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Category Archives: Verbal Skills

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

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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

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

My Love-Hate Relationship with Howard Stern

As a card carrying feminist, it’s hard to like Howard Stern. I can’t go so far as to call him a misogynist because I think he truly likes women, but the way he has objectified the female sex over the years makes it very hard to listen to his show for more than 10 minutes at a stretch. I have reached for the seek button more times than I can count.

But I respect his communication skills. Aspiring public speakers can learn a lot from him (did you hear that David Axelrod?). Here are a few skills and attributes that I think we can all learn from:

1.He rarely uses a word filler. His speech patterns are clear and easy to follow – even when you are in heavy traffic and trying to get to work on time.

2.He connects to his audience. Howard allows himself to be vulnerable. He shares his insecurities, his fears and his foibles. He’s willing to tell the truth while other pundits dance around the issue.

3.He doesn’t ramble on and on, but seems to know how to cut to the chase and bring out the most salient points of a particular topic, thereby maintaining the attention of his audience.

4.He makes people laugh, without telling canned jokes.

5.He was born with a great voice for radio, but he also knows how to use his resonators – the larynx, pharynx, soft palette, hard palette, sinuses, – all the parts that help us create a more pleasing and more interesting sound, and that makes people want to listen.

He may be a 15-year-old adolescent trapped in an adult body, but he has honed is speaking craft and for that he gets props from me.

– Barbara

Public Speaking Lessons from the Tony Awards

Award shows offer dozens of do’s and don’ts for aspiring public speakers. Sunday night’s Tony Awards telecast was no exception. Here are just a few that I thought were especially instructive:

1. Every so often, change the pace of your presentation. To understand what I mean, you only need to watch this opening number with Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris. The structure is pitch perfect (as were their voices) for a 21st century (tweeting/texting) audience. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast, these two gifted performers held your attention better than if they had done one song at the same tempo all the way through.

2. Use the silent pause. I would include a link to John Leguizamo’s performance, but I can’t seem to find one. He was charming, engaging, and hilarious. He puts the pause just where it belongs to get maximum return on investment. Sometimes the pause was to allow for audience laughter (don’t step on your own jokes), and sometimes the pause was meant to let the words sink in and hit their mark. Other than putting his hands in his pockets, he put on a public speaking clinic.

3. Use your whole body to full effect. Granted, when you are on stage in front of a few thousand people, you are more inclined to enhance your gestures, but even if you are in Ballroom B at the Howard Johnson’s Motel at 1:30 in the afternoon, your non-verbal communication can do wonders to keep the attention of your audience. Don’t stand in one spot for more than a few minutes. Use the full height and width of your gesture ‘box’ – that square space from the top of your head to your hips. Keep your hands in view at your beltline when not gesturing and every so often, close the distance between you and your audience.

4. Never admit to your audience that you didn’t prepare. The actress who won for best musical confessed that she thought the idea of winning was so far-fetched that she didn’t prepare any remarks. Bad strategy. If your goal is to appear self-effacing or humble, you can still pull that off by saying “I am so surprised that I am at a loss for words” or something similar. Your audience will get the point. If there is even a slight chance that you will be asked to speak, have something ready to go, just in case. Who knows, it could be your moment to shine and there you are with a deer-in-the-headlights look.

What Good Are Your Words if We Can’t Understand You?

Did your mother ever say to you, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? That may be true if you are trying to maintain harmony in your household, but it’s bad advice for aspiring public speakers. How you say the words is just as important as the words you choose. Take for example the important skill of articulation. When you combine poor enunciation with a fast, nervous pace, it is easy to be misunderstood, and possibly even insulting to others.

The other day I was working out to an exercise DVD with my head down, shuffling side to side, not looking at the TV when the instructor yelled “Congressman Brown, Congressman Brown!” I stopped in my tracks and stood up. What?! Surely he didn’t just say that. I rewound the clip and this time I watched while I listened and it turns out that the words were “cover some ground, cover some ground.” OK, that made more sense.

The best way to improve your articulation skills is to speak into a tape recorder and listen back to it. Better yet, have someone else listen to it and tell you what they heard. It’s a better technique than videotaping because the only cue a listener has to understand you is your verbal delivery.

Do you want to hear a great example of verbal articulation? Listen to a clip of Anna Deveare Smith. She’s a master.

– Barbara

Five Deadly Sins of Public Speaking

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If you want to be a better speaker, watch others in action. It’s a great way to reinforce the dos and don’ts of excellent communication. Sadly, there are more examples of what not to do and last week’s keynote address at a national conference was no exception. Once again, what seems fundamental cannot be over-stated.

Thou Shalt Not…

Submit a photo that is more than five years old.
Unless you are Madonna or Steven Tyler, you probably looked a lot better in photos from years past. But when the speaker looks nothing like the image in the conference program, it is a huge disconnect for the audience. Swallow your vanity and use a recent photo, or better yet, have a professional shot taken that captures the best of you today.

Wear clothes or jewelry that distract from your message.
Women: Let’s leave the glitter and the sparkle to Olympic gymnasts. This particular keynote speaker was wearing an ill-fitting, knee-length jacket that had a metallic weave and rhinestone buttons that practically blinded the audience when she moved. Men: Let’s leave the loud ties and big rings to anchorman Ron Burgundy.

Telegraph your mistakes.
When the speaker repeated the same sentence three times, we all understood the problem – she was having a brain freeze. With each reiteration, she lost connection with the audience by looking up and then down. If this happens to you, take a pause, refer to your notes that you knowingly placed on a table or lectern nearby, or share an anecdote. You will eventually remember what you wanted to say next…which brings us to the next deadly sin.

Tell a story you don’t fully remember.
Stories are powerful connectors to your content and your audience. We love them. However, to be effective, they need detail and an easy-to-follow connection to your key message. The speaker’s instinct was good, but her story left us on third base with no one waving us in.

Leave your opening lines to chance.
You must nail the first few sentences of your presentation. Never start with the word “um.” Second worst word? “So…” First impressions are critical. Be sharp, focused, and captivating. Memorize your first three sentences.

Next time knock ’em dead.

– Barbara and Charlotte