Language

Speaker Beware! Is Your Audience Saying “Boo!” or “Oooh”?

When you deliver a presentation on Halloween or any other day of the year, your audience expects to be treated to a stimulating, thoughtfully designed, and well developed speech.But too many speakers inadvertently play a trick instead by using poor language skills that distract the audience, weaken the message, and leave listeners wanting to shout “Boo!” That’s why it’s important to beware of your language. Voice and language skills should communicate excitement, passion, and confidence, not leave your audience feeling like zombies.

Here are some tips to rid your language of the most common goblins that haunt presentations.

Avoid non-words: Non-words, sounds or phrase fillers, like “um,” “ah,” and “anduh” pollute your language and can be distracting to you listener. They can make you sound less polished, less prepared, and less credible, which will work against you when you are trying to communicate effectively and persuade others to your point of view.

Reduce distracting words and phrases: Polished public speakers use few if any of the following repetitive filler words: “like,” “really,” “I mean,” “you know,” “in terms of,” “so” “actually,” and many others. At DeFinis Communications our motto is, “Friends never let friends say, ’basically.’”

Limit slang: Avoid modern slang when giving a speech. Phrases such as “you guys,” “folks,” and “awesome” are fine to use in most everyday conversations, but they could weaken your credibility in front of certain audiences. Carefully consider your audience before using these words during your presentation and substitute power words for everyday slang.

What can you do?

If you have a tendency to use non-words, distracting words, or slang in everyday speech, your first step in changing these behaviors is to raise your awareness. Leave yourself voicemail messages, ask friends and colleagues if they notice these fillers, and listen carefully to yourself when you speak. Once you analyze the problem and know what you’re up against, then you can fix it.

Because vocal behaviors such as these are imbedded in our language from a very young age these habits will not change overnight. But there are techniques you can begin using today that will start the ball rolling in the right direction. When it comes to improving your vocal control, a “pause” is your best friend. Anytime you are on the verge of using a non-word, distracting word, or slang, stop and pause for two full seconds. You can also use shorter sentences, speak at a slower rate, raise your volume, breathe deeply, and smile to help you control these distracting words and sounds.

Don’t let your language skills kill your chances of giving a great speech. Whether on Halloween or any day of the year, strive to give your listeners a memorable experience that leaves them howling for more!

Read my past Halloween blog posts:

Spooky Presentations – When Botox Makes you Say “Boo!”

A Corporate Speechwriter’s Halloween Tour of Medieval England

Obama “On Fire” in Iowa

If you’re looking for an example of someone who knows how to create a fire in the belly of an audience, look no further than President Obama’s speech last Friday in Urbandale, Iowa. There, Obama launched The Road to Charlotte Tour with a rousing rebuttal to the GOP convention platform last week.

There are numerous best practices to note in this speech, but the one I want to emphasize is the use of his overall energy. Obama is the epitome of a public speaker who knows how to “create performance combustion.” This is a term I use often to describe how a speaker can bring an audience to life.

When I talk about creating performance combustion, I use the metaphor of creating fire. As any good scout knows, to create fire, you need the three elements of heat, fuel, and oxygen. I like to think that these three elements correspond to the use of our body, our voice, and words. And just as fire requires that each of these elements be present to keep the fire glowing, the same can be said about the speaker’s use of physical energy, vocal energy, and verbal energy. The combination of our physical, vocal, and verbal skills creates something bigger than any one element can provide.

To be able to create a fire in the belly of our audience, we have to have that fire already burning hot in our own belly. That’s what Obama showed us on Friday. Let’s take a look at how he used each “element” of fire to intensify our experience—to rouse and excite the crowd.

  • Physical Presence: When speaking, Obama was erect, leaned slightly forward, and made direct eye contact. He used facial expressions that varied from serious and intense to warm, smiling and uplifting. He used his gestures, hands and arms modestly.
  • Vocal Resonance: Obama used volume that came in waves, sometimes soft and conversational and other times driving and forceful. . He used clear enunciation, a range of pitch from high to low, and plenty of well-placed strategic pauses. But the most commanding vocal skill was his use of inflection. He powered out those last few sentences loud and strong, holding nothing back, in full force and fury. His voice quickened our pulse and pulled us in.
  • Distinctive language: He used concise sentences. For example, when commenting about the GOP convention, he said, “They talked a lot about me. They talked a lot about them. But they didn’t say a lot about you.” He made use of the world “you” (the most powerful word in the English language) often. He gave clear and simple directions, as in, “Don’t boo. Vote.” Go to www.gottaregister.com or www.gottavote.com.

People always ask me what it takes to be a good public speaker. The answer is simple: You have to be willing and able to create performance combustion—especially with your voice.

So, in addition to recommending TED talks and C-Span when looking for examples of good and bad public speaking, today I recommend Obama’s speech in Urbandale. Politics aside, you will see speech skills and techniques in abundance and clearly available for analysis. I watch a lot of speeches. Some make me think, some make me sleep, but few make me feel. This one was invigorating. Obama, the candidate, has returned, creating fire once again.

I’ll be blogging about many of the speeches at the DNC this week and hope you will add your candid thoughts and comments to my posts. Stay tuned.

