It’s NOT About Policy: What does Winning Sound Like?

Last night was Round 3 of the Democratic Primary Debates, with ten qualified candidates in the running. Each candidate had two main goals: to connect with more voters than anyone else, and to convince those voters that they (the candidate) would have the best chance of beating Donald Trump this time next year, an area in which nobody effectively stole the show.

Sure, each candidate had some good moments, but they also had individual polishing to do in other areas: For example, Yang was a human metronome, perpetually shifting his weight from foot to foot as he talked; Sanders sounded like he had phlegm in his throat all night, and Klobuchar’s overall debate image is still generically “nice.” In this context, such little details can be subconsciously off-putting for viewers and detrimental to gaining popularity.

However, as I mentioned earlier in the week, the key to meeting those two goals would be based on who came across as most MEMORABLE in their debate performance. In particular, being (the right kind of) “memorable” at this stage could be achieved if they remembered to include three kinds of information:

1. Refrain-style sound bite campaign promises (that were “tweetable and repeatable”)
2. Personal stories (to make the candidate relatable and therefore likable), and
3. A Call to action at the end.

So how did it pan out?

First, as far as campaign promise sound bites, some were pithier than others, and although a lot of candidates listed specific promises ranging from eliminating our energy dependence on fossil fuels (O’Rourke), or raising teachers’ salaries to a minimum of $60,000 nationwide (Sanders), to guaranteeing access to healthcare (everybody) or giving $1,000 per month to every American (Yang), most lacked two things:

One is saliency: each promise was mentioned once in passing and embedded in a litany of other ideas. None was a repeated refrain, elevated as a fundamental “If you don’t remember anything else, remember this” levels of priority. Think of it this way: If you’re going to the grocery store and someone asks you to buy three things, chances are you will remember them; if they rattle off twelve things, you probably won’t remember any of them.

This was one of the most effective strategies in Donald Trump‘s 2016 campaign with expressions like “make America great again,” “build a wall,” and “repeal Obamacare,” which he repeated over and over again; even people who didn’t like him can still recite them easily today. I guarantee he will do this again in 2020, and any opponent who does not have a clear refrain of a handful of “tweetable and repeatable“ campaign-defining promises will already start out behind the proverbial eight ball.

Second, regarding use of personal stories, the format of Round 3 actually promoted this: the closing statement round was replaced with a question for each candidate to share a personal story about overcoming professional setbacks. Since it was teed up so well, all candidates made contact with the ball one way or another, so to speak. There were however a few who managed to hit it out of the park while others just rounded some of the bases.

As part of a “good, better, best” comparison, some of the candidates who’s final stories were in the “good” category included Bernie Sanders who focused his story on his political career, losing initial races and eventually coming out on top, and Andrew Yang’s story of multiple failed start-up businesses before finally being successful in business. Both implied the “never give up” theme: It is familiar to everyone, but doesn’t necessarily make you sit up and take notice.

Some that were “better” included Pete Buttigieg who shared a moment of vulnerability in describing his decision to “come out” (as gay) in the middle of an election cycle, and Kamala Harris who was always underestimated as a black woman and told that things “can’t be done,” but not letting it stop her. Unsurprisingly, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar‘s stories were all gender-related. All of these were inspiring, touching and relatable, and these kinds of stories will hit home with people of similar demographics, but it’s harder to predict how they will land with others, or even how it will allow any one of them to get more traction than the other two.

But the “best” ones really sucked you in. Cory Booker probably won the storytelling award from a quantity perspective, as he regularly illustrated his points with snippets of dialogue (a great rhetorical device) between him and other key people, allowing listeners to imagine themselves in each moment.

Beto O’Rourke was also given an extra boost this evening because so many of the questions lent themselves directly to the opportunity to talk about the shooting in El Paso, which is still fresh experience for the whole country. He did this very passionately and authoritatively, and most of his counterparts on stage even took a moment at some point in the evening to praise how he had handled the situation.

