SmartMouth Talks!

Look Before You Leap, Think Before You Talk

I’m so proud of my client! Let’s call him John. 

Over the past three months, John has been successful in adapting his communication style and effectiveness so much that it’s noticeable to (and appreciated by) his colleagues and superiors. Quite simply, he has started to use inquiry + listening for understanding before disagreeing or talking. 

John is passionate about his work. He’s also incredibly smart. However, he had been getting mixed feedback about his communication style in meetings. Seems that some of his colleagues felt he talked too much and took too long get his thoughts out. Others believed he was thoughtful and measured and thorough. (Long-windedness is apparently in the ear of the beholder!) He was confused and frustrated, unsure of how opinions (gathered in a 360 performance appraisal) could be so divergent.

His boss reached out to me, hoping I might be able to help him communicate in a way that is more collegial and concise. She told me John is a highly skilled and valued manager, but that his style in meetings verged on pontificating and many found it overbearing. She had talked to him about it, and they agreed to get him some coaching.

Luckily, John was super self-aware and also motivated to improve. When we began working together, he and I dove into why and how he tended to make his longer, more involved points during meetings. Turns out, it came from a sincere place – his passion for his organization’s work and his drive to achieve good outcomes. Fair enough. What we worked on was basically audience-centricity, or putting the audience first. We did that in three ways:

  • Using inquiry: Asking questions of other people so he could draw out context, examples and perspective. It helps avoid misunderstandings and makes others feel as though they’ve been heard. Inquiry surfaces material for better, more informed dialogue and decision-making.
  • Listening for understanding … versus listening for responding: Being open and empathetic in how he pays attention to other speakers in the room. Most of us listen with only half an ear; the other half is busy formulating or finessing a response. Listening for understanding requires that you stop composing your response or put aside thoughts of responding until after you’ve assimilated what the speaker has said.
  • Disagreeing diplomatically: Offering up an opposing view in a constructive way on those occasions when John disagreed with what he was hearing. This involves a combination of 1) repeating what you heard and understood from others to be sure you got it right, and 2) articulating the shared opinions or shared goals you have with the other speaker(s). After those two steps, which empathize and build connection, you are free to share your view.

Just like the old saying, “look before you leap,” you should also think before you talk. You may have a strong position or a lot to say, but your colleagues and clients want and need to be heard and understood first. It’s all about them, your audience, because you can’t and won’t achieve your goals without them.

Classic Advice on Visuals

Like ESPN Classic, I occasionally like to showcase some of the best advice from early practitioners of speaker coaching. Because visuals have become an expected accompaniment to most talks – and practically synonymous with the word “presentation” – I’d like to share a few poignant tips on using visuals from Dorothy Sarnoff (1914-2008).

Dorothy Sarnoff was an opera singer and Broadway star who had a much bigger second career as one of the first, and most influential, image consultants and self-help gurus. She advised presidents, prime ministers, political candidates and actors on how to become better public speakers.

She began her consulting career in the 1960’s. She bemoaned the fact that women’s magazines focused only on beauty and clothes and not on areas like poise and voice quality. Sarnoff was soon offering a course at a New York City department store called Speech Cosmetics. Students (mostly women) paid $25 for six classes designed to help them become better public speakers, to “achieve social poise” and to carry on conversations at parties. By the mid-1970s, her clients were paying her $1,000 for coaching sessions and $2,000 per lecture. She famously coached then-candidate for President Jimmy Carter to tone down his smile.

Regarding the use of visuals, Dorothy Sarnoff had these three practical pieces of advice:

“The next time you use visual aids, in deciding whether to use each one, ask yourself: Do I need it? Nine times out of ten the answer is no.”

“Most people say they use visuals to emphasize a point. You don’t need visuals for that. Emphasize your point with your voice and forget the slides.”  

“Depending on visual aides to get your message across sends a signal right off the bat to the audience: your written material, your personal chemistry, or both, aren’t up to the job.”

Once again, it comes down to this: You are responsible for your presentation, not your laptop or your deck. Spend more time on making sure YOU are ready, rather than on perfecting your slides.

Short and Sweet

There’s a lot of good advice out there about public speaking. Much of it is geared toward aiding the speaker.  I want to throw some advice into the mix that’s helpful to the speaker and the audience: Keep your sentences short and crisp!

Speakers do best when they prepare a talk in bullet points rather than prose. 
 
Preparing by writing a long prosaic document is problematic for a couple of reasons. For starters, speakers tend to get attached to the words, phrases and sentences they’ve composed. This is dangerous! It means the speaker is likely to feel compelled to read at the podium – which is bad for obvious reasons – or to memorize, which runs the risk of producing robotic delivery. Being conversational and staying connected with your audience, even if your presentation is imperfect, are still preferred.
 
