RSS Feed

Category Archives: Rules of Engagement

The Paradox of Cliches

This week we are focusing on cliches, those overexposed sayings and overused metaphors that we hear everyday. As I write this I am sitting in an office reception area that itself could be a cliche: neutral colored couch and chairs, ferns and greenery (some real/some not), magazines on glass tables,and framed colored photographs of sunsets on the walls. Seriously, what is more cliche than a photograph of a sunset ? On a wall in an office?

The paradox of cliches is that they are often profoundly true (love is blind) deeply human (there’s no place like home) and embarrassingly unoriginal (easy as pie). They are also occasionally offensive, so please NEVER ask to “pick my brain.”   While we have all witnessed the gasping pinks and blues of a summer sky (I took this photo on Martha’s Vineyard) and the physical rush of “falling in love”, to use cliches in speech or writing is to communicate in tired language that masks your vivid, original self. If, as you prepare a presentation, the familiar language of a cliche speaks to you, try to reframe and recast the idea in your own words, using vibrant color, characters, setting and story. This will make you more real and more memorable.

So when you think cliches, remember:  Avoid them like the Plague.


P.S. Note to Bostonians: check out the Catherine Opie photography exhibit at the ICA for an interesting twist on sunrises and sunsets.


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.


Stating the Obvious

Why do we need and value feedback and coaching? Because it is nearly impossible to 1) clarify your thoughts, 2) organize them into a cohesive presentation and 3) deliver them effectively while at the same time observing your own distracting quirks, de-railers and inconsistencies.   This 82 second video-test is a great example of this. Tell me how you do. -Charlotte

Where to Stand?

Standing can raise questions. And, just as there is a proper place to locate your nametag, there is a place for you to stand when you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation. Most of us know not to stand in front of the screen, but after that, do you stand to the right or the left of the screen and whose right or left anyway, yours or the audience? And does it really matter that much?

YES! Westerners read from left to right, so when you stand with the screen on your left (let’s call that point A) the audience’s focus will naturally start and return to point A, at all times. This is a natural power position that aligns you with your visual cues.   Confusingly, this is called “stage right” in theater terms. That is because when you are standing on the stage (or podium, platform, etc.) looking at your audience you are on the right side of the stage.  But, from the audience’s eye, you are on the left side of the stage (podium, platform).  Standing on the wrong side of the screen diminishes presenters. This does not make or break a presentation, but now that you know, stick to stage right to enhance your physical command.

Additionally you want to be forward of the screen because after all, you are 90% of the presentation and your PowerPoint images are a mere 10% of the effect.  Because the screen is such an alluring safety net for people, you can understand the temptation to stand as close as possible to the screen. Don’t do it. You will disappear into the screen and lose all visual leadership.

I am on an anti-PowerPoint roll.  I would like to see speakers do away with PowerPoint altogether.  We treat PowerPoint as the be all and end all, and forget that the essence and meaning of the presentation is us. What animates, infuses and makes presentations powerful are the people delivering them.


Trick Question: You are presenting in Arabic or Hebrew, where should you stand?

The Dog Whisperer Speaks!

W.C. Fields once said, “Never follow kids or animals on stage.”  Sage advice for any public speaker, unless you are Cesar Milan, aka, the Dog Whisperer.  I had the pleasure of seeing Cesar on stage a few days ago.  He didn’t “follow” an animal on stage, he actually co-presented with Junior, his Blue pit bull. That’s Junior in the photo on the right.

As the show started, the audience didn’t know whether to watch Junior or Cesar. I think we all missed the first few minutes of Cesar’s talk because we were fascinated by Junior’s behavior – walking to the very front of the stage and sniffing the first row of audience members, following Cesar back and forth trying to figure out if he had a job to do.  But then he settled down and took a nap, and all eyes turned to the pack leader. And it was worth it.  Cesar not only provided many lessons for dog owners, but he also put on a clinic for how to be a kinesthetic speaker.

Kinesthetic speakers go beyond killer PowerPoint slides and great stories.  They don’t rest on their verbal skills or their perfect pacing. They use their entire body to make a strong connection with their audience.  And that’s what Cesar did.  In the span of 75 minutes, he mimed a cat cleaning its fur, a human trying to make a puppy sit, a Rottweiler checking out its new home, and a fearful canine trying to hide from the world.  And because of his physical delivery, his words were more powerful – and memorable.