Use Your Voice to Make a Great First Impression

I recently had a phone conversation with a new client who had signed up for our Executive Immersion program. While our discussion was informative, it was also a little challenging. He spoke with a thick accent, had poor enunciation, rambled on and on, and spoke in monotone. I had to work hard to listen intently, process what he was saying, and then think of my own response. And this was on the phone! I could only imagine what it was like to listen to him present in front of a group. When we ended the call, he gave me a link to a video clip of him presenting. I immediately went to the site. Based on our phone conversation, my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise to see him presenting in front of a group and doing much better than he had on the phone. Not only were his voice and speaking pattern were much better, but he also smiled, carried himself well, came across as genuine and sincere, and projected energy. While he didn’t “combust” in front of the group, he wasn’t asleep at the wheel either.

When it comes to first impressions, we often think it’s only about your physical presence—how you look. But I’ve found that for presenters your voice and speaking pattern carry just as much weight. Your voice is your primary instrument when delivering information, so your enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to your topic must come across to the audience through your voice.

To develop your vocal potential and make the best use of your natural speaking abilities, I suggest you focus on three categories: vocal clarity, vocal variety, and vocal emphasis.

  • Vocal clarity is the ease with which a listener can understand what you are saying. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to a speaker and barely understanding every third or fourth word because of mumbling, poor pronunciation, or a foreign accent. That means you not only need to speak loudly enough for people to hear you, but you also need to form your words with precision (ex: “going” rather than “goin”) and then say them according to rules of acceptable pronunciation (ex: not pronouncing the “t” in “often”).
  • Vocal variety is the interest you generate in your listeners when you produce changes in your rate of speech and pitch. Therefore, speak quickly enough to keep the presentation moving along but slowly enough so everyone can easily grasp your message. Slow down at major points, especially when delivering more complex information, and allow your audience time to absorb the material. Additionally, adjust your pitch to match the emotional content of your message. If something is critically important, change your pitch to reflect that. Generally, a low pitch indicates seriousness and a sense of authority, while a high pitch shows enthusiasm and excitement. You will let the audience know your attitude toward your topic when you use variety to express the range and depth of your feelings.
  • Vocal emphasis is the way in which you accent syllables, words, and silence to stress importance and to give meaning to our sentences. Varying your inflection is one of the most important tools you have to project enthusiasm and conviction in your presentation. Without accenting particular words and syllables, speakers sound monotone and come across disinterested, bored, or lacking authority or expertise. Along with inflection, silence (or pausing) is a powerful tool for emphasizing a key point or creating a bit of drama. And remember, what may seem like a long moment of silence to you is actually a much needed information break to your listeners.

Obviously, your physical first impression still counts. But no matter how professional you look, if your voice and words don’t match your physical image, you’ll lose your audience. So be sure to work on all areas of your first impression—including your voice. When you look the part and sound the part, you’ll make a positive first impression that leads to greater credibility and higher esteem.

Add Context, Not Just Content, to Your Next Speech

While vacationing in Maine, my husband and I ventured to Lubec, Maine, the gateway to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada—the once popular summer colony for wealthy Americans and Canadians, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On our way we stopped at Quoddy Headlight, the easternmost point in the U.S. And once on Campobello, we went to the East Quoddy Lighthouse.

Perched on an island and only accessible in low tide, the East Quoddy Lighthouse called to our adventurous spirit. We were eager to make the trip across the sandbar and climb the steps to the lighthouse. Although it’s dangerous and rugged, for two hours when the tide is out visitors can climb the steep metal ladders, walk on the ocean floor, cross two intermediate islands connected by a short wooden bridge, take a second steep ladder and then walk across a rocky, slippery seaweed covered intertidal zone to get to the lighthouse. We were ready for the adventure when we were warned that the tide had turned. Then we saw the sign:

DANGER!--TAKE NO RISKS & DO NOT LINGER! If you become stranded on the islands by the tide, WAIT FOR RESCUE. Even former keepers of this lighthouse have lost their lives by misjudging the STRONG, FRIGID, FAST-RISING tidal currents and TIDE-PRESSURIZED UNSTABLE PEBBLE OCEAN FLOOR while attempting to make this crossing.

At that moment, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous saying, “Time and tide wait for no man,” took on a whole new meaning for me.

The tides in this part of the Bay of Fundy are 25 feet or more. We learned that further up the bay in Nova Scotia, the tidal changes can be more than 50 feet and most extreme when the moon is full. These are the largest tidal changes in the world. That’s a lot of water moving in and out twice a day, and it was clear that the tides were the backdrop for the entire way of life in this part of Maine.

We saw firsthand the dramatic changes in the tides. In Lubec, there are poles on the wharf that go up nearly 20 feet, taking the dock with it as the water rises and falls. Like clockwork, an hour before high tide a dozen or more seals, cormorants, gulls, and bald eagles arrive to feed on the fish brought in by the tide. Travelling to these places and witnessing the significance of the tidal changes first hand brought Chaucer’s quote to life. The facts were important, but seeing the facts in action was exhilarating!

This experience made me realize the importance of “context” in describing any situation. Until I saw the physical power of these dramatic tides, the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man” had little meaning to me. But now I get it. You can’t beat the tides. The sea will never bow to your will. And no matter how strong a swimmer you are, at 50 degrees the water is too cold, the rips too unpredictable, and the force of the water flow too overpowering.

