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Speaking Techniques

A toast!

side view of champagne glass in male hand isolated on white backgroundWhat if you have to give a toast at a company gathering this month? How do you do it right?

One of our partners remembers a toast delivered by her CEO back in the day. He talked about all the success his agency had had during the past year, but finished every sentence with, “ . . . but that isn’t good enough.”

He thought he was encouraging people to hit a higher bar in the coming year. But when people’s best (and largely successful) efforts are dismissed, they do not feel warm or encouraged. His toast had the opposite effect. There’s nothing like making everyone feel inadequate.

Don’t do that.

Instead, remember that sentiment is the thing. Don’t try humor; humor is overrated. Instead, do kindness. In the beginning, the middle, and the end.

No notes.

But what if I don’t know what to say? 

Of course you know what to say.  You know these people professionally better than anyone else.  Just look at them and tell them how you feel about their work.

What about making a point?

No one is looking for a point.  They’re looking to be touched.  Get your audience to like themselves (and you) more than they did before you started speaking.

To do this right, pretend you are talking to someone in a bar.  What would you say to that person about your people at work?  Figure that out (mostly leave out anything negative) and there’s your toast.

Follow this technique:

  1. Stand up.
  2. Hold your glass chest high. Keep it there during the entire toast. Arm fatigue serves as a great, natural toast timer.
  3. Remain still, in one place, until you’ve finished talking. Then raise your glass and drink.
  4. Prepare to hear that you did a great job. Because you did.
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What we saw that wasn’t so great

Our last post covered the Rise of the Rest pitch competition on Oct. 12, which included some great, well-rehearsed pitches. But some could have been better.

  • Several presenters weren’t sure how the clicker worked and so stumbled and bumbled their way through their slide decks, advancing when they did not want to advance and going back a slide or two when that was not desired.
  • Several presenters also had WAY too much info on their slides. Putting three screens from your website into one projected image befuddles the audience. What am I looking at? What should I look at first? What’s the most important stuff? How am I supposed to read type that is that small?
  • Several had weak endings to their presentations and did not even include an ask. Audiences remember the first thing you say and the last thing. When $100,000 is on the line, make sure the judges remember how much good that money can do if they award it to you.
  • During the Q & A, one presenter kept her hands behind her back. Keep your hands visible–it increases trust.
  • One presenter ran out of time. When you rehearse, you have to allow time for audience reaction. Pause during your run-throughs when you expect your listeners to chuckle, gasp, be stunned, whatever; otherwise, on The Day, you will run long.
  • When the emcee introduces you as, “And now, here’s Jane Smith from the XYZ Company,” do not start by saying, “Hi, my name is Jane Smith and I’m from the XYZ Company.” Your  audience heard it the first time. Don’t waste precious seconds by repeating something they already know. Use an attention-getting opening instead. For example, “Look at the person on your left and the one on your right. Statistically speaking, one of the three of you will get cancer sometime in your lifetime.”
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“I’m sorry, but . . . .”

Businessman and woman standing so shadows look like she's giving him a giftDo you always find yourself apologizing? Even when some would say you’ve done little or nothing to apologize for?

Studies suggest that if you answered “yes,” you’re probably female. That may be a stereotype, but it’s apparently one grounded in reality. Women do indeed apologize more often than men.

But wait. It goes deeper. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science 1) suggests this pattern has nothing to do with egos (i.e., men refuse to apologize because it makes them look like losers; women apologize because they’re not assertive).  Both women and men apologize when they feel an apology is warranted. It’s just that men seem to have a higher threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Research conducted by Carol Kinsey Goman 2) about communication in the workplace noted a consistent strength in female communication: the ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues. Males, she found, are less sensitive to audience reactions. Thus, it may be that women perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people. They are also more likely to use tentative speech forms—qualifiers, hedges, and fillers—when speaking (e.g, “kind of” or “sorry to bother you”) because they are more sensitive to the possible effect of their words.

Males, on the other hand, may have a higher threshold for social pain. They are less likely to apologize because they are less likely to perceive that an offense has been committed. When they use a tentative form it is more likely meant to take the edge off a direct statement (“Perhaps if you turn to page 2 of your text you will see what I mean”).

The point of this is not to admonish either women or men to change their ways—just to be aware of this key difference in communication. When women apologize they are not necessarily being self-effacing, just displaying the empathy they may feel is warranted. When men seem overly blunt and direct it’s not necessarily that they’re trying to be overbearing, just that they see no reason to be less than direct and to-the-point.