Here are a few tips for anyone wishing to be a kinesthetic speaker:

  1.  You Need Your Hands.  Hands-free communication is not just a new law regarding the use of cell phones while driving; it’s a requirement if you want to add physicality to your delivery.  Holding notes holds you back.  Gesturing is essential to making that deeper connection with your audience.  You can still have notes, just not in your hands. Place them nearby so you have access to them, but don’t let them inhibit your communication.
  2.  You Need to Move.  Presentation coaches have a special term for the primary spot on stage (or at the front of the conference room). It’s called “the magic circle.” The term is intended to convey that a great speaker can do big things when they are front and center.  That’s true, but not sufficient.  Kinesthetic speakers know how to move out of the magic circle and break down the wall between the stage and the audience.  Cesar could not have come any closer to us when he wanted to make an important point.  Most of us increase the space between ourselves and a stranger.  Great speakers decrease it by moving into what psychologists call “personal space.”
  3. You Need to See Your Audience.  If you look down, up, or to the side while you speak chances are good that your audience will start compiling grocery lists in their heads.  Some might even start writing it down.  And you might as well stop speaking.  Eye contact is the equivalent of a 7-iron to a PGA golfer – they’d be lost without it.  You can practice this skill anywhere.  Walk into any superstore and notice how many times people look down or away instead of acknowledging you.  Next, make a point to look the next five people in the eye and say hello.  See what happens.  The more comfortable  you get connecting with strangers, the more comfortable you will be when you want to look directly at your audience.

– Barbara

The Nerves Battle

Last weekend I hosted a portion of an evening’s gala fundraiser for a wonderful local arts organization. It was festive, artistic and fun. There were probably about 175 attendees gathered as I took the stage.

Sidetrack Note: I no longer deny my own pre-presentation nerves. What has shifted dramatically in my own speaker practice is my attitude toward them. No matter how prepared, practiced, excited, and connected I am to my talk, I understand that a certain nervous edge will always accompany me. I no longer fight these feelings nor try to figure them out.  I notice them, welcome them and let them do their important energizing work.

Back to the gala. As I began my ever so comedic (!) welcome, I became aware of how scattered I was feeling, as if a movie reel I was watching of the crowd in front of me was pulsing and not streaming. I focused on my breathing immediately and in that split second realized that an old nervous habit was upon me….instead of making meaningful eye contact with individuals in the crowd, I was actually scanning over the tops of all their heads, implying a kind of “fake” looking at people. It was keying me up, disconnecting me, and not allowing me to settle in.

I immediately focused on a few faces for a few seconds (the three second rule) and felt myself relax. The movie stopped pulsing and the live, present reel was established. This rapid cognition took place in a few seconds or less.

It’s funny how the very things that we fear (looking at actual people when we speak) are the very things that will ground us. Remembering the fundamentals of your physical connection and body language will make a huge difference in your speaker practice.

Next time your nerves start getting the best of you, try focusing on eye contact and see if it helps calm you down.  If you land on one friendly face, you’ve won.


Three Ways to Spice Up Your Presentation

“If I’m not having fun, or learning anything, then I’d better be sleeping.”

– Dr. Paul Dobransky

One of my “go to” experts for great ideas and inspiration is Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  She’s known for having tangible advice and practical ideas on leadership and change.  I’ve noticed that she is often included on those lists of the most influential thinkers so clearly I’m not alone.

In addition to her book on Confidence, I remember reading a piece on leadership that really spoke to me.  It was about the importance of positive energy.  Successful leaders possess this quality and are able to communicate in ways that enable us to hear their message and internalize it.  Based on her work, I offer three tips for speakers and presenters who want to enhance their ability to “speak” to their audience.

1. Make sure your examples, anecdotes and references are positive. A strong, positive message delivers better results for your audience than a critical or negative one. Take an inventory of past presentations to assess how many examples or stories you use that are critical in nature or have a deficit mentality.  Now re-cast them in the positive.  You can still talk about decreasing error rates, etc., without bringing down the collective mood of the room.

2. Don’t try to control the audience. Great presenters keep the pace moving and maintain a southern California climate. They are not thrown by negative, listless or texting-obsessed audience members.  And most of all, they don’t try to control those people.  If you allow your agenda to be sabotaged by a few difficult people, the rest of your audience will blame you.  But if you maintain your energized, positive vibe, the audience will thank you for it.  One caveat:  if you have an audience member who is purposely trying to undermine your success, by all means, take them aside and ask them to leave in your most polite flight attendant voice.

3.  Don’t take yourself so seriously.  Oops. I should put that into a positive sentence.  Lighten up and release yourself from the expectation of perfection.  This tip is one that I have worked hard to achieve.  What I learned over the course of some excellent speeches and some not-so-great presentations is that the average audience wants us to succeed.  We don’t have to know everything about our topic, and we don’t have to get everything just right.  The #1 sign that you are able to lighten up and go with the flow?  You’re smiling.  Otherwise you are going to need Botox for that permanent crease between your brows – and who wants that?!

“Studies show that optimists are more likely to listen to negative information than pessimists, because they think they can do something about it. To keep moving through storms, energizers cultivate thick skins that shed negativity like a waterproof raincoat sheds drops of water. They are sometimes discouraged, but never victims.” – RMK

– Barbara