I often counsel my clients to use stories, metaphors, anecdotes, and quotes—the rhetorical devices that create compelling imagery and add power to your presentations. However, it is absolutely essential to also provide the context in which the images reside.

To create effective presentations we often use phrases from our own experience, thinking that our audience fully understands the meaning. But they may not understand where we’re coming from. So our challenge as communicators is not only to come up with and deliver the clever anecdote, quote, or quip, but also to be successful in communicating the broader world from which it evolves. Yes, the facts of tidal changes were compelling, but then there was the DANGER sign, the rising and falling poles on the dock in Lubec, and the sea life feeding at the exact same time every day. These images bore witness.

Therefore, I encourage you to find those fascinating rhetorical gems and take the time to fully render them in context. Tell us more; make it come alive.

And now, I’ve gotta run. The lighthouse beckons, and the tide is coming in!

The Most Unusual (and Amazing) Speech Preparation Story I’ve Ever Heard

I just completed a week’s training with the faculty at the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. This is my third year working with them, so we’re practically like family now. During one of the breaks we were chatting about speech preparation when one of the women present, Bernadette Alvear Fa, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Reconstructive Dental Sciences and Director of Local Anesthesia Curriculum, mentioned that the most challenging preparation she ever did was when she was in labor with her son. In labor with her son? What?  Prepping for a speech while in labor was something I certainly never expected to hear from anyone. I just had to get the details, and since we were all comfortable with each other, she didn’t mind sharing (or me sharing this story either).

I first met Bernadette in June 2011 when she was in my training class. I worked with her on her physical, vocal, and verbal delivery skills as well as her message development, and I gave her various options for preparation strategies to implement. At the time, she was 12 weeks pregnant.

Bernadette explained that in the months that followed the training, she gave numerous lectures with her ever growing belly, each time using the skills she had learned in my class. She was becoming a powerful and confident speaker. Interestingly, as her son started to kick, move, and punch from within, he always remained silent when she was lecturing or speaking in front of large crowds.

On December 3, 2011, Bernadette was officially 36 weeks and 1 day pregnant. She completed a lecture with a colleague and had one more official lecture to provide to the faculty 10 days later. She had the slideshow presentation ready to go and had reviewed it with her co-presenter. Then, on December 10, 2011, something unexpected happened. Bernadette’s water broke at 6:45 a.m. When she and her husband arrived at the hospital, she breathed her way through a few moderate contractions and then sent  out a flood of emails to notify people at work that she would not be coming in on the following Monday and would not be giving her presentation (at least not “live”). Three hours later she had an epidural and decided it was time to work on her “voice over” for the presentation she was going to be missing on Monday. Since she couldn’t be at the presentation in person, she wanted her co-presenter to have her sections of the presentation complete. Talk about dedication!

According to the readings on the monitors, Bernadette saw that she was intensely contracting, and her son appeared happy as a clam and bouncing around joyfully. She asked all visitors in the delivery room to remain quiet, as the only microphone she had for the voice over was the one included in her laptop, which was low grade at best. Knowing she had to make do without her usual professional presentation tools, she drew upon the DeFinis Communications vocal delivery skills she had learned and did the entire voice over from her hospital bed while in labor.

Once complete, she emailed the presentation to her co-presenter. She then patted her belly and said, “Okay, son. Mommy’s done lecturing. It’s time to come out. We’re ready for you.” Forty minutes later, the world welcomed Christian Michael Fa. He waited patiently while his mom finished her work, enabling her to completely focus on the most important task at hand now—being his Mom.

I sat mesmerized listening to her story. She could have easily turned the lecture over to someone else to prepare the voice over, and I doubt anyone would have noticed. But powerful women never give up! Bernadette was determined to follow through with the commitment she made and had the presence of mind to use the skills she learned in our class to prepare a voice-over presentation in this most challenging environment. In a room filled with stress, anticipation, adrenaline, and the frenzied activity of nurses and beeping computer monitors, Bernadette stayed cool, calm, and focused. As a result, she did an amazing job on her voice over…even while in labor.

Ever since women entered the workforce, they’ve had to creatively overcome the challenges of balancing work and home. In this case, Bernadette went the extra mile. She used her determination, perseverance, and optimism to balance these two forces in a way I’ve never seen before. If a woman can do what Bernadette did—be in labor and prepare a complex, technical dental lecture—then surely women are capable of anything, whether it’s leading a company, saving lives, or delivering a powerful  presentation under usual circumstances.

Bernadette is a true leader in her company and in her life. Christian has a lot to look forward to growing up with a role model of loving mother and confident professional.

Do you have an unusual or amazing speech preparation story? Share it here. We’d all love to read it!

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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The Key Factor for Your Presentation’s Success

When you’re preparing a presentation, who is the most important person you need to consider? The answer: Your audience. You’ve likely experienced, at least once in your career, what happens when you forget about your audience. Here’s the scenario: You create the perfect presentation complete with solid transitions, compelling visuals, and stellar numbers. You have great jokes planned and practice every element of your speech. Yet, as you stand in front of your listeners and talk, your message isn’t garnering any interest. You know you’re crashing fast. While you may have prepared incessantly before you went to the front of the room, you forgot about the one critical element to your presentation—your audience.

If you forget your audience, your presentation can backfire. That’s why knowing the details about them is critical for your success.

