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Virtual Communication Tips

The Virus. Say no more, right? 

Our lives seem to have changed almost overnight. Places of work, learning, gathering and networking are all closed, on hold, or happening virtually. 

Since so many of us will be conducting business, learning, and even attending industry events online, I thought it might be the responsible thing to ditch what I was going to write about this month and turn my attention to offering tips for virtual communications.

If you are working remotely, and leading or attending meetings online or via conference call, here are some quick-hit tips for you on being an effective communicator from a distance:

Audiences need more guidance than usual. One of the things we know about audiences is that it’s a passive role to be a listener. Audiences simply won’t work very hard to figure out what a speaker is saying or what the speaker wants them to know. Even in-person audiences need constant guidance – e.g. when you’re digressing to tell a story, or when you’re moving from one point or section to another, or what your key takeaway is – so you can imagine the need for remote audiences. It’s exponentially greater. Therefore, take your audiences by the hand and walk them through every step of your meeting or presentation so they can track and follow along.

Stand, don’t sit. If you’re on a conference call, stand up to speak. Your voice energy and projection will be stronger and more commanding than when you’re sitting (and possibly leaning back in your chair). You don’t want to be the person who sounds distant and low-energy. You also don’t want to be the person whose delivery is halting and distracted-sounding … because you’re reading an email that came in while you were talking. Stand up, look away from your screen, and project.

Keep it brief, and keep it moving. Holding attention, interest, and engagement in online meetings is more challenging than when your group is gathered together around a conference room table. (It would be great if this could mean goodbye-for-now to long, tedious, rambling meetings!) If you are a meeting leader – or an assertive meeting participant – help the group keep exchanges limited to important topics and robust discussions. It’s more than fair to ask that tangents and irrelevant questions be put on hold for another time.

While all of this presents a test to our ability to focus, be present, and be concise and on point, I want to offer kudos to all of you who are doing your best to work from home and maintain some momentum in your work lives. As we all find our way through these surreal times together, I have complete faith in everyone to do what’s needed. Nevertheless, I’m here if you need me; reach out and we can set up a Zoom session!

Comms People, It’s Your Time To Be At The Table!

There’s nothing quite like a crisis to highlight the value of good corporate communications … or the scourge of bad, for that matter. This is your time, comms people. There isn’t an industry that won’t be affected by the reverberations of COVID-19, and so this is the time when everyone in a comms role can and should step up. The C-Suite cannot do this alone.

Sidenote: Is it opportunistic to be thinking about your role vis-à-vis the C-Suite right now? Sure it is, but it’s also necessary. Trust me, everybody wins this time – your company reputation, employee satisfaction/engagement/retention, shareholders, customers and other stakeholders all win when you pitch in to help shape the message and prepare the messenger at the highest level of the organization during a crisis!

So a few things to think about as you prepare to be one of the most trusted advisors to your C’s right now:

Be clear. I wish I could whisper this, but I have to say it out loud: Executives, for some reason, love to obfuscate, hedge, or paint a rosier than real picture. It must be because they want to hang on to the love, admiration and loyalty of their stakeholders. Don’t let them lean in to their best intentions – which, during a crisis, are their worst instincts. Be incredibly clear with your messaging; keep it simple and in plain English. No non-committal corporate-speak that sounds like gobbledygook. Bring recommendations for clear messaging to your C’s; it should come from you to them, not the other way around.

Be transparent. Along with creating clear messaging, it will fall to you to be the transparency police. I know legal will be at the table too, but hold your ground. During a crisis, it is imperative to be open and transparent with what the company knows, doesn’t know, and how it’s coping/managing. We live in an age of suspicion, when audiences can sniff out BS or a phony statement. You will need to be the enforcer and remind the executive suite that it’s okay not to know everything. To help in this effort, make sure your spokesperson is someone capable of credible transparency.

Be consistent. Be the voice of reason with respect to needing to be consistent with the company’s message, messenger, and cadence. Even though different audiences have different self-interests and a different level of need-to-know, be sure the messaging across audiences is consistent and that there are no unintended contradictions. The messenger should be consistent also, so choose a spokesperson who is reassuring and available. Finally, your recommendation re cadence – i.e. how many times a week you communicate with audiences – should be sustainable and based upon your industry, the needs of your audiences, and your medium for delivery.

Be trusted. Advocate for your spokesperson – CEO or other public face/voice – to be someone who either is trusted or can build trust. If the CEO is not the most empathetic or trustworthy figure, try some coaching for him/her or figure out a way to pitch him/her on the idea of someone else taking on that role and responsibility. Delicate work, I get it. You might want to arm yourself with some worst-case scenario examples of corporate executives and companies that lost the battle with trust. Trust during a crisis is everything.