But Joe Biden stole the show for a quality story, despite a couple of dubious false starts, with the most heart-wrenching tragedies regarding the deaths of his first wife, daughter, and son. It’s a personal tragedy sequence that would make it hard for most people to get out of bed every day. It was humble and relatable and for just a moment, you forgot you were listening to a debate. That’s a winning story.

Finally, in an interesting twist, only ONE person had a call to action. As we just mentioned, unlike in the first and second rounds of debates, this time there was no closing statement round, which would have been the natural place for a call to action.

However, all of the candidates did know about this format change in advance, so they all should have figured out how to weave a call to action into that personal story in the last five seconds, to leave viewers with a clear, simple, immediately completable instruction of what they needed to do as soon as the debates were over. If people complete an action that helps you, they feel more invested in you, and are more likely to support you moving forward, bringing others with them. Most failed completely in this regard.

The only person who DID successfully beat the system was Andrew Yang. Political pundits panned it as a gimmick but I thought it was a very smart “outside the box” move. Yang effectively “gamified” his Freedom Dividend proof of concept in a call to action by personally offering ten families $1,000 per month for a year with the pitch, “If you personally believe you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to Yang2020.com and tell us how $1,000 per month will help you do just that.”

It not only has great “bait,” (who doesn’t think they’re smarter than politicians?) but since it’s a competition, it inspires people to be as passionate as possible in their efforts to explain how this gift will make their lives better, thereby creating an anthology of case studies he will now own and extol as evidence that his plan is really what Americans need and want….and hopefully ten case studies that demonstrate before-and-after lifestyle transformations. Very powerful, and the kind of thing people will keep talking about. Tweetable? Somewhat. Repeatable? Absolutely – watch any talk show today for proof.

Shame on nine out of ten candidates for missing this opportunity.

Overall, each candidate had moments in which they gained and lost inches, but nobody launched ahead. The candidate who can get their campaign-defining refrains together, consistently tell compelling stories and call people to act will be the one to leap to the forefront, and have the best shot at leaping to the presidency.

Let’s see if they figure it out by October.

It's NOT about policy: Winners and losers from last night's #DemDebate will emerge from who was most memorable in three key areas: (1) Who had the simplest campaign promise sound bites, (2) Who told the best stories, and (3) Who had the best call to action. Who were the real winners and losers? It's not who the pundits think. Here's why.

#election2020 #publicspeaking #influence #leadership #communication #executivepresence #politics #joebiden #berniesanders #elizabethwarren #kamalaharria #andrewyang #betoorourke #petebuttegeig #amyklobuchar #juliancastro #corybooker

The Two-Letter Word That Destroys Productive Discussion

One thing I’ve learned over the years is how to take critical comments with a grain (or sometimes a pound) of salt.

Recently, I have been commenting on the Democratic primary debates (such as here and here). Although my lens is always an apolitical analysis of the candidates’ communication effectiveness, I knew that anything related to national politics would open me up to possible criticism, given how personal it is to so many people.

Naturally, there are those who have agreed and supported my efforts and those who have not. Unsurprisingly, on some platforms the feedback I have gotten is far more “colorful” than others. However, I was struck by an important pattern in some of the comments, and how it changed my willingness to engage with the contributors.

In particular, there were fans of candidates whose performance weaknesses I critiqued who were unhappy with the fact that I had voiced any sort of criticism of “their” candidate at all. But it was HOW they expressed this displeasure that made all the difference. It all came down to two letters: BE vs. DO.

Some objectively referenced points I had made and why they thought my analysis was off. In contrast, others preferred to attack me personally for having said anything negative about their favorite candidate in the first place. Those people used the very simple but powerful verb, “to be.” Some of the most unfiltered contributions ranged from telling me “you are weird” to calling me a “lunatic” and even a “psychopath.” By using this language, they chose to attack my essence, who I am (“be”) as a person.

On the other hand, people who told me why they disagreed with the assessment itself implicitly used an equally simple and powerful verb: “to do.” They disagreed with what I did: Specifically, I made assertions they didn’t like.

Discrepancy between these two approaches had profound effects on my treatment of those comments, and have equally profound implications for constructive conversation and conflict resolution on the whole.