For example, Andrew Winston is a well-known consultant who is dedicated to helping companies grow and flourish by utilizing green environmental strategies. He speaks across the globe to varied audiences. As such, Winston is a master at crafting his presentation to match the needs of his diverse audience. 

Winston speaks to audiences of adoring fans, sustainability conference attendees, and even lumberjacks and loggers. Do you think he takes the risk of delivering the same speech to each unique audience? Of course not! The brilliance of Winston is his ability to deliver a compelling presentation every time he speaks because he caters to the specific needs of each audience. When he is in front of his fans, he is bold, controversial, and risk taking. However, when he is in front of an audience of skeptics, he eliminates the controversial pieces and engages with the audience on a personal level.

As a presenter, you must get your audience on your side. If the people in front of you want numbers, give them numbers; if they want jokes, give them jokes. However, if you don’t take the time to analyze what would best suit your audience, your presentation will fall flat no matter how much you prepare. 

Therefore, before you begin crafting your speech, know who you are going to be standing in front of. Will you be amongst your cheering, loving fans? Or a caustic, skeptical group of dissenters? Make sure you are prepared to speak to the hearts and minds of the crowd in front of you!

Three Influential First Ladies

As the old saying goes, "Behind every great man is a great woman." When it comes to talking about American presidents, nothing could be truer. American presidential history is filled with influential First Ladies who have paved the way for women everywhere. What I find fascinating about First Ladies is that while they don’t have an official role, they nevertheless become influential because of the things they do, the programs they start, and the initiatives they spearhead. As such, they are often thrust into the public’s eye and into the limelight—whether they want that role or not.

For instance, consider Eleanor Roosevelt. Born into a political family, Eleanor Roosevelt quickly became America’s most influential First Lady as she blazed paths for women and led the battle for social justice. What was unique about Eleanor was that prior to her, First Ladies were not so public or active. In fact, Eleanor watched the traditional protocol of her aunt, Edith Roosevelt, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and decided she would be very different.

With her husband Franklin’s support, Eleanor continued her pre-First Lady activities, which included working with the Women’s Trade Union League and being a leader in the New York State Democratic Party. In an era when few women had careers, Eleanor was showing women what was possible. During her twelve years as First Lady, she made frequent personal appearances at labor meetings to assure Depression-era workers that the White House was mindful of their plight. And her work with the National Youth Administration (NYA) was focused on training women to enter the workforce. Enjoy this early video of Eleanor talking about the NYA and its role in the future of women.

Hillary Clinton is another First Lady worth mentioning. One of her first goal’s as First Lady was to push for universal healthcare for all Americans. But in just a little over a year of embarking on her agenda, the healthcare bill was declared "dead" by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell. Despite that setback, Hillary Clinton rose from the ashes and became the voice of healthcare issues that affected Americans. She initiated the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, a federal effort that provided state support for those children whose parents were unable to provide them with health coverage. She also successfully sought to increase the research funding for illnesses such as prostate cancer and childhood asthma at the National Institute of Health, and she gave voice to the illnesses that were affecting veterans of the Gulf War.

In 1995, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing that solidified her role as a powerful female speaker and change agent. Her poise, power, and passion for the subject matter—women’s rights worldwide—paved the way for her future political goals and gave women everywhere a worldwide voice.

Finally, only three years into her role as First Lady, Michelle Obama is continuing the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton by raising the bar for future First Ladies. Known for her sense of style and decorum, Michelle Obama has created her own role in the White House, focusing on childhood obesity and food policy issues. This effort is in addition to her other endeavors: supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, encouraging national service, and promoting the arts and arts education. Interestingly, she has earned widespread publicity on the topic of healthy eating by planting the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt served as First Lady.

In May 2006, Essence listed Michelle Obama among "25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women," and in July 2007, Vanity Fair listed her among "10 of the World’s Best Dressed People." In March 2009, she appeared on the cover and in a photo spread of Vogue. Every First Lady since Lou Hoover has been in Vogue, but only Hillary Clinton had previously appeared on the cover. Hmmm…Do I sense a connection here?

Most recently, Michelle Obama gave the commencement speech to the 2011 class of West Point cadets. Her appearance there broke with tradition, as those who speak at West Point graduation events have always come from within the military’s chain of command. This also marked the first time a First Lady has addressed graduating cadets at West Point.

By all accounts, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama are influential First Ladies. When it comes to being poised under pressure, they hit the mark every time. I urge you to watch some of their past speeches to see the true meaning of confidence, polish, and power. They are indeed role models for women worldwide. This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Speaking With Conviction…Over the Phone

I have been working with a recent college graduate who is seeking an entry level job in sales and he is finding that many of the positions available are cold calling, telemarketing positions. While I am not certain that sitting behind a desk, on the phone for 80-100 calls a day, is the best fit for this young man, his job search got me thinking… What does it take to properly convey your message and deliver a captivating presentation over the phone?

Even if you’re not a telemarketer, you’re likely giving phone presentations every day. Think about it…we live in a world saturated with technology. Tools like Skype, GoToMeeting, and Telepresence are common in business, and you probably use them often. Yet, how much thought have you given to using these presentation options effectively?

When you’re using any one of these tools, you are essentially giving a presentation over the phone. You have to deliver your ideas without the benefits of a face-to-face meeting, or you have to speak to an image on a computer screen. When you’re faced with these situations, how can you use your public speaking skills and prevent your message from going down in flames?