As you prepare to address any audience, it’s worthwhile to learn whether it will be exclusively male, exclusively female, or some proportion of the two. That can have a bearing on how you present your information. It can also have a bearing on how well you understand your next workplace interaction with a member of another gender.

 

1) Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive BehaviorPsychological Science, 21(11).

2) Goman, Carol Kinsey (2016). Is your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender? Forbes online:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2016/03/31/is-your-communication-style-dictated-by-your-gender/#3d2b99bfeb9d

 

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Getting ’em back

Engage Your AudienceWhat do you do when your audience begins to drift away from you? Of course, no audience will be riveted on every word you speak, but when they start fidgeting, murmuring, and checking their watches, you may be losing them.

And it can get worse. Conversations may begin breaking out. People may grow uncivil, and some may begin to leave.  This most often happens during the question-and-answer session, when things loosen up, and it may lead to a classic fail. Even at that point, though, it’s possible to get back in control.

You do it by leading.

Leadership comes with speaking. When you get up there you become the captain of the ship. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking to the union rank-and-file or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The audience will take its cue from you.

So remind them who’s in charge, but don’t do it by raising your voice or demanding attention. Be quiet. If you are behind a podium, step away from it. Walk toward the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Do this calmly and deliberately. Say nothing. Gaze at them. You’ve now broken the pattern of speaking, which is unexpected and therefore attention-getting. Chances are that everyone will fall silent and every eye will find its way to you to see what you are about to do. They will suddenly feel like children in a classroom.

This moment—and you can only invoke it once—is now yours. Use it wisely. Remind the audience why your message is important to them. Tell them a story. Have something to say, and then keep the initiative by continuing to talk as you return to the podium.

The important thing is not to relinquish command. Audiences can mutiny, just as ship’s crews can, but they don’t do so lightly, and they won’t do so if you remember who you are and why you are there—and if the audience clearly sees that you are in charge and have something valuable to say.

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You may need a visual aid

Anatomy of a man showing back pain. Isolated on a black background.Anatomy of a man showing back pain. Isolated on a black background.Here’s a golden rule of presenting: never underestimate the power of a visual aid.

I recently served on a jury for a three-day trial. We spent four hours of that time watching videos of depositions from three different doctors. The plaintiff was asking compensation for back pain allegedly caused by an accident, so we heard lots of testimony about the state of his spine and back muscles.

Now, this was tough sledding for us civilians because none of the three medical experts used any illustration, 3D model, or photographs. When a doctor referred glibly to the T4 or the C7 vertebra, it was up to us on the jury to puzzle out what part of the spine he was talking about. Had he just pointed to the area on a diagram, it would have been easy to understand.

They are called “visual aids” for a reason; they aid your audience’s understanding. Imagine that your audience is hearing your line of reasoning for the very first time – because they are. Visual aids give your audience guideposts as they follow along.

Explaining a complicated subject without visual aids requires your audience to work very hard. Explaining a complicated subject by using visual aids = aha!

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Show ’em you mean it

Cropped view of a man in a suit speaking into a microphone with his hands in fistsI recently had the honor of judging a university-level speech tournament. In one event, Persuasive Speaking, each of six finalists had 10 minutes to make a case about a cause. Judges looked for knowledge of the subject, a structured approach, documentation of the points made, and a good finish, often including a call to action.

Most of the speakers were good; they had all that. In fact, they were so good that when it was over I had a hard time ranking them.

Yet, something was missing from every one of those presentations—something important. These speakers, who were excellent in every other way, all had choreographed their gestures and movements. Here, I step to the left. Here, to the right. Here, I lift my hand. And all kept their hands at their sides when they were not actively gesturing. Thus, many of the gestures and movements they made seemed forced and false to my eyes.

My guess is that when you feel strongly about something, you don’t rest your hands at your sides. You probably hold them up about belt or waist level so you can easily lift them to punctuate your point, to signal the sharing of information, or to invite the listener to consider your position. You do this without thinking about it. You radiate energy. And the higher your hands, the more energy you show.

There’s a certain balancing act we do when we present in front of an audience, akin to what professional actors do when they perform on the stage. We are “in character” and yet conscious of the audience at the same time. We feel something for real, but we also remember that we are there to get something across. Our gestures are informed by our passion. But they are aimed toward those we’re addressing.