People who attack who I am with “be” language are showing me that they are neither open to discussion nor interested in respectful dialogue. It also shows that they missed the underlying purpose of all of my posts in the first place! When I receive those comments, my decision has become simply to ignore them, since I see no value in trying to engage rationally with someone who preferred emotional, vitriolic, and personal attacks.

In contrast, when people used “do” language, I am much more interested in exploring their line of thought, finding common ground, or at least achieving mutual understanding.

When I read comments like, “I disagree with your assertion that candidate X should have…”, I genuinely want to understand the reasons why. They didn’t assume the worst in me as a person, lob insults or otherwise attack me personally. I love a good debate, and someone who could present their counter argument to me in an intelligent, respectful and objective way piques my interest and inspires me to continue the exchange. In one exchange, I went back and forth several times with a contributor and in the end his comment was, “Vocal Impact Productions, we are in agreement then…”

What’s the moral to the story? In looking to make connections and more, two little letters – to be versus to do – can be the turning point between building the bridge and blowing it up.

I sincerely thank all of those who have commented on any of my posts, and invite you all to continue to discuss and debate with me on any subject, especially as I continue to analyze the communication effectiveness of the candidates in the upcoming rounds of debates. I equally welcome your disagreement as your praise. What matters most to me is that we get to engage in civil and productive discourse.

I hope that these strategies help you to promote such dialogs in your work and home conversations as well. Just remember the key: when in disagreement, disagree with the person’s statement or behavior (what they DO) without judging the person (who you see them to BE). Therein lies the power to bring people together AND affect meaningful, positive change.

3 Key Messaging Lessons Dems Haven’t Learned from 2016

Last night was the kickoff to the 2020 Presidential Election: the first part of the first round of Democratic Primary Debates, with 10 candidates, half of the 20 candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring so far. (The other half will debate tonight.) My goal is to provide a series of apolitical analyses of the messaging skills and strategies of the various candidates, looking at what is working for them, what isn’t, why, and what that implies for the future of the election.

Let me be clear: I’m keeping all of my own political opinions to myself. Whether I praise candidates for effective messaging or point out major shortcomings in their performance is no reflection on whether or not I would vote for them.

Also, this is not a comprehensive listing of everything that was said, but rather the first impressions that were made. If you feel something was missed, feel free to add it (diplomatically, please!) in the comments below, but realize that if I missed it, it may be because it simply didn’t register on my radar clearly enough to write it down in the moment. And in the end, what registers with voters is what will determine how they cast their vote. If something gets missed in this context, it’s the fault of the messenger, plain and simple.

Overall, there was lots of good information exchanged and it was a good introduction to some of the candidates, but what I noticed that was MOST IMPORTANT to me, was that there were THREE KEY MESSAGING LESSONS THAT THE DEMOCRATS seem to have FAILED TO LEARN FROM 2016. Let’s explore them now:

  1. Stick to Sound Bite Campaign Promises – Trump had “MAGA,” “Build a Wall,” “Repeal Obamacare,” “Bring back Manufacturing,” even “Lock her up!” They were all three to five words long, easy to remember, easy to understand, and easy to repeat in conversation. It was easy to envision each outcome, and how it would be different from the current status. Not one candidate did that tonight. They talked about lots of issues, but no memorable, concrete sound bite core campaign messages.

    At best, John Delaney had a couple of them like “Get America Working Again” and “Real solutions, not impossible promises,” but note that these are comparatively uninspiring. “Make America Great Again” sets an inspiring and aspirational standard: GREATNESS. It implies going from zero to 100. “Get America Working Again” sounds like it’s just going from reverse to neutral: the goal is merely to make it not broken… not actually great. And “real solutions, not impossible promises” is too generic. If you ask anyone to explain what he meant, and give an example… most would need time to think of one and figure out how to explain it. (Hint: If it doesn’t jump off your lips, it’s not real enough.)

