Perseverance

Planning a Presentation? Make Sure Your Back-Up Plan Really Covers Your Back

Many of DeFinis Communications’ sales and technical clients spend a lot of time on the road, delivering presentations to prospects, customers, and users near and far. As such, they often share their road warrior tales of woe during our classes. So many things can go wrong before and during a presentation, from technical glitches to misplaced papers. While you can do your best to prepare and plan for almost any presentation crisis, there are some things that are completely out of your control, such as the weather and airline cancellations.

Rita Williams, one of our top trainers, has a travel story to trump all others. If you’ve ever had Rita as a DeFinis Communications instructor, you know her to be incredibly organized, punctual, and prepared. She’s not the type to wing a presentation or any part of the planning stage either. That’s why I was so surprised to hear her latest travel story.

Rita arrived at the airport early for a routine cross country flight from San Francisco to Washington DC. At check-in, the booking agent told her that she could take an earlier flight. In order to board the earlier flight, though, she had to gate-check her personal travel bag. Normally she never checks her bags for a short 2-3 day business trip, but this seemed safe enough so she was unconcerned.

After settling in to her seat and waiting on the tarmac for 30 minutes, the captain announced that the plane was having mechanical problems. Everyone would have to deplane and wait back in the terminal until the plane could be repaired. Rita wasn’t about to wait so she raced back to her original flight and luckily was able to board … but her travel bag wasn’t with her. Before the flight took off she called her husband and explained her dilemma—that she would arrive in DC after hours with no business clothes to wear the next day and no place to shop. Even though she was clearly distraught, her husband seemed indifferent. He simply told her that it would be okay and not to worry. But Rita was worried. Maybe he was tired, she reasoned. Rita was upset, but how could he help from so far away?

Fortunately, Rita is a natural born problem solver and came up with a truly creative solution. She decided to go to the hotel and offer to “purchase” a hotel uniform worn by one of the women at the front desk—ifshe was lucky enough to find a 6 ft. tall woman working that evening.

She arrived at the hotel, walked up to the front desk manager and explained the bind she was in. Before she could finish her plea and ask the woman for the shirt off her back, the hotel manager said, “Oh, this must be for you,” and handed her two shopping bags: one from Nordstrom and one from The GAP.

When Rita got to her room and opened the shopping bags, she saw two complete outfits in her size, style, and colors. She was absolutely stunned to see these beautiful clothes ready to wear to her presentation the following morning. She called her husband and found out that after speaking to her, he immediately called a friend in DC and described the situation. The friend, a man by the way, left work, went shopping for Rita, and delivered the clothes to her hotel!

Talk about a husband coming to the rescue!

I often think about the community of people we need to make our presentations successful and to make our lives work well on a daily basis. In our programs, we ask our participants to identify the people in their lives who act as role models, task masters, and supporters. Time and time again, when push comes to shove, spouses always seem to come through. So hats off to Rita’s husband, Dennis Williams, and all the other husbands, wives, family, and friends who support presenters every day. It’s always nice to know that someone out there is covering your back.

How to Thrive in a Challenging Public Speaking Situation

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working with Carolyne Stayton, the Executive Director of Transition US. Transition US is a resource and catalyst for building resilient communities across the United States that are able to withstand severe energy, climate, or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process. Carolyne was scheduled to give a speech at the Bioneers conference in Marin County, CA, and she needed help with her preparation. Bioneers is a non-profit educational organization that highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet. Since 1990, Bioneers has acted as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with nature-inspired approaches for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. 

Carolyn’s topic was “Resilient Communities: Mobilizing and Equipping Local Citizen Action.”

Here’s how she began her speech:

I’d like to begin by using the analogy of “the story.”

In our climate story, we are entering the chapter where the dragon has arrived. He’s breathing fire and scorching our crops. He’s melting the ice and causing tornadoes where they’ve never been seen before. He’s flooding our rivers, our cities, and our towns. And he’s madly extracting oil from our fragile landscapes. So where did this dragon come from?

He came from our decades of wonton consumerism. He came from our explosive carbon lifestyle. And he came from our blatant disregard for the laws of nature.

This sounds like a pretty bleak chapter in the story, doesn’t it? It sounds like a story you want to put down and not finish. But I’ve got good news for you. We are also at the point in the story where the hero arrives to save the day. And the best news of all is this: the hero is YOU!

My purpose here today is to give you the information, tools, and resources you need to confront the dragon head on, to slay him. To sauté him. And to serve him up at a pot luck supper!

