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 or

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.

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.

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.

Sorry to have to ask. Will you please stop apologizing?

I recently had lunch with a friend who I haven’t seen in a long time. It was a wonderful reunion and great to catch up with her. As we sat and talked I realized that my friend spent a great deal of time apologizing. Once I heard this pattern emerge I listened more carefully. Here’s what she said: “I’m sorry to tell you this.” “This might not be something you want to hear.”  “I’m sorry, I know this sounds silly.”  “I know you’ll think I’m nuts.”  “Please don’t think I’m crazy.” “This may completely turn you off.” “I hate to even bring this up.” “I’m so sorry to burden you.” “I’ve rambled on so long, sorry.”


Why do we apologize?

These kinds of apologies can show others that we value their opinion of us. We often apologize from a place of good intentions. We’re trying to make a connection with the person we’re talking to and we fear that we might say something that would disrupt the flow, or even worse, cause conflict. If the person we’re talking to actually does think our idea is of little significance then we’ve already acknowledged that possibility so it lets us off the hook. We don’t have to take responsibility because we’ve apologized in advance.  


The problem with this approach is that apologizing can make you seem nervous, insincere, tentative, hesitant, solicitous, or worst of all (sorry to have to tell you) powerless. Separating yourself from your own ideas, thoughts and opinions as if they don’t really matter to begin with is not the best approach for creating engaging, meaningful or effective conversations.


Can we overcome this behavior?

It’s easier to overcome this behavior when it happens between two people. So, instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” the most important thing you can do is pay attention to the other person’s behavior. Listen and watch and try to model what you see. If they are speaking slowly you might slow down your pace, if they smile, you smile. This technique, called “mirroring,” gives you a chance to create and monitor the connection between you. When two people have similar conversational styles—that is, when their pace, rhythm, language, pitch and body language are in synch, there is a better opportunity to connect.  


Mirroring is harder to use in a public speaking venue because you have many different people and styles in front of you. What’s the best approach?  Do your homework ahead of time and get to know your audience. When you become familiar with their culture, language, style and qualities you are better equipped to communicate successfully. Whatever you do don’t second guess your message. If you are giving a presentation, it’s expected that you are a knowledgeable, prepared and confident speaker. So be that speaker and strip your language of apologies.


I once heard a woman who was replacing another speaker say to an audience, “I’m really sorry you have to listen to me today because I will not be nearly as inspiring as the person who was supposed to be here.” The entire audience cringed in unison. I felt sorry for her and sorry for the audience but I kept my sorries to myself.

The Woodstock Festival Anniversary: A Far-Out Legacy of Language

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair celebrates its 40th anniversary on August 15th, 2009. The “flower-power” generation was partly-fueled by the message of limitless self-expression, creativity and freedom. Speech has always been a principle medium for younger generations to define and differentiate themselves, and Woodstock not only created timeless music and art, but it also gave us enduring cultural slang and slogans.


The language from the hippie-era is still very much alive today, in words and phrases like “peace,” “cool,” "bummer," “freak out,” and “radical.” And while much of this slang began in the years before Woodstock, the iconic festival of 400,000 was a culmination of music, lifestyle and language that defined a generation.


This morning I spent an hour on the phone with my dear friend Jean Fraschina. She grew up in San Francisco and was on Haight Street during the Summer of Love. She wore her share of Tie-Dye and Patchouli Oil and has a distinct West Coast viewpoint on the cultural impact of the language of the hippie culture. I grew up in Washington DC and lived ten blocks from the White House and one block from the Black Panther headquarters. I had a different experience. Neither of us went to Woodstock but as we were reminiscing we realized that the slang, slogans and phrases which sprung up during that era like mushrooms after a summer rain represented a cultural phenomenon that reached across America.


Here are some examples of our favorite slang, slogans and phrases that represented the hippie movement and were in evidence at that summer weekend in upstate New York in 1969.  