  2. Use Action Verbs, not status words – All of Trump’s campaign promise sound bites above had energized action verbs and concrete objects/targets of the action. Make (America)… Build (wall)…Stop (illegal immigration)…Lock up (her)… Hillary’s one central campaign slogan was: “Stronger together.” What’s the verb? To Be. It’s about status, not action or change. Some would argue it was too “kumbaya.” United, inclusive… nice. Nice – alone – doesn’t inspire, and what doesn’t inspire, doesn’t win.So what slogans did we hear tonight from the next generation of Democratic hopefuls? Here are a few excerpts from closing statements:

    – “I’m running…to build infrastructure, to fix our broken healthcare system,… to improve education” (Delaney)
    – “I am not the establishment candidate.” (Klobuchar)
    – We need to “call the country to a sense of common purpose” and “show the best of who we are.” (Booker)
    – “It’s time to come (be) together” (Ryan)
    – “We are better than this.” (Delaney)

    The “be” statements aren’t bad statements, but they’re insufficient, especially when combined with comments that just list topics (“healthcare…clean air and water… good paying jobs…” – Gabbard) or are otherwise too verbose to be memorable. And Delaney’s references to infrastructure and health care are still too process-oriented, without a clear vision of what the resulting product would look like.

  3. Sustain the “Credibility Factor” – If you’ve heard me speak, attended any of my trainings, or read my new book, Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice, you’ve heard me explain that the foundation of a leadership image is the appearance of credibility. Credibility is strongest when your three messaging channels are all in alignment: Verbal (e.g., word choice, stories, data, lack of fillers), Vocal (e.g., intonation, speed, emotion), and Visual (e.g. hand gestures, facial expressions, body language).

    This is something that Donald Trump has virtually mastered. Even when he makes statements that are inaccurate at best (verbal), he delivers them so convincingly (vocal/visual) that many people either don’t care (perhaps because they like his version better) or suspend disbelief because he seems so confident and convinced (vocal, visual) in the moment that he’s right, that it seems like what he says has to be true. As research has shown, when the Verbal content doesn’t match the Vocal/Visual delivery, people instinctively trust the delivery over the content itself.

Last night, most candidates were out of alignment with one or more of these factors, which inspires doubt in the listener and undermines credibility. As there were only three, let’s start with the women. For example:

  1. Elizabeth Warren gave pretty solid, specific and refreshingly direct answers to questions (verbal), and was clearly passionate about everything she said (vocal/visual), but she only had one facial expression (visual) and tone (vocal) all night: angry/frustrated. And while that may be both fully justifiable and acceptable for people like Bernie Sanders who has turned the “crotchety-but-passionate advocate” into a lovable brand for many, the fact is that there’s a double standard for women, and “the angry woman” isn’t someone who has widespread appeal to most people who aren’t also similarly “angry women.” It’s not that she shouldn’t display her anger; it’s simply that she can’t only display her anger if she seeks more widespread support. Moreover, almost every time she spoke, her head would rapidly shake back and forth in a slight-but-on-going “no” motion. If your words say “yes” but your body says “no,” trust me, people will ignore what you say and believe what they see.
  2. Amy Klobuchar was the other side of Warren’s coin: she remembered to smile (visual) at times, made some good points (verbal), and was much more approachable overall. But where she might have won the “likable” vote, it was at the expense of projecting gravitas and authority when she spoke (vocal). Likability without authority is simply “nice,” and once again, “nice,” by itself, doesn’t win elections.
  3. Tulsi Gabbard came to life at the end when she shot down Ryan’s comment about American “engagement” in foreign wars, saying that to her, as a soldier having served on active duty in the Middle East, his answer was “unacceptable” (verbal), but even then, on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), her overall passion and apparent connection (vocal/visual) to her own words was only up around a level 4. For the rest of her contributions, regardless of content, her face never moved (visual), and her voice barely fluctuated (vocal). It was like listening to a mannequin with a sound track. Not charismatic or relatable at all. Donald Trump will most likely home in on that and dismiss her like he did for Jeb Bush in 2016 with the “low energy” refrain.