Here are a few things to remember when trying to be persuasive over the phone or when videoconferencing:

Vary your vocal emphasis and inflection.

You’re on a conference call and your presentation is on the computer screen via GoToMeeting. You are talking about profit and loss margins, ROI, and, synergy. You’re using as much business jargon as you can to impress your clients. However, you forgot one thing: your shining personality!

Too many speakers deliver bland presentations in live settings, let alone over a conference call. To be compelling and interesting when you’re not physically there, you need to vary your vocal delivery. Using emphasis and inflection on key words helps your audience stay engaged.

Don’t let yourself drone on in order to get through your meeting. Rather, give your audience the opportunity to glean extra meaning from your words with some variety in your intonation and some diversity in the range of your voice.

Pay attention to your clarity and speed.

When speaking to a group in a live public speaking situation you always want to articulate clearly and talk slowly. When speaking to a group over the phone or via your computer, you need to pay extra attention to these points.

I cannot stress this enough. Producing a clear voice and a clean sound from a computer microphone or a speakerphone is difficult. Words will inevitably be lost due to static and choppy internet connections. So open your mouth, raise your volume, enunciate clearly and slow down.

When you speak slowly and articulate clearly, you enable your audience to catch every word, even if there is static or connection choppiness, so they don’t lose the entire meaning of your content. Give your listeners the chance to keep up and they will give you their full attention.

Smile and enjoy yourself!

While your audience may not be able to see you, they certainly know when you are smiling. Whenever you deliver an exciting and emotional presentation, whether in person or over the phone, feel it! Show your emotions through your facial and physical gestures; your audience on the other end of the line will absolutely be able to follow along.   

When you are excited and smiling, your voice naturally changes pitch. It is just as easy to recognize those speakers who enjoy themselves over the phone as it is to recognize those who simply run through the motions. Therefore, enjoy yourself and let your colors shine through. Your virtual audience will thank you for it with their rapt attention.

When you follow these three tips, you’ll be able to give virtual and phone presentations that engage both the hearts and minds of your listeners….and that inspire them to action.

Relationships Shape Women’s Communications

Welcome to my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and valuable information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please forward these weekly Wednesday blogs to your family, friends and colleagues! In the 1970s, a lab at Harvard University conducted a well-known study that explored the stages of moral and ethical development. Two subjects who were part of this study were Amy and Jake, bright, articulate eleven year olds.

Amy and Jake were told a story that involved an ethical dilemma. It is called The Heinz Dilemma. The children were told that Mr. Heinz faced a difficult decision. He must decide whether to steal an expensive drug he cannot afford. The drug will save the life of his dying wife.

When presented with the Heinz Dilemma, Jake responded that the life of Mr. Heinz’s wife is more important than the rule to not steal, and he suggested that Mr. Heinz is justified in stealing the drug to save his wife. Jake pointed out that if Mr. Heinz were caught, a judge would probably understand and go easy on him. This response placed Jake in what was considered by the researchers to be an appropriate stage of moral and ethical development for his age. What are the characteristics of Jake’s response? Linear, logical, impersonal, and black and white.

Amy’s response was different from Jake’s. She believed that Mr. Heinz should not steal the drug. She thought there must be other ways of obtaining it. She didn’t know what those were, but she thought there had to be another option. She also thought that stealing might have very bad consequences. If Mr. Heinz did steal the drug he might be arrested and taken to jail, and then he could not take care of his dying wife.

What are the characteristics of Amy’s approach? Instead of linear, it is multidimensional; instead of black and white, it is multicolored; instead of impersonal, it is highly personal. Amy believed there had to be a way to solve this problem without resorting to an unethical choice.

How was Amy’s response reviewed? Her refusal to accept the either/or situation was evaluated poorly. It was interpreted that her open-ended exploration of the situation indicated a failure of logic and an inability to think for herself. She was placed in a lower stage of ethical and moral development for her age.

The Power of Connection, Communication and Relationships

Just as Amy’s more nuanced response was dismissed and devalued by the researchers, many women working in our established structures today are not rewarded for contributing their best ideas to the discussion at hand. Just like Amy, women use a logic of effectiveness that builds on the power of connection, communication, and relationships…and that ability is, unfortunately, often viewed as a negative.

Here are some facts about women and how they communicate their stance on an issue or their ideas:

  • Women are most concerned about how to do the right thing and get the job done. Often, that means working with others in cooperation and collaboration rather than meting out black and white decisions.
  • Women are more concerned about using interpersonal skills to solve problems. They seek input from others in meetings and during discussions to get the best solutions.
  • Women are more active in creating community. They spend time rallying people together around a cause or idea.
  • Women enjoy using relational skills. They like to talk things out, build camaraderie during tense issues, and make sure everyone gets a say in the matter.

All of the above are essential skills for delivering high performance results—whether those results are in the boardroom, on the platform, or in the home.

So what do we learn from Amy and Jake?

This one example gives us an opportunity to explore the differences in the ways that men and women approach and solve problems, communicate, and relate to others. It gives us a chance to discover how we can take advantage of these differences to contribute to workplace effectiveness. Most importantly, it reminds us that these very real differences can be integrated and blended to create the best possible options for high performance, productivity and success.