The night before Carolyn was scheduled to give her speech, she sent me an email. She said she had the jitters and needed a last minute pep talk. I sent her a list of some things to do to further prepare her body and mind. Among them was to limit caffeine, drink plenty of water, sit quietly and breathe deeply, and visualize success before her talk.

Two days later I received another email from Carolyn. Here’s what she wrote:

Thank you so much for the last minute tips and for all of the wisdom you imparted. They really helped me. Among other things, I was very conscious of my breath all through Saturday. I stayed away from caffeine and I did drink lots of water.

But I do have a story for you. Fifteen minutes before my presentation, I was sitting on a bench in the sun, feeling my heart and connecting right through my legs and feet to the earth. Unbeknownst to me, my water bottle had tipped and had poured all over my notes AND the back of my skirt. Basically I was sitting in a puddle! I had to wring my skirt out, walk onto the stage, and stand before the audience with a skirt clinging to the back of my legs and wet underwear! My practice and work on the presentation saved me. But instead of being nicely grounded in my heart, I was definitely more in my head.

Apparently no one else noticed!

So to add to your book of what not to do (fig leaf, etc.) feel free to add “don't pour water on your butt”!

Geez.

Without your help, having the water incident happen would have absolutely immobilized me. Fortunately, I delivered adequately and from some comments, very well.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart.

There is a lesson here. Even when you are prepared, confident, centered, and in control, things happen out of the blue. Good speakers take these unwelcome incidents in stride and roll with them, keeping perspective, going back to the long hours of preparation and planning, and moving on as if nothing had happened. So the next time you’re ready to present and suddenly realize that you’ve just sat in a puddle of water, or that you forgot your slides at your office across town, or that your room set up is not what you expected, or anything else that could possibly happen, relax and rely on your practice, wisdom, and expertise to pull you through. When you’re prepared and confident, you can thrive in even the most challenging speaking situations.

Beefeaters: The Olympians of Public Speaking

One of the great by-products of the Olympics is learning  about the history and culture of the host country. This year’s Olympic games in London, England are no exception. While learning about the United Kingdom was mandatory in my high school history classes (given the early ties between England and U.S.), we spent most of our time memorizing dates, facts, and names rather than learning the interesting particulars about the country’s culture and tradition. Yet it’s the background stories, cultural lore, and little-known-details that I find intriguing about a country. Fortunately for me, many reporters are finding wonderful side stories to cover while in London, and this past weekend I watched a fascinating segment on NBC news about the Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters as they’re commonly called. The Beefeaters’ origins stretch back as far as the reign of Edward IV (1461-83), and they have long been symbols of London and Britain. It is thought their nickname is derived from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, which permitted them to eat as much beef as they wanted from the king's table. Today, they act as entertaining tour guides at the Tower of London.

But these aren’t your ordinary docents. To be considered for the job of Beefeater, a candidate must have served in the armed forces with an honorable record for at least 22 years. Then, they go through upwards of one year of training. Working with a coach, they must memorize, word for word, a script that details the history of the Tower of London and England’s overall history. They practice on site after hours (when the tourists aren’t there to watch and listen), and must get every word correct. They are quizzed with crazy questions tourists might ask (such as, “Where is Sleeping Beauty buried?”), and they must handle even the most outrageous question with skill, tact, and respect. Just as athletes work long and hard to compete in  the Olympic games, so too do the men and women hoping to be Yeoman Warders, dedicating their lives to their country, even after retiring from military service.

As a speech coach, I have to say that the Beefeaters are wonderful role models for public speakers. I’ve often heard that a best practice of motivational speaking is to rehearse your speech 30 times before going live. By practicing their script nightly for up to a year, these Beefeaters put even the most well-rehearsed speaker to shame!

So the next time you’re in London, be sure to join one of the famous tours where Yeoman Warders will entertain you with tales of intrigue, imprisonment, execution, torture, and much more…and be sure to get a front row seat. You’ll be getting a history lesson from a world-class public speaking role model.

The Top 3 Things that Stand Between Busy Professionals and Speech Preparation

No one wants to give a less than stellar business presentation, but that’s what sometimes happens to even the most well intentioned people. While they know they need to prepare for the presentation (and they even want to), other things get their time and attention, leaving speech preparation on the back burner. Here are the three top things that get in the way of speech preparation…and how to overcome them.