    And the men? As there were so many, here are just a few notable trends:

  4. Code Switching into Spanish (verbal/vocal) – at some point in the evening, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and Julián Castro all switched into Spanish for exactly ONE sentence apiece. Their Spanish insert was always a general statement of inclusion regardless of the question they were answering, as an explicit nod to the growing Latino voting population in recognition of its increasing importance at the polls, as if to say, “I’m more like you and understand you better than anyone else here, so vote for me.”

    The content (verbal) was negligible, but the abrupt shift to the ears (vocal) sparks an emotional reflex of familiarity and comfort when someone suddenly hears their native language, and that familiarity makes people associate feelings of comfort with memories of you. Some people might call it pandering, but it was smart pandering. However, Castro may have gone too far in bragging (verbal) that his first campaign stop was in Puerto Rico instead of Iowa or New Hampshire, as opponents and other voters may view that not as merely including Latinos, but as prioritizing the interests of non-voting Latinos over voting Americans of any background. That wasn’t so smart.

  5. Storytelling – (verbal) – Stories bring data to life, period. Personal stories bring people to life. O’Rourke referenced a story of a young man in a hospital, and Castro and others referenced the tragic story of the refugee father and baby daughter who recently died trying to cross the Rio Grande, but they were other people’s stories, so had less impact. Castro also name-dropped – a LOT – from his daughter Karina to a list of African Americans and Latinos who were killed by police officers, and while they are good specific references, there was no STORY told. He might have gotten a “bingo point” or two for mentioning relevant names, but he missed his chance to really connect with his audience.

    In contrast, Cory Booker described life on his home street and the sound of gunfire at the corner, and Bill DeBlasio got particularly personal in sharing that his son is black (DeBlasio is white) and how it affects his perception of and attention to issues related to race (e.g. police action). As evidence for his connection to veterans’ affairs and the like, DeBlasio also shared seeing his WWII veteran grandfather return from Okinawa missing a leg, spiraling into depression, and eventually taking his own life. These stories were much more powerful and made the listener feel like the candidate understood issues on a more intimate, personal level.

    Note: Gabbard also made some headway with this when referencing experiences in her military service, particularly in the Middle East (verbal), but she would have gotten much more mileage out of the stories if her delivery (vocal/visual) had been more compelling.

    Others such as John Delaney left out any actual stories, and while his answers sounded “smart” (verbal), he came across more as a human economics textbook, which was not relatable, and likely lost a lot of potential traction as a result.

  6. Facial expressions and body language (Visual) – Beto O’Rourke’s handlers seemed to have trained him to contain his often-excessive gesticulations in order to appear more poised and authoritative, but may have gone too far as he seemed comparatively “vanilla.” On the far opposite end of the spectrum, when listening to questions, Tim Ryan’s default facial expression was like a deer in headlights, and while he loosened up and got more energized when responding, the listener’s instinctive reflex is to discredit him before he even starts talking. Then when Gabbard told him his one answer was “unacceptable” as I mentioned above, he immediately looked down, shuffled his feet and swallowed hard, all non-verbally acknowledging that he got his hand slapped and that she won that exchange.

    Jay Inslee’s passion on some questions translated into a facial expression that looked like he was about to cry on more than one occasion. Vocally, Inslee also has a slight lisp, and combined with a very crooked lower lip when making “s” or “sh” sounds, lends an overall “slushy” quality to his speech. It’s subtle enough that most won’t notice or care, and while it shouldn't matter, some will subconsciously register it and may find him off-putting as a result but not be able to identify why.

In the end, much of the vote will come down to charisma. Charisma is something of an X-Factor; a magnetism that draws people to you, providing a watchable quality that’s crucial in sound-bite media appearances as well as more personal town-hall style events. It’s the voice you listen to that comes from the pit of your stomach when you need to make a decision that you’re not completely sure of.

My prediction: The candidate who can internalize these lessons to get their message boiled down to repeatable sound bites with action verbs and a clear, inspiring vision for the concrete end-result, along with some good personal stories to tell, and deliver it in a way that is the right balance of confident, approachable, sincere, authoritative, relatable and likeable, is going to be the nominee, and the candidate with the best chance of taking the White House in 2020.

