is, your reputation drives much of your ability to score, even the likelihood of getting opportunities to score. But your reputation is built in the moments in which you are not typically trying to impress. Your reputation is built in the everyday patterns, interactions and experiences people have with you when there isn’t a formal audience, and you’re not officially performing. In other words, your reputation is built in the inches.

At work, those inches might be the way you give or receive negative feedback, your attitude (contributions, body language, or tone of voice) during the drudgery of the weekly Monday morning meetings, or the balance of confidence and humility you demonstrate in speaking with others above, below and beside you.

You gain or lose inches based on how proactive you are in getting to know other people in the office, offering to help others because it’s the right thing to do even if it’s not officially in your job description, and peacefully but diligently working through conflict rather than letting disagreements fester in silence and become toxic.

Those “six inches in front of your face” show whether or not you’re in the moment: during an important discussion, are you listening to someone so you can formulate your rebuttal, or are you truly listening to understand? Trust me, they’ll know the difference. And it will reflect on your reputation for integrity. And over time, it’s integrity that scores points.

So ask yourself: On any given Monday, are you mindful of how you choose to navigate the inches of the day? Because the person who is, is the one who will lead the team into the end zone, and to victory for all.

Trump-ing the Language of Leadership

Trump-ing the Language of Leadership

Nowadays everyone seems to be talking about the bilateral race for nomination as the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. Personally, I’m a little tired of the redundancy of the arguments on both sides at this point, but I am intrigued by the language chosen and the delivery styles that are making and breaking campaigns, especially Donald Trump’s.

Love him or hate him (and most people do tend to embrace one extreme opinion or the other,) Donald Trump has stolen the spotlight since announcing his candidacy. Platform stance aside, let’s take a look at some of his communication patterns that made him a force to be reckoned with, and lessons we can learn, if perhaps with a grain (or spoonful?) of salt, about establishing our image and reputation as a leader.

First, Mr. Trump consistently demonstrates unwavering conviction and confidence in his views. Of course, he often takes it to the extreme, and to the best of my knowledge has never once apologized for any comment, even when launching patently personal insults at seemingly everyone who, well, disagrees with him. This is certainly the opposite of another bad habit that many people have, especially women, as I discussed in previous posts, of over-apologizing and diminishing the value of their own contributions and reputation. While he may voluntarily sacrifice diplomacy on a regular basis, what is undeniable is that he believes 100% in the validity, importance and value of his own perspective. And in a world of uncertainty, people find that reassuring.

Second, as part of that confidence, his voice is always clear and declarative in tone. He never falls into the common vocal pitfalls of vocal fry, monotony or up-speak. (And while that is something more commonly associated with young women, men do it just as much, don’t fool yourselves.) There is nothing hesitant or uncertain in the sound of any statement he makes. Granted, all of the candidates have been strong this way; I’m sure many (all?) of them have been explicitly and repeatedly coached on it. When the level of conviction in the voice matches the conviction in the word choice, credibility is reinforced.

Additionally, and this may be an uncommon way to look at it, but to use one of the popular phrases in the current discourse on executive presence, Mr. Trump is always willing to speak truth to power. While you may feel like he is at the top and thus has all the power and nothing to be afraid of, the reality is that he knows the voters have the real power in the end. He is not trying to please everyone by mincing words. He is willing to say what he believes needs to be said even though it may make some people unhappy in the moment, in the hopes of winning others over long-term, for greater ultimate gains. This degree of risk can make others shake in their shoes.

For example, when trying to “manage up” and present information to senior leadership, many people balk at the idea of contradicting the boss in a meeting or presenting financial projections or other news that may not be as positive as they’d like, which runs the risk of being met with angry challenges, public chastisement or worse. But here’s the thing: if you believe that your data is correct, and your job is to present all facts to senior leadership so that they can make informed decisions, then you have to be able to stand strong in these moments, say what you believe to be true, and be willing and able to defend your stance, showing grace under fire. Whether Mr. Trump displays anything that could be categorized as “grace” is perhaps debatable, but you get the point. This ability is widely recognized as a necessary quality in a leader.

Finally, there is absolutely no question that Mr. Trump knows his audience, and follows a key rule of thumb in sales: if his gives them what they want, in return he will get what he wants. This is something most people forget. We go into meetings, presentations and conference calls thinking about how we can make people see things our way, instead of framing things in terms of letting them know that we can (or at least want to) see things from their perspective, and start from that point as common ground.