  1. Work: Studies tell us that Americans work the longest hours among all industrialized countries. This is what the American Dream is about—having the drive to work hard and succeed. But many professional don’t think of giving a presentation as real work; rather, they view themselves as subject matter experts who have to give a presentation as a means to an end. To alleviate this, turn the tables and think of your next presentation as part of your real job. You wouldn’t short-change the professional tasks you are trained for and paid to do, so don’t short-change your presentation skills either. They are real work.
  2. Time management: It is not unusual for professionals to work 50-60 hours per week. Additionally, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), a global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets, Americans spend 32.7 hours a week online—for both work and personal matters. No wonder making time for speech preparation can be so difficult. To successfully fit it in, practice in chunks. Make a list of all the meetings you have in a given week. Assign a presentation skill to practice for each meeting. For example, in your Monday morning staff meeting you could practice eye contact, while at your employee briefing you could practice gestures—and there’s always the dinner table! Remember that practice and preparation can be spread out and incorporated into other daily tasks and activities.
  3. Business Travel: More than 405 million business trips are taken in the U.S. annually. The packing, travelling to and from the airport, time in the air, and then doing business preclude having adequate time for speech preparation. Ironically, the reason for the business travel often involves one or more members of your team giving a presentation. Many people use their time in the air to create their PowerPoint™ slides, but this is also a great time to practice the various sections of your presentation and to memorize your opening, transitions, and final thought. When you arrive at your hotel room practice your entire presentation out loud at least three times.

Giving great presentations is essential for business success. When you can overcome the top three distractions that impede your presentation preparation, you can hone your public speaking skills for continued professional growth.

What typically gets in your way for speech preparation? Leave your comments here and I’ll address them in a future blog post.

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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Does Wisdom Play a Role in Public Speaking?

“I have to give a speech in a few weeks and I’m already nauseous and anxious. I need to talk to someone wise. Can you please call me?” This was a voicemail message I received last week from someone obviously in need of help.

Every once in a while I get a call like this one, and over the years I’ve discovered that these types of clients are often looking for more than just the skills of public speaking. They want other answers to help them manage their speech anxiety, such as how wise people handle the stress of creating and delivering a speech for the first time.

I’ve learned to take it slow with clients like this and to let them talk. So in the process of being a speech coach, I also become a listening coach. I ask questions to keep the conversation going in the right direction, provide feedback on what I hear, and re-phrase and re-state what they say to ensure clarification.

It’s true that a good coach is a chameleon—capable of changing colors to meet the emotional needs of the moment. This is something relatively easy for me to do and something I enjoy. I love to delve into a person’s deepest challenges and explore those places where people hold their fear and discomfort. I like understanding what makes people tick and why they feel the way they do. And I believe once we understand what’s causing the fear we can then move away from it, see things with greater perspective, and begin building confidence. Taking the time to search for a cause often helps people understand what’s getting in the way of moving forward. This sets the stage for the action oriented work that is to come.

So what happened with the person who left that voicemail? What did I discover about her when I prodded, probed, and questioned her fears?

I learned that she had not prepared—she hadn’t even thought about her presentation. She didn’t know much about her audience or why her boss selected her to give the presentation. She was deeply afraid that she would fail, embarrass herself, and let everyone down in her department. She was calling me for a shoulder to cry on. She wanted to whine, to complain, and to enlist my support to allow her to do it. I listened to her carefully, thoughtfully, and actively, but in the end I still had to provide “tough love” and offer a different vision than the one she had created in her mind. I had to give her enough direction and support so she could take action.

“Results,” I told her, “don’t come from hoping, wishing, whining, or complaining—they don’t even come from wisdom. They come from making a commitment to act no matter how small a step you take.”

I had to throw my gentle version of cold water in her face to move her out of the paralysis she had talked herself into and onto a new action oriented direction. Just like any behavior change, such as losing body fat or building muscle, talking about it won’t do a thing. You have to take action continuously every day. Nothing else will do.

So does wisdom play a role in public speaking? In a way…yes. Whether it’s in public speaking, losing weight, having a fulfilling relationship, or achieving great success in your chosen career, those with true wisdom know when and how to take action so they can make their lives better. Wisdom—coupled with action—brings success.