These competitors had the aim right, but not the passion behind it. No one will believe you really mean what you say if you look like you’ve been choreographed. You have to be comfortable enough inside yourself to feel what you ought to feel and be unafraid to show it. When you make a gesture, make it natural and bring it from the heart. That’s one way to show ‘em that you mean what you say.

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Jargon: the Enemy Within

Do You Speak EnglishA partner of mine once heard a talk by a man preparing to open a new hotel. He talked about the clientele he hoped to attract and, almost as a throwaway line, said, “And of course, we will address the SMERF market.”

Everyone stopped listening. He continued to plow ahead as the audience tried to figure out the role little blue people had in a hotel’s market. My partner finally raised her hand and asked what he meant by SMERF.

“Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal,” he said with a detectable measure of scorn in his voice. How could anyone not know that?

For him, SMERF was a commonplace term. He and his colleagues in the hospitality industry probably use it every day.  But its meaning was obscure to the audience. The speaker broke the continuity of his talk with that single phrase, leaving everyone behind.

Yet, only my partner raised her hand to ask him to explain himself. Most audiences don’t bother. They suffer in silence. People don’t like showing ignorance in front of others.

That’s why insider language is the enemy. You are likely to waste everyone’s time, including your own, if you approach your subject from your level of understanding instead of your audience’s. Oh, no one will say anything. They’ll force a smile when it’s over, say “thank you,” and walk out in the same state of ignorance with which they entered. In the meantime, your efforts to raise awareness will have left only confusion. Your desire to foster acceptance will have brought indifference. Your mission for action will still be sitting on the runway. And all because you did not trouble yourself to see the world from their eye level.

Jargon is insidious. We swim in the jargon of our professions like a fish swims in water, natural and unaware. That’s why we must make a special effort to learn about our intended audiences—and then take an extra step. Give a version of your talk to people who have about the same level of understanding as your intended audience. See how many pieces of jargon they can collect, how many obscure references they find, how many mysterious acronyms crop up. Collect them all, examine them, and rewrite your talk so that a child could understand it.

That’s not dumbing down. It’s using words for their intended purpose—to foster understanding.

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So we now have the attention spans of goldfish. What’s that mean?

gold fish isolated on white backgroundThe goldfish comparison comes from a recent study. Microsoft wanted to learn the impact of digital technology on attention spans. It collected data from more than 2,000 Canadians, all 18 or older. It had the subjects play repetitive games—responding to patterns, spotting the differences in pictures, and classifying letters and numbers—to learn how long they could stay focused on task. It also examined 112 other subjects very closely, measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they interacted with various media while trying to perform other activities.

The outcome? Yeah, it’s apparently harder for us to stay focused now.  Back in 2000 we were good for 12 seconds of focus. Now we’re only good for 8. Goldfish are still good for 9. Could be worse; fruit flies are said to have an attention span of less than a second.

But wait a minute—there’s more than one form of attention span!

  • There’s transient attention, the attention span that applies when we’re uninterested and doing something we feel is unimportant. We’re easily distracted then.
  • Then there’s sustained selective attention, which most adults can manage for 5 to 20 minutes, and which applies to things we’re interested in or believe are important. That hasn’t changed. If you can present something that interests your audience, you’re probably good for at least 10 minute’s worth of their attention before they break off and you must get them to refocus on you.
  • And finally, there’s alternating attention, which has to do with shifting from one task to another and back again. That’s actually improved. So if we’re worse at focusing on a single, boring task, we’re also better at multi-tasking.

Now, here’s how this applies when you’re presenting: no one is going to be focused on you all the time. It’s not natural. What is natural is for your audience to refocus on you when you send up a signal.

So when you’re about to make a major point, put suspense in your voice. Make it sound as though you’re about to reveal a secret.

Or step away from the podium. Approach the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Pause. You’ll find they’re all looking at you.

Or make your point and then wait several beats. That signals you’ve just said something important.

Or just repeat yourself. Make your point, pause, and make it again. Or keep coming back to it, like a refrain in a song.

Learn how to emphasize the right things and it won’t matter if your audience has the transient attention span of a fruitfly.

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New-Business-Presentations
How to Make an Impression That Wins New Business

The most important presentation you ever do may be the one that lands you important new business. New business can launch your organization. It can keep your bottom line secure. It can signal the world that you’ve arrived.

But first, you have to win it.

Whether it’s private business or a public agency whose business you’re seeking, there will probably be a Request for Proposal (RFP) that outlines its expectations. Some RFPs are complex and demanding. The important thing is that you fulfill all the requirements, no matter how involved or troublesome. This is the price of securing a new client.