In fact, outside of those who may genuinely understand and agree with his actual policies, I would argue that he has two primary audiences, and luckily for him he can kill both birds with one verbal stone, giving both exactly what they want while still following his own strategic interests:

The first target audience is the media themselves. He knows what they want: for viewers to tune in and not change the channel or bounce off the page, so he hands them full buckets of drama to chum the waters on a daily basis. Let’s face it, whether or not you think he is a good candidate for president, there is no question that the man makes for great television. For all his money, he hasn’t had to purchase any advertisements because the media voluntarily give him all the airtime he could ever want, for free. And he knows that in this race, airtime is the equivalent of gold bullion.

The other target audience is voters who are disenfranchised with politics-as-usual and, driven at least in part by emotions, are looking for someone to blame. Mr. Trump very smartly knows that people often make big decisions based on emotions, either in conjunction with or in lieu of other empirical data. So he frequently and explicitly identifies new villains, ranging from his individual opponents, to entire nations such as Mexico and China, to the media themselves, for some inherent evil that has befallen the US. His approach gives his target audience a uniquely combined feeling of validation, absolution and/or moral superiority through victimization. He ensures them that they are right.

To accomplish this, he incorporates emotionally charged, subjective language such as, “it was a disaster,” “he was horrible,” “they were unfair,” and “it’s an embarrassment.” Whether or not there is validity to his claims is immaterial here. He masterfully leads people to believe that he is the only person who understands the root cause of their problems, knows who is to blame, and will see that justice is served. It makes the audience feel better about themselves and their future, and who doesn’t like and want to support someone who can make them feel like that?

Ultimately, Mr. Trump has mastered the art of communicating with his target audience in a way that is both authentic to who he is, and simultaneously resonates with them in a way that opens them up to his message and makes them eager to hear more. Whether you are heading a billion-dollar enterprise, leading a team of a dozen, or doing routine inspections or sales calls, these are lessons to learn which, if applied tactfully, are virtually guaranteed to help us all enhance our leadership image in a most positive way.

And for that, Mr. Trump, we thank you… whether or not we vote for you.

Giving a “Talk” vs. a “Speech”: Top 5 Talk Tips for 2016

Giving a “Talk” vs. a “Speech”: Top 5 Talk Tips for 2016

Recently I had the opportunity to share some public speaking tips with a group of high school students who are part of a local church group and were preparing for an open-house event to welcome new students. A few of the members would have the chance to give a talk to the visitors to share their story, the value the group had played in their lives, and invite the new students to join. In the end, it all boiled down to one big question: How can you share something you’re passionate about in a way that persuades others to get on board?

Maybe you’re opening an annual executive retreat. Maybe you want to address your team at the holiday party. Or maybe you promised your kid’s teacher that you’d participate in “career day.” Regardless of the setting, two things are universally true:

First, your goal is always the same: to persuade and influence. You have something important to say, and you want others to understand why it’s important and join in your vision.

Second, one cultural change has become “the new normal.” It’s rare that we are called to make a formal speech in the traditional sense: in some public forum, on a stage, with a podium and microphone, under the heat of a spotlight. Nowadays, it’s more likely that instead of giving a speech, we will find ourselves with an opportunity to “give a talk” to a group. (Think about it: have you ever watched a “TED Speech” on YouTube?)

One way or another, at the end of your talk, you want to know that you got through to your audience, and that your words landed with the desired impact. Here are five tips for giving a top talk:

    1. A “talk” is different than a “speech.” A talk is conversational, engaging the audience; a speech is formal, talking to (and sometimes at) the audience. If you want to recruit someone to join your vision, team or idea during these less formal scenarios, give a talk.