Sometimes for Speeches, the Third Time’s the Charm

For the last few weeks I’ve been working with a new client, helping him prepare for a large meeting. He’s already a good speaker—the kind of person who actually likes to prepare (which is always a “gift” for me!). He is creative in his approach to content development and open to using a bit more dramatic stage technique and image-based slides. And he has a confident style. To help him be even better, we are working on a few improvement areas—posture, gestures, slowing down his rate of speech, and helping him to be conscious of his energy so he can direct it with more control. He’s been practicing not only in our sessions, but also in his daily meetings and phone calls. He’s really a gem to work with.

He gave his presentation last week to 300 people. When we debriefed afterwards, he seemed disappointed that he didn’t do better. He prepared and was more aware of what he was doing, but he found that he fell into some of his old habits too easily and didn’t catch them in time to correct them.

His experience reminded me of a quote:

“There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave and the one you wish you gave.” -Dale Carnegie.

Having seen the speech he practiced, I thought he was ready for prime time. He felt the same—skilled, prepared, and confident. Then there was the one he actually gave. I didn’t see this one, but he said it didn’t go as well as he had hoped—he spoke too fast, was not as smooth in using his physical skills, and did not take time to respond to the audiences’ reactions to certain parts of his message. Then, of course, there’s the speech he wished he gave—the one that would have surpassed even his excellent practice speech.

When asked what prevented him from giving this last speech, he said, “I didn’t know what the stage set up would be, and it was very small, so I couldn’t move as much as I’d planned. There was a podium and I stayed away from it, yet I felt cramped and tight. I spoke too fast and noticed that my heart rate speeded up sometimes. I didn’t feel as connected to the audience as I wanted to be. And the one interactive piece I planned didn’t work as well with the real audience in front of me as it did in rehearsal.”

But not all was lost because he did learn several important lessons from the speech he wishes he gave. As he explained, “Next time I’ll find out ahead of time about the size and set up of the stage, and then I’ll practice for that size instead of practicing for a much bigger stage. I’ll also practice my rate and slowing down when I’m in everyday meetings and on the phone. In fact, I’ll slow down even more than I think I need too. Finally, I’ll give the audience more time to react to certain slides. I’ll pause longer, and I won’t rush.”

That’s all great advice. So remember, that speech you practiced…well…that’s just what it was: Practice. When you stand up to give the real speech, that’s when you need to have your wits about you to be able to actually do what you’ve practiced and manage the unexpected. As for the speech you wish you gave, that one is by far the most important and something every speaker strives for but sometimes doesn’t attain. However, if you can learn from your experience, there is really no loss or failure. The “on-stage learning” is critical for future success as long as you take the time to analyze the lessons. So even though you may give the perfect speech at some point, there will always be something to learn—and that’s what makes public speaking so challenging…and enjoyable.

How to Assess Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

Nervousness and public speaking go hand-in-hand. And in all my years as a presentations skills coach, I’ve found that people’s anxiety tends to fall into one of four categories. These four levels reflect a speaker’s comfort level and confidence. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category tend to display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and deeply afraid, often to the point of paralysis. These individuals generally have little experience speaking to groups, but because of a recent promotion or increased job responsibilities, they are now expected to speak (i.e., the technician who has been moved into the team lead position or the customer service representative who now has to manage others and represent the department). These people have little desire to speak in public, but now are required to do so. With limited confidence they have a great opportunity for personal and professional growth.
  • Level 2: Hurried and Harried: These people deal with their fear and discomfort by racing through their material for one specific purpose—to get through it! They are usually familiar with their subject matter but rarely prepare or practice. They like to wing it. Many even believe that their “practice” happens while they are giving their presentation. As a result of their lack of preparation, they “hurry” through their presentation, talking too fast, shifting their weight, avoiding eye contact, and showing other physical signs of nervousness. The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly increase their capacity and become more comfortable and effective.
  • Level 3: Surprised and Startled: These people have situational nervousness. They are fine in their regular day-to-day presentations, but if asked to perform out of their routine, they experience anxiety and discomfort. However, they typically don’t show their nervousness. In fact, their audience barely picks up on it, but the speaker still feels anxious. These speakers take the time to practice and are generally more prepared than most, but unusual situations cause them to revisit earlier bouts of nerves and agitation. They are often the managers who comfortably lead staff or division meetings, but when asked to speak at an all-hands meeting or at a conference, they become anxious. The good news for these speakers is that they already know how to be comfortable in front of one type of audience, so it’s just a matter of increasing their capacity so that they can be as comfortable in every new situation they encounter.
  • Level 4: Eager and Enthusiastic: These are the people who love to speak and do so with ease, taking advantage of every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. These people may be great product evangelists, expert salespeople, senior leaders, marketing and public relations professionals, motivational speakers, and corporate trainers. They have already built a substantial capacity for comfort—and there is still room to grow.