Be ready. Encourage your exec team to have and communicate not only a Plan B, but a Plan C also. We don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s wise to be ready to move beyond just Plan B if necessary. For certain very discerning audiences with a need to know (e.g. employees, shareholders), it will be a confidence-builder to know that your company is thinking ahead and planning for even potentially unforeseen outcomes. Suggesting that the company have a Plan C demonstrates your value as a strategic advisor. And besides, it’s smart; we don’t yet know what’s in store for the next few months.

For those comms people who haven’t gotten a foot in the C-Suite door yet, this crisis could be your time. While the ROI of corporate communications may not be fully appreciated during times of peace and prosperity, there is a clear and undisputed ROI for good corporate communications during difficult times. ROI notwithstanding, this is your time because there is no time like right now. 

I Was With You Until …

When a colleague or friend asks you for feedback on a presentation, do you find yourself glossing over the truth? Do you offer actual constructive criticism, or do you hold back in favor of sparing the speaker’s feelings? Maybe you’re not sure exactly what to say or how to say it?

I think we’ve all been in this position at least once. It’s easy to give kudos when a speaker does a spectacular job, but more often than not, there’s something we saw or heard that could have been better. What we say and how we say it often depends on our relationship to the speaker – friend, colleague, or even boss. 

Regardless of the relationship, below is a two-step approach to giving constructive feedback.

1. Decide who you are. 

You might begin your feedback with either of these two options:

As your colleague/friend, I …

As an audience member, I …

Depending on what you want to tell them, you can be their colleague/friend, or you can distance yourself a little bit and talk about your observation or experience as an audience member. 

As “colleague/friend,” you’re more likely to soft-pedal things a little and mix in what you liked with what you didn’t like so much. That’s perfectly okay as long as you’re truthful. 

As “audience member,” you’re able to serve up the harder feedback from the more objective vantage point of being a general audience member versus speaking solely for yourself. 

2. Make it specific.

Rather than “Well, that wasn’t your best, I’ve seen you deliver that presentation better” or “You were great up there, loved it,” think about feedback that drives toward specifics the speaker can use to improve their presentation. For example, consider these:

My mind started to drift right around …

I was hoping you would have …

I understood X, but wasn’t sure where Y fit in …

I loved the story you told, but I wasn’t sure what point it supported …

You really had me when you started talking about …

I noticed people nodding with you when you …

I was with you until …

The reality is that being a good speaker and presenter is a journey. Like with any good journey, speakers need guidance and company along the way. As the one giving the feedback, you don’t want to be insincere and offer flattery for a mediocre presentation, nor do you want to tell someone they completely blew it. Instead, share specifics the speaker can use to learn from, fix or enhance. At the end of the day, you were probably “with them until …” and even that alone would be helpful for the speaker to know!

A Little Passion Can Go a Long Way

Do any (or maybe all) of these goals sound familiar?

When I reflect on my SmartMouth years (15, to be exact, this month!), and all that I’ve learned from working with an incredibly diverse and absolutely fascinating client base, I would have to say the ultimate game-changer and live-saver for speakers coincidentally comes from the organ we can’t live without … our hearts. 

The key to all of the above goals – being a better storyteller, being impactful, connecting, inspiring, and grabbing attention – is to use, and speak from, our hearts. Nothing engages an audience quite like passion. Genuine love, excitement, dedication, energy, and drive can win over audiences under any circumstance.

Consider a few common presentation situations:

Hostages. When people choose to be in the room for your presentation, you have a naturally more attentive audience. When people have not chosen to be in the room and are what I call hostages, it creates special challenges around grabbing and holding attention. Without question, though, a speaker who is passionate and energized about the topic will have a much better chance of grabbing and holding attention even when the audience is only mildly interested in the topic or, worse, not interested at all. With an impassioned delivery, a room of hostages will leave with a good impression of the speaker at the very least.

Presenting Up. Presenting to people who may be more knowledgeable or experienced than you can be daunting. Capturing their attention is hard. Wanting to impress them feels urgent. Yet they know more than you do. So how on earth are you supposed to hold their attention? Honestly, the best thing you can do is to open your heart, be vulnerable, transparent, and excited. Let your audience in, engage them with your eagerness for your work and where you are in it. It will be infectious.