On the other side of the podium, audiences need pace and rhythm and patter. 
 
For audiences, long, wordy sentences become a maze for the ears, something to get lost in. Preparing for a speech or presentation by writing a lengthy, thorough, fully accurate script for yourself produces something that readers, not listeners, would be willing and able to digest. Listeners need things to keep moving along at a clip. They need the speaker to start and finish a thought quickly in order to hang in there and actually get it. Speakers, don’t forget: you’re the subject matter expert, you’re steeped in your stuff, but it’s the audience’s first time hearing your material.
 
Move from script to bullet points.
 
You can always begin your preparation for a presentation by writing out a full-text script. It can help you establish order, organization, and some of your key phrases. But then you would be wise to use that script only as a practice tool. As soon as you can, switch over to bullet points and then rehearse your talk from those. But watch yourself – keep a lid on those long-winded, run-on, multi-clause sentences. Set a standard and a pace for yourself that requires you to make your sentences short, crisp, distinct units.
 
Good luck, your audiences will thank you!

Raise the Bar!

There is quite a bit of consensus that business meetings and presentations are too often marked by mediocrity and tedium, and there are simply too few people calling phooey. It’s as if herd mentality got together with bystander effect and conspired to make time spent in conference rooms and boardrooms insufferable.

I’m trying to call phooey and help leaders and aspiring leaders raise the bar on business communications for themselves and their organizations.

Communication is the currency of success, it’s how we sell, persuade, motivate, collaborate and inform. It’s how we get things done. The usual organizational values of excellence and efficiency can and should be applied to communication as well, but are they?

When it comes to how organizations communicate, I am struck by how corporate leaders strive for excellence and efficiencies in so many operational areas, yet are willing to settle for merely adequate—or worse, time-wasting—when it comes to business communications. Meetings, presentations, and speeches are so often where and how business gets done, but in these settings mediocrity abounds. Many companies even subscribe to the tenets of the Lean Movement yet tolerate flab and time-wasting in communications.

Business audiences have come to expect and accept a relatively low standard. Well, what is standard in the business world may be adequate, but it’s not optimal and, let’s face it, it shouldn’t be acceptable. Think about how often you roll your eyes during meetings that are too long and, worse, pointless. Think about the boring presentations you’ve sat through—the ones in which you waited for the single valuable nugget, that one answer, that lone call to action that came at minute 52 out of an hour-long talk. Think about the speech by the CEO who was incredibly dry or who mouthed the same old-same old. A bar set at adequate or standard is far too low for organizations that expect excellent outcomes.

Don’t be part of the herd or a bystander. Do what you can to embrace good communications within your organization – and at the very least, for yourself!

[*Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports Worldwww.jocktalkbook.com]

Leaders: Go High!

What do you say when you want to give a brief but impactful overview of your business and your brand?

You’ve got to go high. Or do what I call “going up to 30,000 feet and looking down.” Take the biggest-picture view you can find on your organization’s work and its value. Or, as President George H. W. Bush is known to have called it, find that “vision thing.”

The view from 30,000 feet is the exact opposite of peering through the weeds, and while most people in an organization are by definition, and indeed by assignment, stuck in the day-to-day weeds, certainly a leader is in a position—and arguably has the responsibility—to rise to a higher vantage point.

For an example of a 30,000-foot view, let’s look at one of my clients, an entrepreneurial company that manufactures super high-end sports equipment. The executives came to me for spokesperson training in advance of what they expected to be a busy season of trade shows and sport competitions where their products and sponsored athletes would attract a lot of attention. The engineering and technology that goes into the production of their equipment is as fascinating as it is dense with detail and data. Yet for the media—and for the benefit of building and promoting the brand—they needed to develop some higher-level messaging. The nitty-gritty details could be saved for the trade journals that craved them.

In a small group session with the executive team, I asked a series of questions to elicit the 30,000-foot view. Fundamentally, I was pushing and poking at them to home in and identify what their company is really all about. It’s not about the product line or producing the best equipment; it’s not about being made in America; it’s not even about satisfied customers. Those are all great attributes, but they’re closer to the ground (where weeds grow). What the 30,000-foot exercise yielded in the end was that their company is all about three things, characterized in a different way: innovation, performance, and fun.

Having a 30,000-foot view of your organization’s work in your back pocket means you’re always prepared to speak at the higher visionary level befitting a leader. It gives you a go-to point when you need to make remarks that describe your work and its value. Ultimately, it’s more memorable and communicates your brand … rather than just your product line.

[Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports Worldwww.jocktalkbook.com]

Presentation Theatrics

“Go right up to that line but don’t cross it,” I say. My client, rehearsing her speech for me, says, “Okay, let me give it another try.”