What sets these four groups apart? It usually boils down to just two things: knowledge and experience. Level 4 speakers know what they’re talking about and give presentations frequently. These confident speakers know from experience that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and get out there over and over. They have taken the time to build confidence.

Whether you need to give a presentation at a low-key staff meeting for just a few or at a high profile conference for thousands, you can increase your capacity to adapt to the demands of the speaking situation and use your skills and experience to succeed. Every speaker—even you—has the potential to get there!

What Makes Women Successful Business Owners?

Recently, I’ve noticed an increasing number of women leaving their corporate jobs in favor of starting their own small business. In one case, the woman was let go, and in several other cases, she left voluntarily. Regardless of why she ventured out on her own, one thing seems consistent: women make great entrepreneurs. Here are some interesting facts I came across from the National Women’s Business Council:

  • There are 7.8 million women-owned businesses in the United States.
  • Women-owned firms generate $1.2 trillion in total receipts.
  • Women-owned firms employ 7.6 million people across the country with a payroll of $217.6 billion. These employer firms have average receipts of $1.1 million.
  • Women-owned businesses make up more than half (52.0%) of all businesses in health care and social assistance.
  • The other top industries for women include: educational services (45.9% of all businesses are women-owned), administration and support and waste management and remediation services (37.0%), retail trade (34.4%), and arts, entertainment, and recreation (30.4%).
  • Industries with the lowest percent of women-owned businesses include mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (15.0%), transportation and warehousing (11.4%), agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting (10.3%), construction (7.9%), and management of companies and enterprises (6.7%).

If you look at the industries where women business owners tend to gravitate—healthcare, social assistance, education, administration, retail, and the arts—you can see a glaring trend. Women do well in industries that are communication based.

Surprising? Not really. Women are, by nature, strong communicators. They know how to build relationships and create strong teams, and they believe that teams are important. No wonder they do so well in fields that require fine-tuned communication skills.

Additionally, the Small Business Administration has reported in recent years that women-owned businesses are far outpacing all other businesses in terms of growth. To me, that means women are choosing businesses that play to their strengths and their passion and are putting their all to making it a success.

As a female business owner myself, I’m obviously happy by these findings. But I think we can do even more. Yes, women are choosing business ownership because they want more control in their life—they want a way to work and stay productive without having to sacrifice family time. But what if they didn’t have to make that choice? What if the fact that women held only 14.4% of Fortune 500 executive officer positions weren’t true? What if women held more than the measly 15.7% of Fortune 500 board seats? And what if women held more than 2.6% of Fortune 500 CEO positions? I believe, as does Harvard Business Review, that having more women in top positions ultimately leads to greater overall success. Why? Because with women participating, a group’s “collective intelligence” rises.

So women, if you’ve ever dreamt about starting your own business, know that you have some natural tendencies that will contribute to your success. And if you’re one who enjoys the corporate culture, push on to make your voice heard in the executive level. Whichever path you choose, know that the business world needs your expertise, your passion, your communication skills, and your unique female success traits.

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.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive valuable tips, techniques and updates on the latest news and events from DeFinis Communications.

A Public Speaking Lesson from My Sister

I’ve been on vacation in Maine for the last few weeks. Our family has a house in a small coastal village where we come every year. I love being in Maine, so far away from the bustling Bay Area where I live. It’s a quiet retreat, a respite from the traffic, noise and density of city life. My sister met me here last week. She’s from Miami, so she too enjoys the peace and solitude. Together, we quickly settled in to a quiet routine of morning walks, time on the water, long conversations, afternoon naps and lots of reading.

Our village is small and quaint with only a handful of houses. When my sister and I arrived, only a few of those houses were opened. The summer season starts late in this part of Maine. But even with so many houses still dark and bordered up, it’s a safe and quiet place.  

One night we went to bed early and quickly fell asleep. At around 2:15 a.m., I heard a loud banging noise and then the sound of footsteps clomping up our driveway. In a fog of sleep, I listened to the heavy footsteps. “It must be a deer or moose,” I thought. I pulled the covers over my head and sunk deeper in my bed. Then I heard the footsteps walk down the porch steps and back down the driveway. All was quiet again, but I tossed and turned for the next 45 minutes thinking I should get up and make sure I locked the porch door.