Dry Material. Let’s face it, some presentations deal with material that is dry. Period. If you can share a story – an anecdote, example, or case study – it will do two things. First, it will illustrate the importance or usefulness of your dry material. Second, it will animate your voice and body, bringing out even the most latent passion. If you don’t have any stories to add color, then think about (and rehearse!) infusing your delivery with energy and physical animation, demonstrating a keen interest in or commitment to your topic, and/or telling the audience how genuinely pleased you are to be speaking with them and thank them graciously for their attention to the dry material.

When you make a presentation, you’re hoping to generate interest in your topic. Passion is simply a demonstration of your own interest in the topic. If you want others to be interested, I think it’s only fair that it begins with you. Don’t fake your passion, you don’t have to. Tap into it, it’s very likely close to the surface and accessible to you!

2020 marks SmartMouth’s 15th year in business

Dear Friends of SmartMouth,

Happy New Year, I hope this year and decade bring you lots of opportunities to shine … especially at the front of the room! 

On our end, 2020 marks SmartMouth’s 15th year in business – hard to believe but also very satisfying. Our client list continues to grow, and our engagements continue to be rewarding. We’ve added several enhancements to our trainings over the past two years, all of which have been well received so far. Complementing our in-person coaching and training is our app, as well as our online courses on OpenSesame and GO1. On the publishing side, my regular columns in Forbes.com join Jock Talk in helping to expand the reach of the SmartMouth approach. 

In an effort to maintain balance and quality, I plan to scale back the SmartMouth blog post and newsletter to once a month, rather than twice. Starting this month, you can look for a nugget of advice on communication skills and style on the third Thursday of the month. I hope you’ll continue to follow and read!

In gratitude for your loyalty and friendship.

 
All my best,

Q4 Challenge

It doesn’t take much to be a good leader-communicator. Perfection may be elusive, but being good enough to earn the admiration of your team are well within reach. Adherence to a few core principles takes care of most situations.

In my book Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, I walk readers through the philosophy behind, and application of, these 5 principles: Audience-centricity, Transparency, Graciousness, Brevity, and Preparedness.

Taken together, they send two really important messages about you to your audience: 1) that you care about and respect them, and 2) that you’re real and therefore credible and trustworthy.

Audience-centricity is probably the most fundamental of the five principles. Simply put, audience-centricity is making the audience’s interests and experience a top priority in the planning and execution of a talk. Too many speakers prepare and deliver what is important and interesting to themselves without enough careful consideration of their listeners. Being audience-centric is a mindset shift that encourages the speaker to prepare and deliver content in a way that will matter to and resonate with the audience.

Transparency is exactly what you think it is; it’s about being open and direct—yes, and honest, too. Transparency is critical. It contributes to the levels of sincerity and trust that are accorded to you by your audience.

Graciousness is the art, skill, and willingness to be kindhearted, fair, and polite. As motivators and influencers, love and peace work far better than hate and war. Speaking in positives rather than negatives leaves lasting, favorable impressions. 

Brevity is a crowd-pleaser and needs no further introduction.

Preparedness speaks for itself as well, especially because the unprepared speaker is the one who is most likely to be longwinded, not to mention unfocused. While the mere thought of preparation might bring on feelings of dread or even impossibility, there are ways to prepare that take only seconds but that can greatly enhance a speaker’s effectiveness.

As you settle in for the homestretch toward year-end, I would encourage you to pick one of these principles as your personal pet project for the remainder of Q4. Which one of these 5 do you feel like you need to improve on the most? Or which one of these 5 would have the most impact on your business if you strengthened it? Pick one and go for it!

New Agey Advice for Nervousness

Let’s cut to the chase on nerves and public speaking by first dispensing with the platitudes we typically hear on the subject.

It’s not enough for you to know that the nervousness you feel before a presentation is your adrenaline getting you ready to do well. That doesn’t really help you, does it?

It’s also not enough to know that literally everyone feels the same way in the first two minutes of a presentation. That’s not helpful either, right?

Or that you just shouldn’t worry about it, you’ll do fine. Not very helpful.

Hearing these attempts to rationalize your experience is akin to being terribly sick with the flu and hearing “it’s a really bad flu season this year,” or “it’s been making the rounds, everyone has it.” Those may be true statements but they’re not a cure for your body’s misery.

Given that there’s also no cure for nerves in public speaking, I’d like to offer some new agey advice, a new angle on an old problem. Here are four ways to create your own zen space while delivering a presentation – keeping you present, at peace, and minimizing unnecessary distractions:

Use your breath. Two steps: 1) Deep breath in. 2) Nice, long exhale out. Sounds silly but it’s real. A good long exhale releases tension in your body, which can make you feel better. Never mind specifics about what to do with your abs or lungs, just take some deep breaths and let out a few good, long exhales. It will relieve and release the tension you feel. Repeat, as necessary.