But there’s more, and here’s where a good presentation comes in—you also have to establish a point of differentiation. Every good business does this, but it’s especially important when you’re seeking new business. Your audience must understand and remember what sets you apart. No one ever got a new client by saying, “Me, too!”

Are you more efficient? Better equipped? More experienced? Do you offer more expertise? Have you found a new approach? Find something you have that no one else does, and make sure your presentation stresses this differentiator. Keep coming back to it as you present so that the audience remembers it when the presentation is over.

And while you’re at it, you must do one other vital thing with your presentation—you must form a warm connection with your audience. You’re not just presenting numbers here; you’re presenting yourself. You need to make those people want to work with you. If you don’t, they will cool to your presentation soon after it’s over, however qualified you seem to be. People go where they want to go. Make sure they want to go to you.

A stellar presentation can make the difference. So don’t leave it until the last minute! Don’t concentrate on the RFP requirements and think you’re done when every taxing detail in them has been fulfilled. The truth is that your would-be client doesn’t like reading those details any more than you liked writing them. That’s not what will push you over the line. What your audience remembers about you will push you over the line.

Get a coach. Gather your materials and create a presentation. Rehearse it over and over until it comes naturally. Scout the location and see how large a room you have. Find where the electrical outlets are. Determine where the sun will be at the time you present, and if it will be on the screen, know how to work the blinds. When you appear, everything you do will look effortless to your audience because you took this part seriously.

And that’s the kind of impression that wins new business.

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Blogart-platformfear
3 Ways to Handle Platform Fear

I spoke not long ago with a group of caseworkers from a government social services agency. These are the people who do the hard and often thankless job of seeing that children in difficult circumstances get the financial support they need.

But some of them told me they were most stressed out when they had to get up in front of an audience. One said she broke out in hives every time. She asked what could be done about that.

I told her I’d never been schooled on how to treat stress rashes (though I’m told that moisturizer and hydration help), but I know some ways to reduce the stress that leads to them. It begins with realizing what’s going on in your body.

There are those who believe stage fright stems from our evolutionary heritage. When we get up to speak, we face a sea of eyes looking back at us. We humans all have pretty strong threat detection radar, and those eyes seem threatening.

Why is that? The audience is just sitting there.

Well, some anthropologists have a theory about that. They believe that down through human history, everyone looking at you at the same time has pretty much meant bad news. It could mean you’re about to be hunted. Or attacked. Or accused. So your body prepares you to fight or outrun those you’re facing. It gives you a nice shot of adrenaline to help ensure your survival. That’s why, just when you want to be calm and in control, your body makes your hands shake, your palms sweat, and your voice break.

There are a couple of ways to handle this. One is to work off the adrenaline.

Before you speak, go someplace you can’t be seen and do something strenuous. Do pushups against the sink in the restroom. Shadowbox. Run in place. If you can’t get off alone, grip the arms of your chair or the rim of the podium or the chalk holder behind you. You’ll find your jitters are reduced, placing you in better physical control of yourself. That alone will calm you down a little.

A second technique is to focus on just one person in the audience at a time.

If you go from face to face when you get up to speak, you’ll get another shot of adrenaline each time you assess those faces for signs of a threat. This isn’t the rational part of your brain talking, of course. But we’re human beings, and when we’re nervous all we can see are more reasons to stay nervous.

When you focus on a single face you have to perform only one threat assessment. Once that’s behind you, you can just talk with that person as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve made your point, move on to the next person and talk to her for a while. Do this again and again, covering all parts of the room as you move along. People will feel engaged even when you’re not looking at them, and they will relax. Once you see that, you’ll probably relax, too.

The best and longest-lasting technique takes a while to perfect. That’s to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking what your audience needs from you. After all, that’s the reason you’re up there, or should be. If you think, “What can I do for them?” you’ve made them into a group you will act upon, not a group ready to act upon you. You begin thinking more about your message. You begin looking for feedback, for signs of understanding. You put yourself in the right frame of mind to speak.

Now, none of this is likely to keep you from getting at least a little nervous before speaking. I’ve been speaking for more than 40 years and I still get nervous before each talk. But I’ve found that nerves aren’t really my enemy. They keep me alert and on my toes. I speak best when I’m a little on edge.

When you can think, “This isn’t hurting me; it’s making me better,” you’ll have mastered the art of handling platform fear.

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