In my opinion, based on these factors alone, the front runners for Day-1were Cory Booker and Bill DeBlasio, with Elizabeth Warren as a trailing third, needing to get the “likability” factor up quickly to avoid succumbing to Hillary’s 2016 reputation and fate.

Why You Should Speak Like a Leader

If someone asked you what you thought were the most important qualities in a leader, what you say? If you’re like me, expertise, confidence, experience, and being a good listener would have been your instinctive responses. But guess what: research shows we missed the big two.

A recent study indicated that all strong personal and professional relationships are based two factors: “competence,” and “warmth”. “Warmth” matters because it shows a lack of intentional threat. And “competence” goes along with warmth because it implies that you won’t accidentally harm someone either. The combination lets people trust your potential as a leader. It reminds me of physicians’ Hippocratic Oath, to first and foremost “do no harm.”

But it’s not just whether you are warm and competent: the real question is whether other people believe that you are. At that point it’s critical to consider how these broad definitions of warmth and competence are identified. This is where the ability to speak like a leader becomes of critical importance.

For example, what do warmth and competence sound like? Warmth tends to reflect feelings and behaviors, and competence generally reflects skills, but based on the above definitions of warmth and competence, your communication skills will drastically influence your trustworthiness on both fronts.

Let’s take a look at a few factors that can influence how your communication style allows your warmth and competence to be visible to all.

Word choice

Of course your message needs to be factually accurate and true, but it goes beyond that. When you explain something, do you use tons of jargon and give way more detail than the listener wants, needs or can understand? Do you seem uncomfortable or unconfident when answering questions? Do your explanations get “lost in the weeds”? These habits can undermine the perception of warmth because it seems like you don’t really understand or trust me, and if you don’t trust me, why would I trust you?

If nothing else, avoid fillers like um, like, you know, or sort of. They make it sound like you don’t even trust what you’re saying, which erodes the perception of competence.

Using relatable stories, common vocabulary and a clear and logical flow, on the other hand, make it much easier for others to understand and appreciate what you’re saying. This transparency allows them to see you as a more trustworthy leader.

Articulation

Regardless of what you want to say, the way the words sound as they roll – or stumble – off the tongue, will reinforce or undermine that foundation of trust. Do you speak at a volume and speed that is comfortable for the listeners? Does your inflection (intonation highs and lows) draw the listeners’ attention to important words, reflecting your personal interest in the topic and adding vocal interest for the listener? These seemingly small details support your image of warmth and competence because it shows you are focusing on meeting the needs of the audience. Mumbling, rushing, and monotonous, run-on sentences will all have the opposite effect.

Facial expressions

Lastly, your physical communication (facial expressions, movement and body language) is, ironically, the most powerful factor in your appearance of credibility, because it is the biggest distractor if it does not reinforce the inherent content of your message.

Even if you are an expert in your content, and even if your voice is strong or clear, facial expressions such as occasional eye-rolling, frowning, staring or lack of eye contact, or biting your lip can signal your deeper, underlying negative feelings about what you are saying, from arrogance and contempt to insecurity. Remember to smile when appropriate, make eye contact with everyone without staring them down, and keep a neutral listening face in order to reassure the audience of the sincerity of your intentions.

Regardless of the seniority of your position, bearing these points in mind will help you reinforce the impression of being both warm and competent, and come across as a natural leader.

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Do you have other questions or feedback about effective leadership communication? 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 things change when you have to speak to larger groups, high-stakes audiences or groups of people you don’t know as well. That’s when your heart starts to race, your palms get sweaty, your face flushes red, and worst of all is the stream of self-defeating “what if” scenarios that start to race through your mind.

What if I draw a blank?
What if I do something wrong?
What if they don’t like me?
What if I don’t sound like an expert?
What if I can’t answer their questions?

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. It’s just four little words, but they’re the secret to speaking with complete confidence. 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, digesting its meaning.