Use your energy. Focus on your audience rather than on yourself. I mean really stop thinking about yourself. Give them, not yourself (and all your crazy nervous thoughts about forgetting what you want to say or what people are thinking about you), your energy. Turn your attention to them, look at them, move closer to them, talk to them. Surrender your attachment to how well you’re doing or to your material. Instead, connect with THEM. 

Set an intention. Set an intention for yourself by imagining ahead of time the type of speaker you want to be in the room – e.g. relaxed, conversational, commanding, confident, approachable, entertaining. Picture yourself being that speaker. Your intention becomes a goal, an ideal, you will be setting for yourself and gives you positive imagery to use as a guide while you speak.

Be mindful. Use mindfulness to acknowledge and accept your nervousness, being gentle and compassionate with yourself, rather than push it away or deny it. Resistance creates suffering. Don’t resist, simply accept. Know that your nerves will accompany you on this journey that is your presentation. It’s natural, it’s you, it’s okay. One of the definitions of zen is to be relaxed and not worrying about things you cannot change. 

Taken all together – breathing, turning yourself and your attention over to the audience, visualizing an ideal, and accepting rather than resisting your nerves – might not be a cure but employing these techniques over time will make your public speaking nerves more tolerable initially and then eventually, totally manageable.

Om. 

 

Info = Reduction of Uncertainty

I was captivated recently by an article in National Geographic’s Secrets of Animal Communication. In particular, this passage on the first page really stuck with me:

Communication might even be conceived … as anything that’s evolved to transmit information, with “information” defined as a reduction of uncertainty. Understood in this way, communication is found in the speckles on a trout’s flank and the courtship displays of whooping cranes, the abdomen-wagging dances of honeybees and – yes – monkey alarm calls … Cues, signals, messages – communication is everywhere, and life is a constant gathering of information. 

A constant gathering of information, thereby reducing uncertainty. Amazing definition! At a very primal level, information is meant to reduce the unknowns, to guide us, to give us signals – via sight and sound – for knowing, deciding, engaging. Wow, let’s hold that thought for a minute.

When we gather information – in meetings and presentations – does it typically reduce uncertainty? Doesn’t it sometimes (or often) increase uncertainty? Obfuscate? Blur? Confuse? 

What if we shared information only with the intention, or to the extent, that we would reduce uncertainty – or, to be more positive about it – to ensure certainty? Instead of giving in to the urge to be thorough or to prove that we’re the smartest person in the room, we would communicate – with our body language and our words – more deliberately and strategically, wouldn’t we?

We would indeed. So here are three of SmartMouth’s tips to help us be more deliberate and strategic with our information:

1. Cues. The best way to reduce uncertainty is to guide your audience each step of the way. Tell them when your introduction is over, when you’re making and concluding your first main point, when you’re digressing to tell a story, when you’re transitioning from one point to another, and when something you’re saying is more important than the rest. Drop little breadcrumbs along the way so they can track and know where you are and what they’re supposed to remember.

2. Signals. Decide that you’re going to show up, be present and let the audience know you want to be with them. If you make a conscious decision ahead of time that you’re going to relax and enjoy your time, it is more likely to happen and your audience is more likely to engage with you. And smile – it’s probably the best non-verbal signal you can send.

3. Messages. Information, defined as evidence, background or detail, is meant to support a point or message. Know your what your message is, and then, to support it, decide how much and what kind of information your audience can tolerate and digest … in order to reduce uncertainty. TMI, or too much information, is in the eye of the beholder, your audience! (Ask yourself: are they in the room by choice or obligation? If by choice, you have more latitude with info; if by obligation, limit it.)

Check yourself and be honest: Are you reducing uncertainty when you speak and share information or are you making the waters murkier for your audiences? We get a lot of wisdom about ourselves from our observations of the animal kingdom, but this particular gem, that info = reduction of uncertainty, is particularly poignant in a world of TMI. Like animals, our communication is via sight and sound, so let’s make sure we reduce uncertainty with both.

 

Is There a One-Size-Fits-All Speaking Style?

Q: Given all the best practices and well-known tips for public speaking, is there a style everyone should try to emulate and master?

A: No.

Coaching people to be better speakers and presenters is delicate business. People are sensitive, they have pride and egos – and not in a bad way, but in a very good way. If someone has reached the point where they need to be more impactful at the front of the room, either they’ve earned it or they’re showing great potential. In other words, they have every right to be prideful and (appropriately) protective of their ego.