Use the Pareto Principle for More Powerful Presentations

ParetoThe 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, helps explain the power of simplicity. The 80/20 Rule is pervasive in our world. For example:

  • 80% of traffic jams occur on the 20% of roads
  • 80% of beer is consumed by 20% of drinkers
  • 80% of profits come from 20% of customers
  • 80% of sales are generated by 20% of sales people
  • In other words, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, the Pareto Principle can be seen in all areas of life. From traffic to beer to business and everywhere in between, the 80/20 Rule dominates. And, believe it or not, the 80/20 Rule applies to your presentations too.

First, it’s important to note that the point of the 80/20 Rule is to help you realize that most things in life are not evenly distributed, including your time resources. But when you recognize which 20% of something gives you the most reward or return on investment, you can make a conscious decision to focus on those aspects.

So when it comes to your presentations, here’s how the 80/20 Rule comes into play:

  • Your content – Most presenters struggle with content creation because they don’t know how to focus their main points. As such, they try to put everything they know about the topic into a short presentation. But using the Pareto Principle, you can see that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your content; therefore, focus on the vital few pieces of information—the 20%—that will be most important for your listeners. Don’t rely on your instincts to identify the 20%. Instead, use data to determine the truth about what to put in your speech. Analyze your audience and look at who they are. What are their pains? What problems do they need to solve? What will help them be less overwhelmed, more organized, more successful? Then, focus just on those few items and give 80% of your content around those 20% of main points. Remember, keeping your message simple keeps both you and your audience focused.
  • Body Language – We all have dozens of gestures and body language tools available to us, but most people use only about 20% of what they have in their toolbox. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it does simplify the options. However, using the same old 20% of body language all the time could be boring for you and your audience. Think of it like wearing the same pair of shoes every day. They work, but the “wow” factor is gone. So rather than using the same 20% of gestures and body language 80% of the time, try out a few new hand movements, facial expressions, and even body stances. You may just find that they open you up to a whole new realm of possibilities.
  • Vocabulary – The Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20% are no longer in current use. If all these were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million words. Even though we can choose to use any of these words in our presentations, the fact is that 80% of the time we use the same 20% of words in our presentations. If this works for you and delivers stellar results, then great. But if you’re looking for better results from your presentations, perhaps it’s time to stretch your mind, learn new words, and expand your vocabulary.

Finally, the Pareto Principle does not mean you can ignore key aspects of your presentation (or key aspects of anything for that matter). So while you may create 80% of your presentation in the first 20% of time, or you may focus on 20% of your key points for 80% of the time, you still need to add in the details that turn your ho-hum first draft into a high caliber presentation.

Will you take these steps? I already know what 80% of the people will. The real question is, what will YOU do?

Winning the Future: Reflections on President Obama’s State of the Union Address

I love the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address. Anytime our leaders gather together to celebrate our history and our future, I am moved and inspired. I was especially so last night as I watched President Obama take control of the podium and deliver a well-structured speech that reiterated for all of us our unique and inspiring history. In his “story of ordinary people who dare to dream,” he was included, as was Joe Biden and John Boehner. From the moment he walked down the aisle and silenced the applauding crowd, I was (as I always am) struck by his easy charisma and presidential stature. He carries himself with confidence and certainty.  He is a leader who is so much in charge that he’s not afraid to set limits or to compromise. Either position is within his reach to use when required. He demonstrated this range last night as he moved nimbly from softness to seriousness.

Of course, the response to his speech from pundits and the American public was mixed. A CBS News poll of speech watchers, which was conducted online by Knowledge Networks immediately after the president’s address, showed that 91 percent of those who watched the speech approved of the proposals President Obama put forth during his remarks. Only nine percent disapproved. Despite that, some pundits claimed the speech missed the mark, even saying, “The speech is a mathematical riddle that can’t be solved.” (If anyone understands what that means, please let me know.)

I’m not a domestic or foreign policy expert, nor am I a political commentator. So I won’t comment on the proposals and ideas the president put forth. I am, however, a citizen, a speech coach, and a communication expert. And as far as I am concerned, President Obama captured my attention as he stepped into the rhythm of the Connection Loop and engaged us with his usual accessible style and well-structured message.

In fact, it was a beautifully sculpted speech. He told stories, used data, quoted others, asked rhetorical questions, asked for our involvement, used humor, used metaphors, and in general, used the rule of three to capture our attention, build his case, and inspire us to act. For example, after his opening remarks, he laid out his three point agenda: Innovation, education, and infrastructure by saying, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Likewise, while laying out his agenda for the year and the challenge to the leadership, he asked everyone “to step up, work together, and make it happen.”

He also gave us some highly quotable moments and phrases that are sure to become part of our public domain database. Some highlights that struck me were:

  • “What comes of this moment is not whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
  • “The future is ours to win”
  • “We do big things.”
  • “Innovation doesn’t just change our lives; it is how we make our living.”
  • “It’s not just the winner of the super bowl that should be celebrated; it’s the winner of the science fair.”
  • “If you want to make a difference, become a teacher. Your nation needs you!”
  • “Connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

Throughout the speech was his underlying constant rhythm of optimism. Yes, this was an uplifting speech—a speech that said in a completely new way, “Yes We Can.”