When I finally forced myself out of bed, it was 3 a.m. I looked out the window and saw a woman in black running gear jogging on the road in front of our house. She was holding a large flashlight that illuminated the road in front of her and her German Sheppard. “That’s odd,” I thought. I had never seen this woman or her dog before. But something about a woman in black and a very large dog gave me some sense of peace. I assumed all was well once again and was back in bed and asleep in minutes.

The next morning my sister walked into the kitchen bleary eyed. “I’ve been up all night,” she said. “Did you hear that loud banging? I was scared to death! I would’ve come to get you but I was terrified to leave my room. I was even too afraid to turn on my light or call for help!” She proceeded to tell me the details of her arduous and fretful night.

Then I told her my version of the story. Not wanting to alarm her, I mentioned that I thought the footsteps were from a four-legged creature like a deer or a moose, and the banging could have been the animal stepping mistakenly onto our metal bulkhead.

“No,” she said, “it sounded more like someone was pounding on the front door—right under my room.”

Why did my sister and I have such different reactions to the same event? How could fear be experienced so differently in two people who shared the same gene pool and similar life experience? Not wanting to tax my brain too much since I was on vacation, I chalked it up to our reading choices.  

While my sister was spending a few hours each day engrossed in a terrifying crime novel and closing her door tightly at night to protect herself from her imagination, I was reading “The Happiness Project.” My sister was terrified, couldn’t leave her room, turn on the light, or scream for help. I, on the other hand, was in a meadow with Bambi, Stomper and the rest of the Disney crowd, pulling the covers over my head and wishing the danger away.

Now, you may be asking, “what could this story possibly have to do with public speaking?” A lot! As you know, I see public speaking lessons everywhere. So here are a few public speaking lessons that also apply to life:  

  • You are not alone: Struggling and veteran presenters often feel that no one understands the pressures, fears, or challenges they face. In truth, no matter how alone you may feel, someone out there shares and understands your experience…and can help. Reach out to others when you need help.
  • You are what you read: We hear the adage “you are what you eat,” but for those of us who love words, “you are what you read.” Fill your mind with positive words, images and themes especially before giving a presentation. Watch what you consume intellectually as well as biologically. There are benefits and unknown toxins in both.
  • When danger and uncertainty strike, take action: Sometimes, despite your best preparation, things go wrong during a presentation. Don’t let it rattle you. Listen to your survival instincts and let your head lead you out of the paralyzing fear.
  • Gather data: When you walk into a new situation, or if you hear the footsteps of uncertainty coming your way, get up and look for answers. Facts can quell your fears and at the very least let you know what you’re up against. This will give you a chance to take control. And when you do, you will feel much better about the situation.

After my sister flew back home, I had lunch with some friends from town and they mentioned the incident. In fact, it’s now the talk of the town: “The Higgins’s called the police and reported that someone was banging on their front door,” my friends said. The state police are 45 minutes away, which explained the police woman jogging through the neighborhood with her German Sheppard 45 minutes after the incident. And lucky for us the “prowler” was caught. It turned out he had too much to drink and was just looking for a place to crash.

Now, my neighbors have arrived, the houses are no longer boarded up, and I’m sleeping soundly in the dark night. The moral of the story? In public speaking and in life, reach out to others before pulling the covers over your head.

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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Oprah’s Farewell: The Final Ovation for One of the World’s Most Influential Public Speakers

Wednesday for Women Celebrates Oprah! Oprah’s legend is…well…legendary. For 25 years, she has been the foundation of daytime TV for millions of people all over the world. And throughout it all, her presence and messages have been uplifting, inspiring and revitalizing.

I recently heard the story of a woman who purchased a pair of Oprah’s shoes at an auction. She said that whenever she feels sad or overwhelmed, she goes to her closet and steps into Oprah’s shoes. Talk about having a powerful influence on people! We all want a piece of those people who we believe have something we don’t possess—greater strength, clearer vision, goodness, talent, confidence. We seek out those people who can fill in our gaps, and for the last quarter century, Oprah has been that person for millions of people.

I have not been able to watch Oprah on a regular basis, but when I have caught her show, I am just as enthralled as everyone else. She has a natural way of communicating that draws us in. Her warm, deep voice, her broad inviting smile, and her easy tone and cadence are engaging. She is the consummate “connector.”