  1. Rule of thumb: It’s not about you! Of course it’s your story, and you do want to include personal examples or experiences where possible, so it is about you, technically, but the objective is to get the audience to see themselves in your story. To make them think, “I want to feel/experience/be part of that.” Were you ever in their shoes? How did you feel, what made you nervous or excited, and once you made the shift what were the benefits or lessons learned? How does it impact you now? They need to know.
  2. Know your audience, and speak to their desires as well as their doubts. (See the previous post about different kinds of audience members.) Remember: Your audience usually includes a variety of people with different perspectives on your topic; you can’t assume they all feel the way you do from the start, but you do need to connect with them all, whether they are:
    • Enthusiasts — your low-hanging fruit, easy to bring them in; build on their optimism and interest
    • Skeptics – They may be curious with various degrees of questions or concerns. Acknowledge, reassure, encourage and welcome them.
    • There under protest – Some people are there in body, but not in spirit. They attend out of obligation, have preconceived notions of what you’re going to say, may stare at their smart phone the entire time, ask “gloom and doom” questions or try to shoot holes in your idea. Try to acknowledge with where some of their misconceptions may come from and do some “myth-busting” where possible.
  3. Heartfelt is better than perfect. Be honest, be human, allow for mistakes in your delivery. Allow yourself to emote (but not totally lose control.) Even laugh at yourself when possible. It makes you relatable. When you start to feel nervous about delivering your talk or making mistakes, remind yourself, “this isn’t about me, it’s about them.”
  4. Outline and rehearse – but don’t read or memorize! Try not to write out your whole script. Don’t worry about writing the perfect essay (which is also not the same as a speech OR a talk) and memorizing every word. If you read it word for word, it will sound mechanical, like someone reading their “what I did on my summer vacation” essay. That doesn’t feel relatable to an audience. Just put down key points, and practice a few times with a video camera so you make sure you don’t ramble and speak for 10 minutes when you only have 5, fidget too much, or say “um” or “like” all the time. Make adjustments to your outline, or notes to yourself (e.g. “don’t forget to smile!”) etc. Again, you don’t have to rehearse until it’s perfect, just until it flows comfortably, even if a little different each time. Remember: imperfect is relatable, and relatable sells.

So next time you get nervous about speaking in front of a group, check yourself: “Nope, I’m not going to speak to them, I’m just going to talk.” Use these guidelines to organize your thoughts and prepare, then go out and be the best “you” you can be. If they buy into you, the rest is easy.

Mules, Tourists and Converts: Know Your Audience!

Mules, Tourists and Converts:
Know Your Audience!

11/11/2015
Two years ago, I found myself in very uncommon and uncomfortable territory: facing an audience who, unbeknownst to me, had little interest in my topic, and even less interest in active participation. Considering the fact that this wasn’t just an hour-long seminar, but a full-day event, we were not off to an auspicious start!

It was my first foray into the world of continuing legal/professional education (CLE/CPE) credit classes for lawyers and accountants**. I had met someone whose company provided the platform to offer and advertise these classes and just needed content providers, so I thought I’d try my material out on this specific demographic. People in these fields are required to log a certain number of credits per year, so I offered my class in December, figuring it would be a good time to catch the procrastinators who needed the credits by year-end deadline; in other words, it seemed like a guaranteed market. But somehow in my research, I missed one key detail: For people to get their credit, the only requirement is that they show up. They don’t even need to be conscious while there... and some people arrived with the full intention to take very literal advantage of that loophole.
Some walked in with magazines, novels, catalogs and other paperwork, or laptops, and never once looked up in six hours. Never even acknowledged my existence. Internally, I was stunned that this was considered acceptable, and even the norm. But once this intention and pattern became apparent — which didn’t take very long — I had a choice to make.

I could let the energy of the room dictate my energy level and just plod through my material, figuring people weren’t listening anyway, or I could “do my thing” the way I always do, and not let my passion for my content be drowned out by the apparent ambivalence of the crowd. In some ways, my emotional intelligence went in a very counter-intuitive direction: I decided to pretend I didn’t notice their aura, and continue plowing ahead, undeterred. And little by little I noticed that three distinct groups emerged, who I lovingly refer to as the “Mules,” “Tourists” and “Converts.”

Stubborn as a mule. Boys on a beach try to coax a recalcitrant animal into action. Photograph, early 1900's. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The “Mules” came in with one objective and wouldn’t budge no matter what. Now, I can certainly understand having too many past experiences of boring CLE/CPE presenters so that by now they expected to be disappointed, but they weren’t even open to being pleasantly surprised. The message they sent was, “I’m not going to like this, I don’t want to like this, you can’t make me like this, even if I realize there’s something that might be interesting or useful, I won’t let either of us think I like this. To acknowledge that I like this is to admit that you’re right and I’m wrong and that’s just not going to happen.” These are the people in your teams who can (and frequently do) suck the life out of a meeting and kill positive energy.

