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Tag Archives: Confidence

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


“American Idol” versus “The Voice”

My kids have already put “The Voice” on DVR pre-record mode. They are hooked and I may be getting there too.  American Idol never did a thing for me.  So what is going on?

Despite the incredibly tacky design and fight-ring theme, the blind auditions, star studded feedback (they vote with their hands, not their feet!) and team building competition makes for compelling intrigue. I love the blind audition element because it demonstrates how affected we all are by how people look.  We are thinking, “Wow, this is one crazy looking woman!” or “This guy looks like a 12 year old white kid from the Midwest but he sure sounds like a mature black R&B star!” But, since the celebrity judges can’t see the singers, they have to listen with their ears and hearts. And who doesn’t love the look of surprise, delight, and amazement when the stars slam their buzzer, swivel their (tacky!) chairs around and get to see the singer they just voted for! It’s so satisfying to watch their curiosity get piqued. It’s awesome. And fair.

In his book BLINK , Malcolm Gladwell describes the process that orchestras throughout the world faced in the mid 20th century, as auditioners began to fight the bias of conductors for white male players.  Screens were being used to avoid potential nepotism. Since “naturally” some instruments are “male” and should be played only by a man, judges were stunned when faced with a petite woman “blowing the house” out of her “male” trombone instrument. There was a lot of pushback.  Nonetheless since orchestras began using screens, “the number of women in the top US orchestras has increased five-fold.”  We listen with our eyes, whether we want to admit it or not.

For speakers this underscores the importance of recognizing how critical our physical movement and presence is to our audience. For singers on The Voice, it means (at least in the first round) freedom.


What Should You Do With Your Hands?

Charlotte and I facilitated a Speaker Bootcamp this week for a great company whose employees were ready and willing to learn.  When we reached the section on hand gestures, one participant asked, “Does a speaker have to use hand gestures?”  Our answer:  Only on the days of the week that end in Y.

If you want to connect with and leave a lasting impression on your audience, gestures are one leg of a three-legged stool. Without them, the impact of your words and your voice will be diminished.   Great speakers communicate visually as well as verbally.

When we asked the participant to elaborate on her question, she explained that she always felt awkward using her hands and therefore felt that her gestures detracted from her presentation.  She is not alone.  And for that reason, I thought it would be worthwhile to share the coaching we provided during the workshop:

  1.  Find a comfortable base position for your hands near your belt line.  This is the ideal spot for resting hands because it is neither too close to your chest (which can signal fear) nor too close to your, well, crotch, which can signal defensiveness.
  2. While in the base position, try not to grip your hands too tightly. White knuckles are a dead giveaway for nervousness.
  3. Visualize the gesturing “box” which is just outside and above your shoulders and no lower than your hips.  Keep your gestures in this box when you are standing up to speak.
  4. If you are sitting – for example, as a member of a panel presentation – don’t rest your elbows on the table while you gesture.  Sit tall in your chair with your forearms off the table when you are speaking.  When you are waiting your turn to speak, it is fine to rest your arms, but be mindful of your posture so you don’t slouch.
  5. Don’t bounce your hands when gesturing.  Your goal is to enhance your words, not detract from them.  Bouncing hands only worked for Mussolini.

Finally, keep one important thing in mind:  your energy has to go somewhere.  Whether it’s nervous energy or positive energy, using your hands effectively will channel that energy to the right place. Otherwise, it’s going to ooze out in your stance and you will rock and roll in your feet, hips and knees.  Your audience will wonder if you need to use the restroom.

So, yes, Virginia, always use your hands when you speak.

– Barbara

The Pros and Cons of Audience Facial Expressions

“There is a link between facial expression and emotion, but it’s not a one-to-one kind of relationship as many once thought. There are many situations where emotion is experienced, yet no prototypic facial expression is displayed. And there are times when a facial expression appears with no corresponding emotion.” – L. Camras, Psychologist, DePaul University

After many years in the classroom, the conference room, and the ballroom, there are few things that can trigger a nervous reaction in me. For example, last week, when the laptop I was promised for my workshop never materialized, I shrugged it off. (See our post on always having a Plan B). I made the necessary calls to track it down, but when it was time to start the program, I moved on without being thrown off my game. (See also Charlotte’s previous post about decreasing the use of PowerPoint).

It’s a mystery why I could not apply that same coping mechanism to the other issue I encountered that morning: audience facial expressions – specifically, one audience member in particular. I kept getting an intense, thousand yard stare from a participant near the front of the room. It continued for three hours. The best analogy I can provide is Stanley from NBC’s The Office. The more I looked at him, the more agita I felt. I kept waiting for him to pull out his crossword puzzle book and check out.

I used every tactic in my bag of tricks: I made meaningful eye contact, I smiled, I spoke his name, and none of it made a dent. But here’s the catch: At the end of the workshop, “Stanley” approached me and asked for my card. He explained that he wanted me to run the workshop again for his entire team. What?! How could I have been so wrong about him?

Turns out, I could easily have misinterpreted his expression and assumed it was a direct response to my presentation. Psychologists are all over the map when it comes to facial expressions. Some researchers have found a correlation between the expression on a person’s face and their internal emotional state. Others have found no correlation at all. Given that reality, why not play the game in your favor rather than assume the worst? That’s what I am taking away from my experience the other day and hope you will too.

If you notice a negative vibe coming your way early in a speech or presentation, first remind yourself that there may not be a direct correlation between the scowl you see on the person’s face and their opinion of your presentation. Second, move past that individual and look for a friendly face that will put you back on firm footing. I’m reminded of that famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

– Barbara

Beware of the Audience “BS” Meter

“I learned from Dad to see and smell out a bullshitter at five hundred yards.”  – Nancy Sinatra

There’s a massive piece of artwork at the entrance to the Sculpture Garden at the Delaware Art Museum.  Made out of 20 feet of twisted metal with a verdigris finish, it’s hard to miss.  The installation is entitled “The Crying Giant,” yet visitors who encounter the piece always laugh out loud.

I’m not sure what the artist (Tom Oterness) had in mind when he named the piece, but each time I walk past it I wonder if he’s OK with the reaction his piece engenders.  I’ve decided that he’s fine with it and perhaps even enjoys the disconnect.

The same cannot be said for public speaking.  Every audience I have ever encountered has a built-in Bull#@% Detector.  If you as the speaker are not genuine, truthful, and aligned with your message, your audience will pick up on it and suddenly that needle has moved into the red zone.  They don’t like it.  Correction: They don’t like you.

I worked with a client last week who called because his recent presentation to pitch a new project to his peers was a ‘swing and a miss.’  He said, “I struck out and I need to find out why.”   As it turns out, his ultimate goal was to get his colleagues to support his own personal and professional agenda.  He figured he could just mask his real purpose by hiding it in organizational buzz words about being innovative thinkers and seizing synergistic opportunities.  But everyone saw through it.  Now he has to do a lot of work to swing the needle back to the left.

The next time you have to persuade or inspire others, be sure that your objective is directly aligned with your delivery.  Be genuine and forthcoming, and your audience will most likely join you on your journey.

– Barbara

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

Five Deadly Sins of Public Speaking

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