The line I’m referring to is the invisible but instinctive line between what’s barely comfortable and what’s not when employing theatrics to enhance your delivery.

Don’t let the word theatrics throw you off or cause you to self-select out of reading any further. Presentation theatrics are necessary, they animate you and your content. Theatrics are the energy – voice and body – that you infuse into your delivery. They should produce a delivery that feels a bit exaggerated to you but simply comes off as energetic to your audience.

To achieve that energetic connection with your audiences, here are some tips for your voice, hands and body:

Voice. In a word, modulate. Vary and adjust your speaking pace, volume, pitch. For example, if there is a section of your speech that should sound more conversational, then you can speak at a quicker pace and with a normal tone of voice. If you have a word, phrase or sentence that warrants attention, you will want to slow down, project your voice, and essentially emphasize it orally as you would if you were writing it in boldface font.

Hands. Use them as props in your play. Think Charades. You can literally animate your speech by using gestures that go with your words. For example, to welcome your audience or when talking about “all of us here in this room,” use outstretched arms to make a large, open embrace. If you are talking about something personal or touching or emotional, put your hands to your heart. You can clap (yes!), punch your fist in the air (victory!), offer an exaggerated shrug (who knew?!), put the back of your hand to your forehead (ugh!). Talking with your hands is a-okay.

Body. Unless you are forced to stand behind a podium due to a fixed microphone, you want to use your body also. Nothing distracting (like pacing), but some movement across the floor or stage helps to keep your audience’s attention. For example, if you’re talking about making a change or a move, literally walk a few feet across the floor. Move to get closer to different sides or sections of the room. Take a giant step forward to illustrate progress or a step backward to illustrate a setback. Act out your words.

Regardless of how you animate your speech and which tactics you use, just know that you will be pushing yourself and using your whole body, head to toe. Keep it authentically you, but an exaggerated you. Push it to the point where you feel like you’re putting on a show … because you are.

 

Visuals: The Case for Images

“Vision trumps all other senses.”

Those are the words of Dr. John Medina, a renowned molecular biologist. I have been fascinated by his book, “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School” for a while now.

According to Medina’s work, we remember pictures. He claims that if we hear a piece of information without a picture as visual support, then three days later we’ll remember only 10% of it. However, if we hear a piece of information with a picture to support it, then three days later we’ll remember 65% of it.

Medina also asserts that we remember pictures much better than we remember text, because our brains see words as lots of little pictures, making the reading part less efficient than simply looking at a picture.

The implication for business presentations? Images beat words. Those dense text slides you’re using or seeing might not be providing the “visual support” benefit you were hoping they would have.

Try images – pictures, simple graphics, or even one-word slides. It takes some forethought and advance planning, but your audience will better remember what you were trying to impart.

And, if you spare them the multi-bullet-pointed slides that have become ubiquitous, they are likely to thank you.

 

Brevity 101

Nothing informs the future of business communication more than the need for brevity in meetings and presentations. 

In fewer than 500 words, let’s look at the case for brevity and then at how to achieve it. Feel free to read this as a call to action – for yourself, your team and/or your organization!

The Case for Brevity

Clearly, brevity in presentations is a trend. Of the most popular formats, TedTalks, which typically share deep insights and are capped at 18 minutes, are the longest. There are also presentation events like Pechakucha – 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide – which have become almost a club sport in some cities.

In online training, the rage is microlearning – nuggets of material delivered in only 90 seconds or two minutes, consuming very little of the user’s time and attention but delivering something of value.

Audiences are demanding more of these brief formats. It’s not just that attention spans are shrinking – according to research, they’ve always been limited – it’s that the combination of a device and a WiFi connection is a formidable competitor. 

Finally, let’s face it, we all crave brevity because we’re tired of wasting time in unnecessarily lengthy meetings and presentations.

How to Achieve Brevity

Brevity isn’t simply about shortening the time by talking and moving through your material faster, it’s about homing in on what’s meaningful about your content and getting to the point sooner, with less mess. It’s about delivering the meat without a lot of side dishes obscuring it. Brevity is efficiency in communication.

So, what does it take to be brief? 

You need to plan, prioritize and package your material. 

How?

First, life and attention spans are short. Serve dessert first. In your opening, deliver your call to action or the ultimate takeaway of your presentation. Don’t wait until the end.

Second, go modular. Prepare your presentation not as a narrative but in chunks that are linked by transitions. Break down the chunks into big fish and little fish. 

Your big fish are your main points, and you state those first. If your presentation is informative, big fish statements will sound like a summary that captures the importance of a section of material. If your presentation is persuasive, your big fish statements will sound like a statement conveying value or benefit for your section(s) of material.

