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Category Archives: Extemporaneous speaking

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Part One of a Two-Part Series on Ridding your Speech of Clichés

The debt ceiling debate has shed light on many problems, not the least of which is our penchant for speaking in clichés. After weeks of listening to politicians on both sides of the aisle sound like used car salesmen, we now have a list in my house of the Top Five sayings that should never be uttered again in this century:

 

  1. At the end of the day
  2. Kick the can down the road
  3. To be perfectly honest
  4. Robbing Peter to pay Paul
  5. Thinking outside the box

Thanks to the endless parade of talking heads, these expressions are plumb wore out (I just had to do that).  When you don’t have anything substantive to say, or you haven’t prepared, these clichés come in handy.  Many of our clients will respond to our feedback on eliminating clichés by saying that it’s important that they sound casual and conversational.  That’s fine.  You can still appear easy-going without uttering one of the five bizblabs above.  There is a difference between conversational speaking in which you avoid fancy, ivory-tower-sounding words and sleep-inducing catch phrases.

Do your audience a favor and delete these expressions from your memory.

– Barbara

Swim to the Deep End!

Thirty minutes into a challenging indoor cycling class when I was “seeing Elvis,” the instructor said, “If you have anything left in the tank, turn the tension up one more time.”  At that moment I had an epiphany:  the human body is capable of much more than the mind allows.  Once we push past the mental barrier that yells, “I can’t! It’s too hard!,” we find that we are stronger, smarter, and open to new possibilities.   Medal-winning athletes know this, and so do successful speakers.

When you are about to stand up and speak, what’s going through your mind?  Odds are it’s something like, “Let me just get through this without embarrassment,” or “Please don’t let me trip on the electrical cord.”  Chances are that you are not thinking, “I can’t wait to take a risk and really put myself out there.”

This blog post is an invitation to let your body move past the limits that your mind imposes.  If you want to really impress your audience and leave them with a pleasant aftertaste, consider incorporating one of these physical techniques:

  1. Change your volume.  If you are naturally on the church mouse end of the continuum, try speaking much louder.  If your style is closer to the carnival barker, try softening your voice.  Notice what it does to the rest of your delivery.
  2. Sing loudly right before you present.  You will be more energized and relaxed when you begin your presentation.
  3. Make a sound effect where you would normally use an adjective.  Go from bland to “Now that got my attention!”
  4. Step away from the lectern.  It’s a crutch.  Try speaking in the “magic circle” – that space front and center of the room.  Your audience will thank you.
  5. Break the wall.  Most speakers deliver their presentation at a “professional” distance from their audience.  Try moving closer into the personal space for an important point and then move back.

Break the mental barrier that keeps us stuck in the safe-and-average shallow end and move into the risky-and-fabulous deep end of the pool!  Your body should be in the lead role, not your mind.

– Barbara

Jane Fonda’s Autobiography: “My Life So Far”

I know I am getting older. And not only because of the number of times I have circled the sun, but because I find myself enjoying new interests like bird watching, peony-growing, and reading non-fiction.  Jane Fonda’s book was a revelation.

I admire and applaud her for writing with such intelligence and honesty. I was stunned by the duality of her life – what it looked like in pictures versus what was going on within. I was shocked that she shared so much about her very flawed parents, her fear, shame, disease to please, eating disorder and sex life. Fonda’s intellectual curiosity, transformation and journey to self are inspiring. Her true commitment to social and political change (especially for girls and women) is tremendous. This book is long, but it is very well structured, and filled with photos, celebrity insights, great quotes, and a comprehensive history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Jane Fonda studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who developed a style known as the Method. He became the artistic director of the Actors Studio and Fonda learned her most important acting techniques and lessons with him. Fonda quotes him as saying, “Tension is the occupational disease of the actor.”

Hmm…just the actor? Dare I say that tension is also the occupational disease of the public speaker? As Fonda explains it, relaxation is key for actors, so that “the body’s energetic flow is unimpeded and inspiration can rise and express itself through the actor’s spirit: in eyes, voice and movement…the body as instrument.” She continues, “ You can’t do most things well without being relaxed, not in sports, not in lovemaking, not in acting.”

We know in our heads that we need to embody this same relaxation when we speak in public, so that we make genuine connections and deeply feel that we have done our best.  For the speaker, this state of mind (and body!) is called “relaxed readiness.” Being relaxed and ready means we know where we are going, we’re ready to attend to the ebb and flow of unexpected people, questions, scenarios, and trusting that the ideas, the eyes, the voice and the movement will connect with our audience.  This is an occupational aspiration for public speakers.

-Charlotte

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

“Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” – Henry Kissinger

Want a sure-fire way to speak extemporaneously without sounding like the captain of the All Drone Team?  Here it is: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Lather:  While you’re waiting for your brain to kick into gear, fill the silence with build-up words rather than empty filler words like um and ah.  You could say “Thank you for that question [insert name here], I always appreciate an opportunity to talk about this important issue.”  This technique gives you a minimum of five seconds to formulate an answer without uttering one boring filler word.  Another option is to repeat or rephrase the question before you answer.

Once you’ve identified your primary message point, deliver that message with a confident tone. Your non-verbals need to say “I know this stuff and I stand by my answer.”

If you don’t know the answer to the question or don’t want to answer it, you can invoke the age-old trick of redirecting to your preferred question.  For example, last fall, when Congress was dragging their feet on whether to raise taxes, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell tried to get White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod to talk about the split among Democrats when he asked, “Who’s right?  The ‘go-home now’ Democrats or the ‘fix taxes first’ Democrats?”  But Axelrod did not want to criticize his own party so he answered, “Well, the question really is ‘what about the hold-the-tax-cuts-hostage Republicans,’ which is what this debate is really about.”  This redirect allowed him to emphasize his key message.

Rinse:  Provide supporting and interesting details for edification.  A compelling statistic, an example, a story – all these strategies work well for enhancing the attention and interest of your audience.

Repeat:  Now that you’re in the groove, simply summarize your key point in a more articulate manner and then stop talking. The stopping is just as important as the starting.

– Barbara