So when you’re looking for a communications role model, look no further than Oprah. Here is my tribute to this great woman and what she means to the world of public speaking:

O – Optimistic. Even when Oprah was covering a negative topic (failed relationships, child abuse story, unusual homicide case, etc.), she always looked for the good that could come in the future. That’s something we should all strive to do every day. So the next time you need to communicate bad news, state it, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, keep your focus on the good that will eventually come from the situation.

P – Prepared. I’ve heard that Oprah is a stickler for details and doesn’t like to be surprised. She and her producers are prepared for everything and anything that can happen during a show. Not only does she have a Plan B, but she also has a Plan C, D, E, and F. Oprah exemplifies that preparedness equals success.

R – Relevant. Oprah knows her main audience and makes every episode relevant to them. Being on her show could make anyone famous (and it has), but her guest list never strayed from the types of people and stories her viewers wanted to see. By making the information presented relevant, she earned millions of eager viewers every day.

A – Authentic. Oprah started her career as a TV news anchor, but she didn’t last long in that role because she had a hard time hiding her true self on camera. Yet, it’s her uninhibited authenticity that made her talk show a success. People tune in to watch her just as much as they tune in to watch the day’s topic. Oprah refuses to hide who she is. She cries on camera with people, shows all her emotions freely, and isn’t afraid to be her authentic self.

H – Humorous. While not a comedian, Oprah makes people laugh in her own way. She doesn’t tell jokes in the traditional manner; rather, she lets her natural humor shine through to diffuse a tense situation, make a point, and put others at ease. She shows that humor doesn’t always have to be about knee-slapping laughter.

Thank you, Oprah, for 25 amazing years…and for so many priceless pieces of presentation skills wisdom.

In my Wednesday for Women blog series, 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 the powerful women in your life. They’ll thank you for it!

Rebecca Black: Public Speaking & Life Lessons from a 13-Year-Old Pop Sensation

Have you heard of Rebecca Black yet? If not, you probably will soon. She is a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents hired Ark Music Factory to produce a music video for her. If you haven’t seen it, here it is. But I warn you…while Rebecca is a sweet young teenager who may indeed be the next Miley Cyrus, I doubt you’ll be amazed at this video.

 

After her music video Friday was produced and released on March 14, 2011, it went viral on YouTube. As of this writing, it has had over 84 million viewers. She has been awarded just over 210,000 “likes” and over 1.6 million “dislikes”. So yes…she is famous for being among the most disliked people on You Tube, and her song has been dubbed “the worst song ever made”! But fame or infamy…all press is good press, and reports show that she has made well over $1 million for her efforts.

I don’t agree that Rebecca Black has little musical talent and poor performance skills, or that the video is insipid and of poor quality, or even that the song is imbecilic. All those things may be true, but overall, Rebecca comes across well. She looks comfortable and confident in front of the camera, has a sweet smile, relates well to the crowd she is singing to, and has a certain freshness and innocent appeal.

But obviously what I think matters little. (Aside from the fact that she’s getting some positive free press from me!) The point is that this young girl made a video that went viral, most people dislike it, and yet she has still fallen into the arms of success. Celebrity in the internet age is nothing short of phenomenal. But rather than sit around scratching our heads and wondering how this happened or rush to her video and click “like” or “dislike,” we’d be better off thinking about the lessons we can learn that can help us succeed. Here are a few:

  • Embrace risk. Of course, not every young girl has the parental support and resources to fund a project like this, but aside from the steep investment (approximately $4,000) what sticks out for me is Rebecca’s willingness to take a risk and put herself out there with absolutely no guarantee of success. If she had talked herself out of doing this video for any reason she would never be experiencing the fame and success she is enjoying today. How many of us lose faith in our projects and ourselves before we’ve even had a chance to test the concept? So even if you don’t have your parent’s funding, find a way to take a risk.
  • Go public with the best you have. While perfectionism is an important skill for success, sometimes it can get in the way. Nothing in Rebecca’s video is perfect. Yet its ability to work or not work, depending on your perspective, has given it a life of its own. How many of us are paralyzed by our desire for perfection before releasing our work to the world? Realize that perfection in anything is simply not possible. Do your best, and let it go.
  • Increase your expectations. Fantasy is usually not a recommended strategy for building a realistic project plan, but vision is a necessity. A strong, clear vision provides a better chance for success than just about anything. Even if the forces are against you, when you have a clear vision there is always the possibility that success is within reach. So why not think big?
  • Welcome the unexpected. In any project plan it’s important to have a Plan B or a “what if.” In Rebecca’s case, her stardom was generated from a completely unexpected source—her success sprung from a well of “dislikes.” The most unpopular girl on YouTube is also the most famous. She and her family could have run from this unusual development—but they didn’t. Sometimes the journey to our goal can take an unexpected turn and we get what we want in ways we can never imagine.
  • Be grateful. What do you do when you take a risk, give it your best, think big, accept the unexpected, and are successful? There’s only one thing left to do…think about all those who helped you along the way, including the unpredictable hand of fate. Then ask yourself, “For what and to whom am I grateful?”