“Here’s the key,” I explained. When you give any presentation, your focus should be on customer service. Your primary responsibility and goal is to ensure that the audience has the best experience possible. Is your topic important? Is it interesting? Do you love it? Help them understand why, and share that passion with them.”

I told her, “Don’t be afraid to make eye contact. Each and every person there wants to feel like you’re talking to them personally. Like they’re the only person there. Look at each person with that goal in mind, to let them know that they matter to you. It makes them feel like they’re part of the event, and that’s critical.”

I could see that she was processing what I was telling her, so I continued. “Think about it: 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 from you 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 instantly felt 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 being perfect, 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’ll find a confidence and level of connection you never imagined possible.

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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!

Dodge the conflict… not the issue

At some point or other, we all have to have important conversations that have the potential to get ugly and uncomfortable. When in doubt, I say do your best to avoid the conflict…but not the issue.

I’m not talking about avoiding people in the hallways, refusing to answer the phone or saying “yes” to everyone – whether or not you mean it – so that you don’t have to say “no.”

There will always be disagreements and necessary discussions about difficult or unpleasant topics. But these conversations do not need to degenerate into round after round of browbeating to try to get your point across.

Ideally, the goal is to address the issue in a way that gets to the heart of the matter, and reaches a mutually agreeable resolution quickly and efficiently without raising voices or blood pressure. There is one intuitive – and yet commonly overlooked – key that can keep most disagreements in the realm of civil, productive discussion.

The key is consciously listening to understand. This is where most people fall woefully short in both their efforts and their outcomes. They think that they listen, but they don’t do it right. Listening to understand is critical to avoiding real argument for one crucial reason: most people continue to argue a point because they feel like they have not truly been heard or understood.

Let’s look at the difference and key strategies for listening in a way that gets to a peaceful, positive, and productive result.

Listening “wrong”

In disagreements, most people “listen” in order to find an opportunity to interrupt, contradict, or defend. This isn’t sincere listening; it’s more like scanning the horizon for the best time to retaliate.

When both parties do this, it quickly leads to an impasse with one of two outcomes: Either both sides leave feeling frustrated, with no resolution, or one side “wins” by forcing the other side to concede, i.e. lose, which will have a variety of negative repercussions down the line in the form of morale, work quality, and office politics just to name a few.

Listening “right”

When you listen to understand, you enter the conversation from the perspective that there’s a missing piece, something you don’t yet know or understand about their position, priorities, interests or concerns.

Invite the other person to share first. A good strategy is to take notes as you listen. This keeps you from interrupting, and allows you to go back later and seek clarification when necessary. It also gives you a chance to reflect and organize your thoughts before you do finally speak, which can streamline the process, avoid clumsy and emotionally-charged knee-jerk responses, and help you prioritize issues to address.

Once the other person has finished sharing their perspective, a great segue can be as simple as, “Thanks for taking the time to explain that to me. I want to make sure I understand the key issues. Can I run through my main takeaways based on what I heard, and you can correct me if I’m off somehow?” Who would say no to such a request?

Once you have the go-ahead, start by paraphrasing your understanding of their key points. You should use simple, reporting language such as, “You said that your budget _____,” or “Did I understand correctly that in your department _____,” or “Your primary concern is that _____, right?” Whatever you do, do not comment on anything yet.

This let’s them know that you are valuing their input enough to take time to ensure that you understood it, and allows them to make sure they got their ideas across effectively. This builds trust and facilitates further discussion.

From there, you can transition into sharing your side of the story, and invite them to take notes and respond later as you did. Keep your language objective, and if you feel like their view on something is incorrect, keep your explanation fact-based, calm and impersonal. There’s a big difference between saying, “There are a few details I don’t think your team is aware of,” and, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At best, once you have heard each other out, and truly sought to understand each other’s objectives and reasons, you can come to a solution that meets everyone’s needs. But at the very least, if the answer still has to be “no,” there is still potential for positive outcome.

Even though the other person might not be happy with the immediate result, it’s much easier for them to accept the outcome because they understand why, and are emotionally satisfied that they have been respected as a person and a professional.