No matter what side of the political spectrum you adhere to, no one can deny that President Obama is a masterful presenter—someone who not only comes alive before an audience, but also someone who engages the hearts and minds of his listeners. So even if you don’t want to be the leader of the free world, but simply the leader in your industry or topic, then observe and listen to the president’s speech. He is definitely someone all presenters should watch and emulate.

A Time to Shine: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When you’re looking for powerful material for your next speech—from examples and metaphors to stories and themes—look no further than your own life. In fact, the best content often comes from your personal challenges and tribulations, from your joys and successes, and from people you know who have survived adversity and risen above it. So when you’re struggling to develop your presentation message, my advice is this: Don’t stray too far from your own experience. Write what you know. After all, if one of the greatest speechmakers of the century used this approach, it is surely a valuable lesson for the rest of us. Celebrating Dr. King

This week we will witness many celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. People worldwide remember the power of his most well known speech, entitled I Have a Dream, in which he shares his personal vision of an America free of racism and racial tension. This speech is considered the finest in American history. Like others in the speaking industry, I often use this speech as an example of powerful oratory. Dr. King’s speech has been studied, examined, dissected, interpreted, and analyzed. Its place in history is well established.

But equally as powerful is the speech he gave the night before his death in Memphis Tennessee on April 4, 1968. This speech is formally called I See the Promised Land, and is less formally known as If I Had Sneezed. The great theme of the speech focused on an incident that happened to him a few years before.

“If I Had Sneezed”

In this speech, he tells the shocking story of when he was stabbed in the chest at a book signing by a “demented woman.” The blade had gone through his chest, and the tip of the blade was on the edge of his aorta. The following morning the New York Times reported that if he had sneezed, he would have died.

During his recovery, he received many cards and letters from people all over the country—from the president and vice president and from various governors. But he remembered little of those letters. Only one letter stood out. It was from a young, ninth grade white girl. She wrote a simple note: “I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

A Powerful Personal Story

Dr. King used that story, his own personal story, to develop his last speech. He told the story of his stabbing incident and mentioned the letters from well wishers. He took the phrase from the young ninth grade girl and turned it from “I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze” into, “If I had sneezed.” He then used that phrase to review the major milestones of his civil rights journey by beginning each line with, “If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around …”

In 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters…

In 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia decided to straighten their backs up…

In 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill…

In August that year to tell America about a dream I had…

In Selma, Alabama to see the great movement there…

In Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sister who are suffering…

He used his “If I had sneezed” phrase to build the powerful rhythm and content of his speech, to tell the dramatic story of his journey of the decade before, and to lead to the prophetic vision of his destiny.

So as we all take time this week to honor Dr. King, also take some time to reflect on your own life. Chances are you too have a few memorable experiences that can inspire others and help you create a meaningful speech that moves people to action.

Click here to read the entire text of Dr. King’s I See the Promised Land speech.

“…Words Will Never Hurt Me” – Or Will They? What we can learn from the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy

Gabrielle GiffordGabrielle Giffords’ mentor, Robert Reich, has said that he believed Gabby would be the first or second female president of the United States. She was a rising star in the Democratic Party and much loved by her constituents in Tucson. Now she is fighting for her life. No one can make sense of such a senseless tragedy. Worldwide Spotlight

Reporters from the U.S., Germany, France, Mexico and the UK, among others, are covering the story. Of particular interest to them is the incendiary political rhetoric that many believe may have played a role in the Tucson killings. Much has been reported about Sarah Palin’s U.S. map that used a riflescope to identify the congressional districts on her “hit list.”

Of course, we will never know what impact Palin’s map, other negative images or violent rhetoric had on the shooter—Jared Loughner—but we do know that words and images have the power to harm or heal. If there’s one thing we should have learned from history, from Hitler to Manson, it’s that when violent ideas end up in the wrong hands, there can be dire consequences.

Is there a place for cruel and threatening rhetoric in our political discourse, especially since we know that tragedies can occur? In a democracy, competition is required for a healthy dialogue; but the way we have been expressing our differences is now under scrutiny worldwide.

The Super Bowl of Politics

Politics is not the only area where we see competition and aggressiveness. You can see it acted out every Sunday during football season. But the key difference between the competition and aggressiveness in football versus politics is that football players adhere to strict rules of conduct. Players respect and follow those rules because they are enforced. If players break the rules, they can be penalized, pulled out of the game, fined or suspended. There are consequences that are written into the bylaws of the game and we all accept them.

In our political system, however, there are no strict rules of conduct. People can say what they want. Politicians and others in positions of power can use violent language, metaphors and images of such things as guns, hunting, and targets to convey their point. If they don’t like their opponent, if they believe that they are promoting the wrong policies, they can put them on a “hit list.”

From Every Challenge Comes Opportunity

But this tragedy gives us the opportunity to question our political rhetoric—and that is one positive by-product of this tragic incident. We have a chance to reflect on the power of rhetoric not just in our political dialogue, but also in every area of life where words are important to us.

As a speech coach, I think about words a lot. I believe that words have inherent power and can be used to cultivate hope, optimism and goodness, or they can be used to stimulate fear, oppression and hatred. In speeches, relationships, families, societies, organizations, and yes, in politics, words matter. And just as violent themes, images, threats and aggression have no place in families, they also have no place in our political communication.