Power to the People: Used as a rallying cry against repression by the ruling class and the government as represented by the Nixon administration.  The Black Panthers used the slogan "All Power to the People" to defy the rich, ruling class domination of society. Idealistic students used it to protest the war in Vietnam. It is still used today by some aging hippies in the greater Bay Area


The Establishment: Referred to the “older” generation, that is, anyone over 30 who held bourgeois values and were in positions of authority including but not limited to government leaders, members of corporate America, parents and teachers.


Pigs: Cops or any law enforcement representative (and also any man or boy who did not understand the need for peace and love in our society) who abused his power and acted with disrespect and sometimes violence to repress youth, women and minorities.


Bourgeois: This French word meaning “middle class” was used by the counter culture to describe and dismiss their conventional, unimaginative and selfishly materialistic parents and others in authority who upheld the interest of the capitalist class-- and paid for their college or prep school tuition and their macramé supplies.


Right On: Voiced by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar and resurfaced as a key phrase in the hippie lexicon—it meant, Yes! Do it. You go, chick/dude.


Chicks and Cats: Guys and gals, girls and boys, ladies and gentleman--this is a beatnik hold-over that became verboten with the rise of the women’s liberation movement known as “women’s lib,” but was in full bloom at festivals like Woodstock.


Square: This word was part of the African American patois and/or the beat period and segued into the word “straight.” It meant un-hip, un-cool and referred to those who were not engaging in the activities of peace and love.


Straight: Was not at all related to its current usage as the opposite of Gay. Straight meant extremely un-hip, up-tight, un- groovy and out of touch with what was happening. Hip was dressing cool with serapes and ethnic jewelry, using patchouli oil ,(also know as Bear Grease) burning incense and candles, checking your daily astrology forecast and throwing the I Ching. Straight people did none of these things.


Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out: Timothy Leary, an icon of the 1960s counterculture, created this adage in hopes of promoting the benefits of psychedelic drugs. His hope was that LSD would assist people in detaching from social convention and explore the inner reaches of their psyche.   


Flipped Out: This phrase was originally used to describe someone who was having a bad acid trip but also referred to someone who was reacting with consternation to a challenging life event. People who flipped out were often told to “smoke a joint and calm down.”


Nam: Everyone knew that “the war” meant Vietnam and Vietnam meant “the war.”


Canada: Was a code word for “If I get a low draft number, I’m getting out of here so I don’t have to fight in a war I don’t believe in.”  


Hell No, We Won’t GO: This slogan was chanted by hundreds of thousands of people who were against the war in Vietnam.


We Shall Overcome: This song could be sung at any moment, by any group about any issue that was potentially oppressive.  Most people knew only one verse of this song.


Back to the Land: Everyone at Woodstock was planning to live on a farm or in a commune. Many wanted to start a commune on some piece of land that someone else owned—usually someone’s father, or girlfriend’s ex-husband.  


What’s Your Sign? This was a commonly asked question and defined how people learned about each other. There was a huge interest in astrology at this time.


My Old Lady: This phrase referred to one’s girlfriend or wife. For instance, “Gotta go, man, I’m meeting my old lady.”  Everyone used this phrase including 15 and 16 year olds kids.


My Old Man – Referred to one’s boyfriend or husband, as in Joni Mitchell’s love song, “My Old Man,” or “I’m making my old man a macramé planter to celebrate the new moon in Leo.”

Make Love, Not War and Drop Acid, Not Bombs - Common phrases and slogans used to protest America’s decades long aggressive military action in Vietnam.


The Man: This was frequently used to describe people who represented the establishment including the police, the government, or corporate power. It referred to a white male.


Free Abortion on Demand – During the Woodstock-era, abortion was illegal in most states other than New York. "Free" meant that the procedure should be a part of Medicaid for women who could not afford it.


Groovy – Originally a musical axiom, this adjective evolved into a general description of anything that was hip, fun, cool and free. “Man, Jimi Hendrix is groovy.”


A number of activities will commemorate the Woodstock festival and the slang and slogans that accompanied it. Some of which include the Summer of Love concert, Woodstock Ventures and Sony Music’s creation of, and the movie entitled Taking Woodstock. Have fun strolling down memory lane and be sure to turn on and tune in to the verbal vibes!


Peace and love,