q57lm44The “Tourists” came in with the intention of being Mules, armed with a day’s worth of materials to entertain themselves while waiting for the clock to show that it was time to leave. But they’d catch a graphic on my screen with one eye, or hear an interesting statistic or funny comment I’d made, and paid more and more attention to the training, almost in spite of themselves. Some of them even engaged in the pairwork and breakout activities. I call them “tourists” because it was as if they had been coerced into buying a ticket for the bus tour, but found themselves actually enjoying the view, to their own surprise. They’d look out the window, listen to the tour guide’s stories, and maybe even snap a few pictures, but they weren’t about to get off the bus and explore at the different stops along the way. These are the people who go through the motions, do their job, but follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law. They lack a sense of ownership in the bigger picture and their contribution to it.

convertsLast but not least, there were the “Converts.” These people may also have come in braced for a typical boring presentation, and armed with alternative entertainment, but realized to their pleasant surprise that their concerns were unwarranted. They decided my information and presentation style was actually interesting and useful, and that active participation would make the total experience that much more valuable all around. They asked questions, volunteered to do demonstrations and actively participated in all exercises. These are your leaders. They are proactive, optimistic, open to new ideas, willing to try different things, and take ownership for their own experience and others’.

I chose to behave as if everyone was a Convert, or had the potential to be one, and I ignored those who were committed to being a Mule; I refused to let the tail wag the dog. In the end, it worked out really well, and the ones who got on board with me made it a really great experience for everyone.

At the end, one guy came up to me with his 6-inch-thick stack of reading material, and said, “I just wanted to show you this: I came prepared to get all sorts of work done while I was sitting here, and the whole day I never touched it! I think this was the best CLE I ever attended.”

Of course, my role as presenter in that context is different than that of someone leading a team, where you probably can’t fully ignore the Mules. But you can recognize who falls into each group and find ways to address whatever issues and challenges stand in the way of anyone’s “full conversion.”

Had I known about this dynamic in advance, I probably would have run the event differently. On the other hand, as the expression goes, the best person for the job is often the person who doesn’t know what can’t be done, as this day proved to be true. But overall, knowing who your audience is and what their motivators are before you show up is a huge advantage to being an effective communicator and mastering the 3Cs of Vocal Executive Presence: Command the room, Connect with the audience, and Close the deal.

So I ask you: who is in your audience?

**Note: Since then, I have done many other programs for professionals in the legal and financial fields and have had a blast with everyone there. But I understand the unique nature of that particular CLE/CPE context, and now I know it’s simply not my target market — another incredibly valuable piece of audience information everyone needs to know!

Happy Women’s Equality Day!

Happy Women’s Equality Day!

August 26, 2015, was Women’s Equality Day, and this year marks the 95th anniversary of that turning point in US history when women won the right to vote. Given the current buzz about upcoming elections, whether Donald Trump makes a good candidate or just good television, whether or not President Obama giving his “blessing” to Joe Biden (should he choose to run for the Democratic ticket) is the equivalent of giving his endorsement, and all the other noise in the field, it is critical to listen to what is being said, and just as importantly, take action, adding our own voices to the fray.

Women like Susan B. Anthony (with whom I proudly – if wholly coincidentally – share a birthday) are credited for spearheading the movement, fighting as suffragist and abolitionist throughout the latter half of the 1800s and into the 1900s for all people, regardless of gender or race, to have the right to vote and more.

When election season rolls around, there’s one election-oriented term that really bugs me: the concept of “women’s issues,” for the sole reason that, by implication, it means that there are issues that are decidedly NOT for women. It’s as if people think women are so myopic or self absorbed that they only care about issues that reflect their own bodies, salaries or children. I don’t know about you, but I care about what the stock market is doing; I care about immigration; I care about what we do with the military; I care about prison reform… Those are “women’s issues” because they’re my issues too. And for that matter, issues like women’s healthcare, early childhood education and pay equity won’t ever be successfully resolved until they are just as seriously viewed as “men’s issues.” The discussions need to be inclusive if they are going to be fruitful.

So it is up to each of us, male and female, to make our voices heard. To contact our local, state and national representatives and make sure that they understand our positions and do the job we elected them to do. If we don’t, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when they fail to represent our interests.

For those whose cynicism has taken over and who doubt whether their single vote would really make a difference, I offer this: the only guarantee you have for sure is that if you do not exercise your right to vote, then your vote certainly will not count. If you choose to silence yourself, to give up your power, I guarantee someone else will quickly volunteer to speak for you.

So let’s honor the years and the lives that were given in the fight to give us all this right to let our voices be heard and counted. Find your voice. Prepare to cast your vote. Happy Women’s Equality Day!