More importantly, you’re leading by example, and fostering a healthy culture of open communication, transparency, and mutual respect.

That’s the difference between someone who has a leadership position, and someone who is 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!

Listen Different

Typically, I write about speech. But today I want to take a new look at the role of the listener in leadership communication. To borrow a page from Apple, you have to learn to “Listen Different.”

Of course, it is incumbent upon you as the speaker to present your information in a way that will make sense to the listener of the moment, and the ability to adapt your speaking style to fit the context is generally viewed as a strong leadership skill. But that’s only half the story.

Not everyone is going to be good at adapting their speech to fit your expectations for what good communication sounds like. As a result, if you don’t learn to listen differently, you are at risk for missing some of the most valuable information, simply because you don’t see the diamond through the coal dust.

As an example, I work with a lot of women’s groups, and one of the most common frustrations I hear is when a woman makes a comment in a meeting, which gets glossed over, and then five minutes later one of the men at the table says almost the exact same thing, but he is praised for the contribution. The following cartoon illustrates the sentiment.

But gender-bias issues aside, it begs the question of why this is such a commonly shared experience, and what to do about it, because the underlying principle stands for everyone – men and women. The truth is that the responsibility for change is shared by everyone at the table. Here’s why:

One reason that some people may feel like they don’t get heard is because the way they frame their ideas makes it subconsciously harder for the listener to register what they’ve said. For example, rather than state an idea like, “We haven’t tried X yet; let’s take a look at that option,” they say something like “What about X? Should we look at that? Would that work?”

The challenge is that many listeners don’t understand the nature of what they’re really hearing, and need to recognize the speaker’s intent. At their core, both of the above examples have the same underlying purpose and meaning (what linguists refer to as the “illocutionary force”): making a suggestion. But on the surface (the “locutionary force”), the former’s grammar is confidently asserting a recommendation, whereas the latter is literally asking questions that seek validation from the others regarding the nature of the idea.

Mind you, there is a time and a place for each approach. The former is typically more effective in contexts where strength, assertiveness and confidence are valued; in that case, the indirect style may fall on deaf ears, despite the inherent value of the suggestion. The latter will likely work better in groups who appreciate subtlety and a more collaborative approach that endeavors to show respect to group consensus, in which case the more assertive style can be dismissed as abrasive and unwelcome, regardless of how the speaker thought he or she came across.

If you’ve ever felt like Miss Triggs – that your message wasn’t heard, or was not received as intended – you might have framed your comment using the dis-preferred style for that group. While no group is going to use one style all the time, and most groups will claim to recognize both, the fact is that on a subconscious level, we tend to hear, process and respond to them differently.

That is, our default listening style tends to register them differently, which is why it’s important to go into conversations with the goal of listening more intently to identify each speaker’s content and intent. This is where the meeting facilitator and other participants in a discussion might miss the boat.

When listening, make sure you’re truly present when someone is speaking, because we first process tone and instinctive feeling before we process actual meaning. So, for example, while you’re pondering your own solutions for a problem, your brain might subconsciously register “someone is asking another question… I’m still working on answering my own, no time for another one now”, at which point you miss a great suggestion. Check your assumptions at the door, so that before your brain dismisses something as incorrect or unimportant, you take a second look to make sure you’re not missing something in the process.

And most importantly, if you are a participant in a discussion and you do hear the value in someone’s contribution but believe the convener or group has missed it, or if “Ms./Mr. Triggs” makes a comment that gets praise only when reiterated by someone else, it is then your responsibility to gently draw it to everyone’s attention: “Yes, Pat, I think you’re reinforcing what Chris said a moment ago about…” Passive listening and lack of proactive participation are not qualities of successful leadership.

It may be frustrating to feel like you need to work harder at listening, that people should just “speak clearly,” but as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” In the end, if you really want to lead, true leadership communication skills go beyond effective speaking. Whether you’re talking to a family member, employee, client or vendor, communication is a two-way street, so learn to listen different.

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!