In football and other aggressive sports that entertain Americans on a regular basis, rules are required for the safety and civility of the game. Rules govern not just what happens on the field, but in the stands as well. The fans want to know that things are under control so they can root for their team of choice without fear of reprisal from the competing team. Fans want to be able to fully participate in the experience without fear.

Is that too much to expect from our political leaders as well?

I welcome your comments on this post.

Giving Thanks for Mark Twain

This year, 2010, marks the centennial year of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a., Mark Twain). It is also his 175th birthday and the 125th anniversary of the American publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a big year for Twain, and I’m sure he’s bummed that he’s not here. But there’s no need to worry. There are stand-ins in abundance. At the recent Mark Twain Motherlode Festival in Angel’s Camp, California, there were a number of actors who gave such believable performances that Mark Twain himself would have been grinning from sideburn to sideburn. Actors like McAvoy Lane, an internationally known Mark Twain impersonator, brought the dead man to life and delighted us with Twain’s signature wit and charm.

Twain would have been thrilled at the event. This festival brought together scholars and fans alike to celebrate the legacy of one of America’s most renowned writers, humorists and speakers.

Many of these scholars are the people behind the recently completed Autobiography of Mark Twain, which contains previously unpublished material, musings and stories written by the great author. This first volume, the first of three to be published, is 743 pages.

The festival was like a who’s who from the world of Mark Twain. Scholars from the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley, sat on panels and chatted with us during breaks. Biographer Ron Powers regaled us with stories from his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. A video address by the main editor Bob Hirst gave us insight into the scope and depth of the project, and a performance by humorist Will Durst made us realize that if Mark Twain were alive today he would have more Twitter followers than Ashton Kutcher. They each spoke of Twain with the kind of reverence reserved for a beloved Uncle or grandfather. It was inspiring.

And what about the brouhaha surrounding his autobiography and the fact that it’s already on the New York Times bestseller list? How would Twain feel about that?

I think he’s rolling over in his grave and laughing. And I have a feeling he planned it this way. How many famous authors would have the prescience to dictate and save thousands of pages of work for an encore performance 100 years after his swan song? Twain once joked that the best business advice he ever got was from PT Barnum, who gave us the famous line, “A sucker is born every minute.” It just makes me wonder what Twain has in store for us for his bicentennial.

The speaking industry is particularly indebted to the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. How many of us have ridden on the shoulders of this giant and have used his epigrams and maxims to support a point, add humor to our presentations or shine light on an unspoken truth? How many of us have tweeted his short quips—all surprisingly under 140 characters! Mark Twain quotes are essential ingredients for every speaker’s toolkit. You can’t live without them.

So here is my thanksgiving gift for you. A few Mark Twain “tweets” to spice up your holiday festivities.

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

"There are only two types of speakers in the world. The nervous and the liars."

“There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting.”

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation."

“If you have nothing to say, say nothing.”

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”

What better time than Thanksgiving to celebrate the legacy of Mark Twain. Let’s give thanks…and look forward to 3010! I plan on being here. How about you?

How Not to Stumble from Mumbles

I once knew a man who had such a serious problem with mumbling that everyone called him ‘Mumbles.’ He spoke in his own private language, sounding as if his mouth was filled with a mixture of peanut butter, guacamole, and oatmeal. Sometimes you could understand the beginning of his sentence, but by the time he got to the end it was mystery meat. Mumbles was a talented carpenter who helped us with the renovation on our house. But because we couldn’t understand much of what he said, we had to use our Architect as an interpreter. How the architect understood Mumbles…I’ll never know. To me, his sentences were impossible to decipher.

Unfortunately, mumbling is a common problem. I have known and worked with people from many industries who have mumbled: accountants, engineers, CEOs, celebrity sports figures, and many more. So yes, even intelligent, powerful, and talented people can sometimes be incoherent. Mumbling is a universal problem that stretches across every strata of society. The good news is that it can be overcome.

Mumbling doesn’t have a single root, but it can be linked to a number of vocal behaviors that seem to collide in a perfect storm…often ending in incoherence. Mumbles seemed to have all the elements that led to incoherent speech: he spoke too fast, he neglected to articulate his “ing” endings, he enunciated poorly, he spoke in a very soft voice, and he used long rambling sentences, causing him to run out of breath.

I’ve learned that you can’t cure a mumbler with just one technique or skill. Like most skills of public speaking, the cure for mumbling is holistic. Because mumbling is connected to many other behaviors, if you identify the less obvious you can often find the techniques that will lead to coherent speaking.

Here are some cures to try:

  • Raise your voice—speak louder than you usually do.
  • Use strategic pauses—pause after every second or third word.
  • Give every word its value—say each word as if it were the most important word in your sentence.
  • Use inflection—emphasize key words with force and power.
  • Enunciate—exaggerate your diction and clearly overstate each syllable of every word.
  • Use short sentences—keep them between 8-13 words.

 

Once you’ve had a chance to practice these skills you should then evaluate your progress. If you know people who have heard you mumble, ask them to listen for changes and improvements. Leave yourself a voice mail message every day for a week and listen to your progress. Video yourself at the dinner table, in a conversation at work, or with a friend and listen for changes in your voice.

I can only imagine how much business Mumbles lost on a regular basis because prospects and clients couldn’t understand him. So while mumbling can be overcome, it takes some sleuthing to uncover the cause. But once you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll have a real chance to make changes and become a coherent, articulate, and polished speaker.