There are coaches out there who work to mold their coachees into a certain speaking style they view as the gold standard. It can be awkward or, at the very least, difficult for the coachee to achieve; it’s just not them. I don’t hold people to a standard. I believe (quite strongly) that every individual is at their best only when she or he strives to be their best self.

Let’s be honest, not every turn at the front of the room is a TEDTalk, nor is it the Gettysburg Address. Very few people are offering inspirational keynotes. Most people who speak in front of groups need and want to be effective in order to advance their work. They want to be clear, concise and impressive. This automatically removes the need to emulate someone erudite and profound like Winston Churchill or someone with the magnetic delivery of a Ronald Reagan or a Barack Obama. Which means there’s no need for a gold standard.

If you are in the position of offering a friend or colleague some advice, or if you’re the person asking for advice, I want you to use what I use, which is the “best self” standard. Let’s break that down …

Best. One of Merriam Webster’s definitions of best is the greatest degree of good or excellence

Self. Self is defined as an individual’s typical character or behavior

Taken together, the goal is to achieve the greatest degree of good or excellence for an individual’s typical character or behavior. In public speaking, this means looking for the person’s strengths and drawing those out more plus flagging the weaknesses so the speaker can be more self-aware and ready to avoid them. 

Telling someone to “say that like Jenny does” or “do what Bob does” isn’t helpful. Telling them “you are so much more engaging when you get passionate” or “remember to slow down when you want your audience to hear every word in your sentence” is specific to them and therefore so much more attainable. 

The point is to begin with the person and mold them into the best speaker they can be, not to begin with a speaker or mold in mind and squeeze the person into that. The goal is best self, not best speaker. 

Making the Most of College Football Season

For those of you who are rabid college football fans, avert your eyes, click out of this, go do something else. This article is not for you. 

If you’re like me, though, and you’re a sports enthusiast except when it comes to football, you might be looking for a diversion. Like me, you could be facing three months in which you’ll be hearing the ambient noise of football – because it’s constantly in the background or you’re passively watching with a loved one or you’ve agreed to meet friends at a local pub to watch (but only because you wanted to see your friends) – and you’re looking for something constructive to do for those three tedious hours. Look no further, I have just the thing!

College football, as all sporting events are, is an opportunity to hone your presentation skills. Yep, your presentation skills. Simply by watching and learning. So, here’s a heads-up on three aspects of athlete and coach communications that make great “notes to self” about how you want to (or not) present yourself:

Handling Q&A. Half-time and post-game interviews are a microcosm of what happens during Q&A in business settings. There are the usual, predictable questions that get asked every single time. There are also the out-of-left-field, are-you-kidding-me questions that no one is quite sure how to handle. And there’s everything in between. Watch and listen, you can probably learn something from both ends of the questioning spectrum. In particular, this: When you get asked the usual, predictable questions, are you curt and short because you’ve said it a hundred times (like some athletes and coaches are), or do you take your time to give a robust and substantive reply? I hope it’s the latter, because it may be old hat to you but you never know who’s hearing it for the first time.

Handling Victory. Post-game interviews with the victors are a fascinating thing to watch. Depending on the game, some athletes and coaches are so elated, they can barely formulate a full sentence. Still, it’s fun because they communicate with their ebullience. Other winners, and I can think of a few coaches as I say this, show imperceptible signs of the happiness you would expect to accompany a victory. Those are the interviews you watch and you’re not sure if you’re listening to the winning or losing coach. As with most things in life, the key is moderation: In other words, when celebrating a victory and communicating your feelings about it, the key is finding the balance between being joyful and being humble/gracious.

Handling Defeat. There are so many great examples of how to and how not to handle defeat in sports. We’ve all seen some players and coaches take roads so high we didn’t even know such thoughtfulness and eloquence were possible. And we’ve seen some who mumble, hang their heads and walk out of the room. Even though there’s a 50% chance of defeat in team sports, no one enters the game thinking it will be them (or if they think it will be them, they enter the game thinking positively and hoping for a miracle on the field!). No doubt, it’s hard to give the post-game interview after a loss. Watch and listen for things like graciousness versus defensiveness; responsibility versus blame; and hopeful versus fatalistic responses about the future. No need to harp on which is better, which sounds better, and which is better for reputation-building … you’re a time-tested audience member, you get it!

Pay attention to how reporters talk about, speculate and evaluate what players and coaches say and have said. Their observations – even with the ridiculously intense nonstop scrutiny – are also interesting and informative. They offer a window on what your audiences want to see and hear from you. 

Enjoy college football this fall, and I hope you decide to join me in some armchair presentation coaching!

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