Even though I doubt I’ll download Rebecca’s song into my iTunes any time soon, I do admire her willingness to take a risk and put her work out there. She’s proof that when you think big and go for your dreams, you can be a success…regardless of what other people think.

In Celebration of Black History Month: The Legacy of Booker T. Washington

"The highest test of the civilization of any race is in its willingness to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate. A race, like an individual, lifts itself up by lifting others up." -- Booker T. Washington I became reacquainted with the legacy of Booker T. Washington a few years ago when I received a call from his great granddaughter, Sarah O’Neal Rush. Sarah is an educator and counselor who is also the founder and executive director of the Booker T. Washington Empowerment Network (BTWEN). Sarah works primarily with “at risk” youth in East Oakland California.

When she called me, she had been asked to give a speech at the 150th birthday tribute to her great grandfather. It was a high stakes presentation; she was anxious and she wanted to do a great job. I was more than willing to help her prepare.

Working with Sarah was like stepping back in time. The story she told took place deep in the annals of African American history. In the process of developing her speech, she told me about her great grandfather’s many accomplishments and contributions. I learned that Booker T. Washington was an extraordinary man.

The Real Booker T. Washington Though the term “at risk youth” did not exist during the time Booker T. Washington lived, you could say that given his extreme circumstances Washington was indeed “at risk.” Born April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in rural Virginia to a slave mother and white father. After emancipation, he worked in a variety of manual labor jobs before making his way to Hampton Roads to seek an education. In the midst of poverty and hardship, he still believed that he wanted to better himself and he knew that education was the key.

His strong desire, hard work, and determination fueled his decisions and created opportunities where none existed—and these traits led him to great success. As an educator, author, orator, and political leader, he was the single most important figure in the African American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915.

Now fast forward to his great granddaughter, Sarah O’Neill Rush. In her work with “at risk youth” Sarah is continuing the legacy of her great grandfather. Through speaking, writing, discussions, and book readings, Sarah empowers children, teens, and adults to rise above life’s challenges, embrace their life story, increase self-worth, and build healthy relationships. As an author, a mental health professional with a master’s degree in psychology, and one who has risen above many challenges, Sarah is, like her great grandfather, an inspiring and motivating African American leader.

While Sarah is not a famous person or a political leader, what she shares with her great grandfather is her determination to improve her life and the lives of those who are most “at risk.” She is willing to “extend a helping hand to the less fortunate.”

Here is an excerpt from the speech that Sarah gave at the 150th birthday of her great grandfather.

“I relate well to these children and they pull deeply at my heartstrings, because, while I did not suffer as deeply as some of the children I work with, I too was an ‘at-risk’ youth. I was a single teenage mother at the age of 16. At the age of 17, I lived on my own raising my one-year old son in a drug-infested housing project in East Oakland, way on the other side of town from my high school.

“I would get up very early in the morning, get us both dressed, catch two buses to school, drop my son off at day care, and rush to class. Yet with those overwhelming odds, I still managed to graduate from high school six months ahead of my class, having the grades and more than enough credits to do so.

“My strong desire and determination to have a better life began to drive my choices, and having my mother as a role model for hard work all of my life, inspired me to succeed. And it probably didn’t hurt that I had Booker T. Washington’s blood running through my veins.”

Last summer Sarah led eight youth and three mentors on a youth development program that she called Freedom Journey. This program is a rite of passage following the footsteps of her great grandfather from slavery to freedom. For the teens who went on this trip, connecting with their past was a powerful experience that will hopefully inform and inspire their future. This was definitely a journey worth taking.

Booker T. Washington was “at risk,” yet he persevered in helping others and paving the way for equality and justice. Sarah O’Neill Rush was “at risk,” yet she persevered in achieving an education and giving back to those in greater need. Today, the young people Sarah works with are “at risk,” and with Sarah’s help, they too will persevere.