Your little fish are the background information and detail – evidence, if you will – that support your big fish. Little fish are subordinate to big fish and come second.

Delivering a presentation that is front-loaded with information (little fish) can be overwhelming and confusing to your audience. Packaging your information inside of a main point (big fish) and delivering that first helps to set context and foster greater understanding and retention. Information, or too much information, is the enemy of brevity. Be selective and prioritize information based on your audience’s appetite and interests. 

Communication is the currency of success, and brevity is the future of individual and organizational effectiveness. 

Co-Presenting Agreements

Lately, I have worked with several clients who need to share the floor or take the stage with a colleague. Each speaker rehearsed and knew their section of the presentation but, as I observed and coached them, there’s a lot more to achieving a smooth, seamless co-presenting performance than just knowing your part.

Here are 3 important agreements you and your co-presenter should discuss and make in advance:

Avoid the awkwardness of not knowing where to put yourself or what to do when it’s not your turn. When your partner is speaking, you, in effect, become a member of the audience. You turn your attention to the speaker versus staring straight at the audience while you wait. You’ll want to choreograph yourselves so that each of you, when not speaking, takes a position that defers attention to the speaker and doesn’t interfere with the screen (if using visuals). Rehearse this in the presentation space itself or block it out in a space that’s comparable.

Transitioning from one speaker to the next requires forethought and finesse. Discuss and know ahead how you will pass the baton – and practice it – as if in a relay race. Please be more interesting, engaging and collegial than merely saying, “… and now Ashley will cover the budget.” Script in some banter or repartee, or make an astute comment to summarize the link between your and your co-presenter’s material. Or, if the presentation involves a consistent back and forth every few minutes or every few slides, then make sure Speaker A’s final sentence lines up with Speaker B’s opening sentence for each transition. Avoid the duplication of effort (and tedium!) of Speaker B feeling the need to say, “… so, as Speaker A just talked about …”

Interjecting is a relief to some, undermining to others. One of the most important agreements to discuss is whether each of you prefers for your co-presenter to interject comments or questions … or not. If you forget a chunk of your material, do you want your co-presenter to chime in? Would that be helpful or would it throw you off? Are you okay fielding spontaneous comments and questions from your co-presenter to help relieve nervousness and/or to make the presentation seem more casual and collaborative? Or would that make you lose your train of thought? When I work with a co-presenting team, I always think I know who will have which preference … and I am often wrong! You never know, so discuss and agree on this in advance.

There are so many benefits to co-presenting – the change in speakers is stimulating to the audience, presenters get to share the floor and Q&A with someone who has complementary expertise, and it can be more fun for the speakers and audience alike, to name just a few. Nevertheless, because it involves two (or more) people, there’s more material, more logistics and more dynamics to consider. Discussing and agreeing on the three points above is a great way to get ahead of the game.

Bottom line: Audiences are attending one presentation, not two, so treat it that way in your planning and delivery.

Once Upon a Time

Stories – or anecdotes, examples, case studies – are the absolute best way to illustrate a point, even in a business presentation.

When crafted well, they illustrate and support your messages better than anything else. Stories make an emotional connection to your audience that sticks with them long after you finish talking.

Here are 3 rules of thumb that apply to using stories in your communications:

1. STORIES NEED TO DIRECTLY SUPPORT A POINT. In other words, you may have a favorite story that you love to tell, and that’s great, but it must be constructed in a such a way that it works its way to a “punch line” that reinforces the message point you are trying to support. You can’t assume the audience will make that connection on their own, you have to spell it out and tie it together for them.

2. PREPARATION IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Rather than simply reminding yourself to tell a certain story during your presentation, you need to map out the story to avoid getting lost in the details while telling it (every story has more details than you have time to share!). I have watched too many speakers derail a perfectly good 15-minute presentation by telling a story that went on and on until – before they knew it – an additional 10 minutes of air time had been consumed.

3. SIMPLE IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN COMPLICATED. This is true of most communications but certainly true of stories – despite the temptation to “spin a yarn” for your audience. Unless you’re a comedian or a professional storyteller, you’ll want to keep your stories simple.

Keeping them simple means paring down and prioritizing the detail. Think about composing your stories in this 3-3-3 format:

  • 3 sentences describing the situation;

  • 3 sentences revealing the dramatic tension (e.g. something unexpected, complications, competing factors); and

  • 3 sentences outlining the resolution, which should help you tie back – in that punch line kind of a way – to the point you were illustrating.

And finally, be sure to cue your audience when you’re beginning and ending a story. For those in the audience who might not be paying close attention, you have the opportunity to reignite interest with your own appropriate versions of “Once upon a time” and “The end” – those timeless story cues that signal the open and close of something special.

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